Thursday, April 7, 2016

Chile-US Astronomy Education Outreach Summit visits Las Campanas Observatory

Amanda Kocz is Communications Officer for the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. Opinions in this post are her own.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take part in the second Chile-US Astronomy Education Outreach Summit, held in La Serena, Chile.

Outreach summit participants at Magellan.

The purpose of the summit was to bring together fifty or so astronomy outreach professionals, teachers and administrators to work on revising the draft of the Roadmap to the Stars (not available online yet - still a draft). This document, written at the first Summit in 2015, outlines the current state and the future of astronomy outreach in Chile. The summit was also a great opportunity to network, to share ideas and to make connections with our counterparts.

I was there representing the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, which meant I had the good fortune to spend the week with my colleague, Dr. Miguel Roth, former Director of Las Campanas Observatory (LCO), and current Chile Representative for the GMT.

The first day of the summit was a fieldtrip to LCO. On the bus I got to know Pablo Álvarez, who is working on a project called Astroturismo Chile, which is assessing the quality and competitiveness of astrotourism in Chile. 

As we reached the turn-off from the Pan American Highway, I immediately recognized the landscape in the distance. Looking from left to right we could see the du Pont, the Magellans, and the GMT site. The driver stopped the bus, and we all got off to check it out. Mark Philips, current LCO Director, explained what we were seeing.

Mark Phillips (L) and Pablo Álvarez (R) look towards Las Campanas.
Then we began the somewhat tedious, bumpy and dusty journey to the summit. As we got closer, the two instrument towers on the GMT summit became more visible, and soon we reached the turn off to the site. We couldn’t pay it a visit due to construction work, but I was excited to be there again. (Last time I was there, it was the GMT Groundbreaking Ceremony in November 2015.)
The instrument towers visible on the GMT site.
We continued to the far end of LCO to the du Pont Telescope. Commissioned in the mid-1970s, it was used for wide-field photography on photographic plates. It is now being used for a new project, APOGEE, a fiber-fed spectrograph designed to do a southern sky survey of the Milky Way.
Mark Phillips tells the group about the du Pont Telescope.
From our vantage point at du Pont we could see all of LCO’s telescopes. In the middle distance was the Swope, named after Henrietta Swope, a famous astronomer who was also a philanthropist and gave $250,000 to Carnegie to build the telescope.
We could also see three site testing telescopes that are used to measure the site’s seeing. Also in the middle was the Ogle, a 1.3m telescope operated by the University of Warsaw for gravitational lensing observations.
Las Campanas Observatory.
Magellans to the left, Swope and Ogle in the middle, and the GMT site far right.
All of this information was coming at us via a bilingual comedy double act between Mark and Miguel. Mark was doing the English, and Miguel was doing the Spanish, except when they forgot which was their native language and switched. The explanations became a competition as each of them relayed ever more outlandish stories.
Mark Phillips and Miguel Roth keep the crowd entertained.
Soon it was lunchtime, and we sat on long benches in the dining room getting to know our colleagues. I chatted with Valentina Rodríguez and Laura Ventura from ESO, feeling quite inadequate at my lack of Spanish.
After lunch we were taken to see the Magellans, and we headed up the stairs into the control room of the Baade telescope. Mark and Miguel continued their comedy routine before we were taken inside the dome to stand face to face with the 6.5 meter mirror.
Miguel Roth tells another elaborate story inside the Baade control room.
The explanations and descriptions of the telescope and its mirror came thick and fast from Miguel and Mark but everyone seemed more excited about getting their photo taken with the mirror. We were also lucky enough to have time to visit the coating chamber in between the two telescopes. Each year one of the mirrors is stripped and realuminized in this room (video here). 
Miguel Roth and me with the Baade mirror.
Suitably telescoped-out we rejoined our bus and headed a little way down the hill for a group shot with the GMT site in the background. Then we hit the road for the two hour drive back to La Serena.
Group photo - GMT site in the background.
This outing was the first of many highlights of the Summit. I won’t forget the experience of revising the Roadmap document, huddled around a translator who was doing an amazing job of keeping us non-Spanish-speakers in the loop. I was appreciative of the opportunity to meet and get to know the many enthusiastic astronomy outreach professionals who attended (especially Suzanne Jacoby from LSST and Sandi Preston from McDonald Observatory).

What I learned was that there are more great ideas for engaging the public with astronomy than I could have imagined, and that an enormous amount of work is being done in Chile already. The country hosts a large fraction of the world's astronomical light gathering capability, and the hope is that one day the world will come to know Chile for its astronomy.

I’m very grateful to the Summit organizers for such a productive and well-run event, and for inviting me to attend.

Read more about the Summit on its Facebook page!
Find out more about what’s going on at GMTO from our latest newsletter published in March.