— Romain Deschamps
“Woooow!” No need to speak Spanish to understand the wonderment of a kid seeing the Moon for the first time through a telescope. “Ooohhh!” No need to speak Spanish to understand how amazed a kid can be when he sees the rocket he made himself, taking off with nothing else but water.
Once again, the ESO Star Sailors seized the opportunity to interact with the public and share their passion for astronomy, thanks to the astronomer Fernando Sellman. Destination? Rancagua. In this small town, 90 km souther than Santiago, took place the fourth Viaje a Las Estrellas. The mission? Regroup kids and their families under the banner formed by the Via Lactea, and initiate the youngest (and less young) to the wonders and mysteries of the night sky.
To complete this mission, a group of Star Sailors (Joanne, Naomi, Kora, Jos, Julien and myself) led by Fernando Selman and helped by the Fundación Gestión Vivienda (a non-profit organisation aiming at improving the neighbourhood life) drove from Santiago to the northern part of the city. In this area, a street and high barriers separate two ‘condominios’ like a scar. But this night, with the help of astronomy, inhabitants became reacquainted with their street.
Several activities were proposed to the children and their families, mainly based around the discovery of the solar system.
Indeed, while the sun was still granting us with his light, Kora, Naomi and Jos worked with the children to build solar system models. Imagination quickly gained the upper hand over science and we ended up with blue Jupiters and pink Neptunes. Or maybe scientists should observe planets again to find out that kids were right?! Where does science stop, where does art begin?
Joanne took the lead of an army of young scientists to build paper antennas and to recreate the 66 dishes of the ALMA project. She succeeded in gathering several kids to form one single group to achieve this goal. Alas, despite all the efforts, only one antenna could be delivered. I will certainly not call that a failure, just an invitation to come back next year and continue! Interferometry is on its way!
For those who wanted to get even closer to the planets and stars, Julien offered to construct rockets to be launched with only water. Not so far from cutting-edge space missions, we saw innovative rockets, experimenting with different fin positions or other crucial parameters such as the colour. And they all took off! I have lost count, but we certainly performed more than 50 launches! I still suspect some kids were directly aiming at street lights to have a darker night.
Eventually, the sun set, and after Fernando’s lecture about the solar system, young astronomers travelled closer to the stars thanks to ESO’s two world-leading, 8-inch telescopes. The menu of this night was the Moon and its craters (that could be reproduced on Earth thanks to Jos’ experiment), Jupiter and its four satellites and the Orion nebula. You can tell how successful it was by counting the number of time one little girl was going back in the queue to observe again and again! It was also the perfect occasion to speak about stellar formation, and digress on the existence of life in the universe thanks to the bright star Alpha Centauri and its potential exo-Earth.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and time arrived for a last picture and to start the trip home, some of us tired (it is hard to keep up with the energy of the youngest), some of us wet because of the water rockets, but everyone convinced that it was a good day and that such events must continue.
The mission of the Star Sailors was to bring as much as they could to the local people (knowledge, interest in science, enthusiasm in the night-sky) but were certainly the ones that gained the most. I will remember for long time one particular little girl, with her water rocket in her hand, coming towards me and saying “Gracias”, before vanishing in the crowd. Gracias to you, and farewell. Maybe you will one of tomorrow’s Star Sailors!
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