May 21, 2019

Where Will Science Take Us? To the Stars.

“After 30 hours of bumping along on planes and buses, at long last I stood in the darkness and gazed upon an immense night sky. My long journey seemingly had brought me to the shoreline of interstellar space rather than the high-altitude plateau that is Chile’s Atacama Desert.

It was the first night of a monthlong journey to visit astronomy observatories in Chile, Los Angeles and Hawaii. Whether designed for professional use or for the general public, observatories nurture humanity’s explorations of the cosmos. They spark wonder and discovery, but even before I set foot inside the first one, I was seeing outer space in a spellbinding new way.

That first night in the Atacama, arguably the best place in the world to see the night sky, the Milky Way proved true to its name: a milky-like smear stretching from horizon to horizon. The Southern Cross shone bright as candlelight. Both the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies glowed like stickers on a child’s bedroom ceiling, and Jupiter’s bands were easily visible with an amateur telescope, as were four of its moons.

However, the real surprise was our moon. I watched eagerly, all drowsiness gone, as it peeked above the horizon just before 11 p.m. Moonrise was an actual event — a pale, ethereal version of sunrise. Its light spread like brush fire across the night sky, and the desert landscape appeared as if a switch had been flipped.”

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