Astronomy: An adventure for everyone

— Felipe Mac Auliffe

I recall the days when I was working at La Silla observatory as TiO (Telescope and Instrument Operator) at the SEST radio-telescope (Swedish ESO Submillimetre Telescope). Matter of fact, I was there until the very last light of the SEST, after spending eight years in that wonderful and unforgettable mountain crowded of telescopes, life and everything you can dream about.


La Silla was specially alive every Saturday with regular group of visitors, avid of answers to their questions about astronomy, telescopes and the observatory’s life. During all of those years I was a close collaborator of the visitors guides, giving short lectures to the people visiting the SEST, trying to explain the way we observe in radio astronomy and how it changed the way we understand the Universe. That was somehow how my relation with ESO outreach started and, to be honest, I truly hold in my hearth those moments of Saturday’s pubic talks. Also, during my time at La Silla I gave several public talks around the area where I live (La Serena) mainly aimed to school audiences. Finally I got invited to participate in the so-called “La Silla University”, to give at the observatory a set of basic astronomy lectures for the staff working at there but not necessarily involved in astronomy, like contractors, cooks, janitors among others. It was a very enjoyable experience!

La Silla

In October 2003 I was transferred to the APEX project (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment) in San Pedro de Atacama as SEST got sadly decommissioned. I was very excited about my new duty station at APEX and specially with the new challenges to come. In the other side of course, I was sad not only because I was leaving La Silla but also, due to the fact that as a brand new project, no outreach activities were foreseen. After some years of science operations we started to organize some outreach activities at APEX, but they were very limited due to the lack of man power and the nature of the project. So basically my collaboration with ESO outreach was over… at least that was what I thought.


Sometime during last year and after a nice chat with my friend Fernando Selman, he kindly invited me join the group of outreach, which of course I accepted right away. Then I started to get all the emails and everything about the activities. Of course I was very impressed about the commitment of the collaborators but, at the same time, I felt a bit useless to the group since, as stated before, I live in La Serena and most all the activities were taking place around the Santiago area. During last June, there was an email requesting volunteers to give a talk in Los Vilos, in a school named “Liceo Municipal Nicolas Federico Lohse Vargas”. Los Vilos is located in my region so I signed in right away!

Los Vilos is both a Chilean coastal commune and a coastal city with over 9,000 inhabitants, located in the Province of Choapa, part of the IV Region of Coquimbo and located about 250 km south of La Serena or halfway between Santiago – La Serena. The main activity is fishing. In my opinion a good stop if you’re driving in the pan-americana highway between Santiago – La Serena. You’ll get excellent sea food at one of the restaurants by the coast line.

Los Vilos

The school has a astronomy group led by the science teacher. The group has participated in several astronomical activities such “Globe at Night program”, which is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution. Also they took a role in the “Proyecto Erastotenes”, to estimate the diameter of the Earth by replicating the same method used centuries ago. With my car loaded of ESO outreach material to give away (posters, postcards, audiovisual material) plus three telescopes, I headed south from La Serena. The idea was to give the talk after lunch and later in the evening, providing some minimum weather conditions, organize a stargazing session with the participants and anyone that would like to join us. Unfortunately the later was not possible due to the dense layer of clouds that prevented any kind of attempt to observe. Anyhow the telescopes were used during the lecture in a chapter specially devoted to observational astronomy.

Los Vilos

After setting up everything in the classroom and even after surviving a power cut due to the poor electrical power outlet of the classroom, I started the talk shortly after 14:00. Since this talk was aimed to an astronomy group, I did assume some basic knowledge on the topic. Despite the last, a larger group of students not members of the astronomy group joined and I had to small-adjust the level of the talk, to get ’em involved and interested too.

Los Vilos 1

The talk is called “Astronomy: An adventure for everyone” since it is inspired on what I did on La Silla many years ago. I started with a tour through the solar system, describing characteristics and features of their components (planets, minor bodies, comets, etc). Then the usual journey in time and space of the Universe, to provide a good understanding on where we are and how small we truly are. Of course explanations and examples on how astronomers measure the distances on the Universe were provided, to get a common vocabulary in the journey (astronomical unit, light year, etc). This journey was accompanied by computer simulations created with software like “SkySafari Pro”, “Starry nights Pro 7” and “Redshift”. They were very impressed indeed!

Los Vilos 2

Then the lecture moved along some observational definitions like coordinates system, celestial sphere, magnitudes, constellations, color of the stars, etc. This section together with the section devoted to telescopes was of special interest of the astronomy group, with a bunch of good questions and clarification about several concepts. It was a very interactive block of the talk.

To finish the talk I briefly summarized the history of ESO and their leading role in astronomical research. Slides of the every ESO observatory were shown (La Silla, Paranal) and ESO participations (ALMA, APEX). In this part of the talk lot of time was used to explain the different wavelengths and instruments used in astronomy. Finally I presented the E-ELT project to the students.

Los Vilos 3

After the talk, I distributed the outreach material along the astronomy group, shared some really cool conversations with the students and finally having a group photo. They were very impressed with all the telescopes used during the talk (Meade LightSwitch, Celestron FirstScope and Galileoscope) and the are already dreaming with a visit to La Silla, Paranal or even ALMA/APEX!

Los Vilos

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