Aina’s first report from La Serena, Chile at Gemini South Observatory

Aina in front of a picture of the Gemini South telescope

Aina in front of a picture of the Gemini South Telescope. Photo Aina

21 December 2011

So here we are settled in La Serena! All the Gemini staff are very welcoming and helpful and they have certainly made us feel like at home.

My project involves processing data from several environmental monitors of the Gemini South Telescope and then performing statistical analysis to see how different parameters impact the ‘seeing’ and therefore the image quality. I have 2 supervisors and we are working on the application in programming language called Python. I have never programmed in Python but there is a lot of online Python help so it is manageable.

La Serena is a small town with a beautiful beach. We are situated on a high hill which I call a mountain as Chile’s mountains are much higher than Australia’s. It usually takes me about 10 minutes to come down this “mountain” when we go to the shops. All of the shops are about 20-30 minutes walk from where we live and the beach is about 70 minutes’ walk. So we certainly do a lot of walking. The compound (recinto) is isolated from the rest of the town and we had to make sure that we introduce ourselves to the guards as the entrance to the mountain is guarded from both sides.

It is quite warm here but not quite as warm as in Sydney this time of year. La Serena is often clouded so we don’t see the clear sky here all that often, however it doesn’t rain either. A few nights it was clear and I tried to check the level of light pollution here compared to Sydney. It is not that dark here, the town is small but people use tons of outdoor lights. However there are no high buildings like in Sydney so it doesn’t feel as light as at the Observatory in Sydney. Since we live on the mountain it is easy to get above the light pollution area and still enjoy the sky with my binoculars that I brought with me.

Star trails above the Gemini South Telescope

Star trails above the Gemini South Telescope. The open dome appears somewhat blurred due to its motion during the 45 minute exposure. The telescope is located on the mountain of Cerro Pachon, in the Chilean Andes while the associated observatory, where Aina is working, is at the nearby city of La Serena. Courtesy Gemini Observatory/AURA

It is absolutely mesmerising to see the town at night from our mountain. The coast stretches as far as the eye can reach, with millions of lights on the ground all around the coastline which curves around but goes on for a few kilometres into the sea.
Our trip out to the telescope is going to be some time in the second part of January. It is about 2 hours’ drive from here into the desert. I can’t wait until that trip.

We have made friends with some people who work here at Gemini and they have been very kind to take us around. Apart from beautiful La Serena they have taken us to the neighbouring desert and in particular the Elqui valley which is about 1.5 hours’ drive from La Serena. The change in the weather is almost instantaneous, the clouds disappear, and the temperature goes up by about 15 degrees. The heat is dry so it is not difficult to bear it, however we all got sunburnt in about 1 hour without fail!

The valley has some wonderful wineries which we of course visited. There seems to be two trends of wines here: sweet wines and dry wines. I prefer dry wines but the sweet wines are very pleasant as well. All wines are relatively cheap even compared to Australia so we bought a few bottles. There are small vilages in the desert, I honestly don’t know how they survive the heat and the lack of water and other essential resources. But everyone seems to be quite relaxed and serene, nobody rushes anywhere (except when it comes to the roads): Chileans can wait an hour at the restaurant for lunch to be cooked but if you don’t start crossing the street half a second after the light went green, you are sure to get a beep from someone. On the way back from the valley as the sun sets it suddenly gets very cold, we got absolutely frozen on the way back in the open jeep. As we were driving we could see in the distance the domes of the telescopes we are going to visit in January.

I don’t speak much Spanish but we never had problems getting around town with Joe (the other recipient of the studentship), and every now and then we run into someone who speaks English. I like Spanish, it is a beautiful language and in my opinion very similar to Russian in structure. I think if I stayed here for a year, I would be speaking it without a problem. At the office everyone of course speaks English. The compound is full of international scientists; I would say most of them are American with a very small fraction of Europeans etc. Even the houses are built with American visitors in mind: all the power sockets in our house are American, we came prepared with Chilean-to-Australian adapters but what we needed was American-to-Australian adapters so we are using the only Chilean socket in the house located next to the dining table so all our devices are huddled up around there.

They have this food market on Tuesdays and Sundays where you can buy all sorts of fruit and vegies, some of those we have never tried before. It is even difficult to explain what they are like, I think one needs to try them as they are quite different to all the fruit we are used to in Australia. Can you imagine you can buy a kilo of strawberries for about $3? Here they don’t have fresh milk so we only drink that long life stuff, they just don’t have fresh milk, Joe found it very hard to get used to eating without fresh milk.

Chileans love to have incredibly long lunches, it is about 3 times as long as what we are used to at Sydney Observatory. Chileans often go out for lunch. Eating out is slightly cheaper à la carte but if you eat from the menu of the day (menu del dia) then it is very cheap, some places are $6 for two courses plus a drink. Night life here is also starting late, some night clubs and casinos are not even open till midnight, so the locals end up partying till 6-7am, it is completely normal for them.

Aina is a guide at Sydney Observatory, an undergraduate student in science at Sydney University and a member of the Sydney City Skywatchers. She is one of the two recipients of the Australian Gemini Undergraduate Summer Studentships for 2011/12. AGUSS is a highly competitive studentship that typically receives 10 times as many applicants as there are places available.

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