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View from Atacama Desert, Chile

High up in Chile’s mountainous Atacama Desert, Mark Major marvels at the mysteries of the night sky, from which most of us, in our light-polluted cities, are lamentably disconnected

In November 2008 an article in the National Geographic caught my eye. ‘Our Vanishing Night’ considered the disappearance of the stars over our cities and the far-reaching impact of artificial light on both our planet’s biodiversity and human health; a reminder that the industrialisation of light poses an as-yet largely unrealised but serious environmental challenge.

This, and similar articles, provided the impetus for Noche Zero, the first international conference on darkness held earlier this year in Chile’s Atacama Desert. In the driest and darkest place on earth, a group of astronomers, environmentalists, scientists, historians, photo-journalists, planners, architects and lighting designers assembled to debate the problems of light pollution and over-illumination. Here the sky is so black that on a moonless night you can experience the full glory of the Milky Way as it scintillates across the heavens.

Bounded by a towering range of snow-capped volcanoes, the salt-encrusted landscape of the Atacama is an alien terrain more closely resembling the surface of Mars (in fact it was used as a testing ground for NASA’s Curiosity Rover currently exploring the red planet). Set 2450m above sea level, the small town of San Pedro de Atacama is built from local earth. Beyond its whitewashed church and cluster of civic buildings it seems to merge with the surrounding desert, where nothing grows. Thick single-storey brick and mud walls conceal delightfully cool rooms and courtyards shaded by timber screens that scatter patterns of light and shade across every surface. San Pedro hosted Noche Zero and is also a gateway to the Atacama’s community of observatories and the remote and appropriately named Valley of the Moon.

The intensely arid climate and extreme altitude create perfect conditions for astronomical observation. The lack of atmospheric interference gives consistently clear skies, night after night. Many leading astronomers are based here under the auspices of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental organisation with 15 member states. Dotted among the Atacama’s salt basins and lava flows are three of the world’s most advanced observatories − La Silla, Paranal and ALMA.

Paranal is perhaps most popularly famous for La Residencia, a modern hotel for astronomers and technicians designed by Auer + Weber (AR June 2003) which was spectacularly incinerated in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Perched on a 2600m-high mountain top, Paranal’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) comprises an array of four 8.2m diameter telescopes operating in the visible and infrared spectrums of light. Most impressive of all is ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array) currently under construction on the Chajnantor Plateau.

When completed next year it will become the world’s largest ground-based astronomical site. From here an array of 66 massive white antennae will probe the deepest secrets of the universe. Costing in excess of $1bn, this joint US, European and Japanese project will produce images with a greater degree of resolution than the Hubble Space Telescope, enabling astronomers not only to peer into the fringes of the black hole at the heart of our galaxy, but also to record the very first light of the universe and begin to unlock the riddles of its creation.

The Atacama’s installations represent an unparalleled human achievement, yet beyond the amassing of scientific data such exploration strengthens a poetic connection with our ancestors, who also looked to the night sky for portents about the nature of existence. The fact that an increasing number of city dwellers are blighted by light pollution and have never been able to experience the true beauty of our universe may be one of the reasons we fail to fully comprehend that we share one planet as well as the firmament within which it spins.

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