Astroblog: the world’s darkest valley

There’s one night I remember the most from my time in Cambridge. I was at Nick’s house with Pam and we’d just had dinner after work. It was a lovely, warm summer’s evening so we ended up drinking wine, staring at the stars and contemplating life.

The chances are, if we’re good friends there has probably been a night where we have stared at the stars together, or at least contemplated the universe. I love it. I find it fascinating.

The scale of time and space across the universe is something that we will never be able to comprehend. When you’re looking up at the stars you are looking back in time. The closest star to earth is four light years away, which means the light you see on one particular night started its journey to us four years ago. If you enjoy having your mind boggled, watch this video about interstellar travel by vsauce or this documentary about the scale of the universe by National Geographic.

We heard from a couple of travellers in Peru that they had visited the Elqui Valley in Chile, the darkest valley on the planet, and that the sky was incredible there. After our fail in San Pedro de Atacama (where we couldn’t see the stars because we were staying there for the week of a full moon), we did a bit of research about the Elqui Valley and immediately built it into our plans.

The drive through the valley is literally called Ruta de las Estrellas, or Route of the Stars. On our first night in Pisco Elqui I took out my camera and we explored the night sky, not really sure of what we were looking at other than the Milky Way. We woke up and booked ourselves on to an astronomical tour hoping that I’d be able to take some better pictures. The bus picked us up at 8pm and drove us out of the village to a viewpoint that overlooked it and the surrounding mountains. The guide set up a campfire and gave each of us a Pisco Sour (a drink that is subject to much debate between Chile and Peru as to who owns it).

He talked us through the stars, starting with the constellations we could see from Galileo’s original 12: Sagittarius, Scorpio, Leo and Virgo. We marvelled at the Milky Way, he pointed out Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the Earth and he showed us the celestial equator that separates the northern and southern hemisphere of the night sky. We spent the next hour learning about more constellations and watching the moon set.

The Elqui Valley is a great place for stargazing because it has the clearest atmosphere on the planet. Stars appear as if they are flickering because of pollution in the atmosphere, so what we saw was much clearer, especially through a telescope.

He taught us that the stars can look white, blue, orangey red or yellow. If a star is white or blue it is because it’s extremely hot, hotter than our sun and it’s probably “new”. If a star is yellow it is burning at a similar heat to our sun, and if a star is orangey red it’s cooler than our sun, and dying, like the red coals you see on a dwindling campfire. We asked how often stars die, and he explained that it has only been captured on camera three times in history, the most recent occurring in Chile.

There were only four of us on our tour because it’s winter here, which means it’s out of season. That made it even more perfect, especially when our guide set up a deep space telescope for us to explore the sky in more detail. We saw Jupiter and three of its moons, Saturn and its rings, craters on the moon and star constellations that to the naked eye look like a cloud. It was phenomenal.

While this is going on, I set up my camera and used the moon to focus the lens before it set.

I’m not a photographer and I wouldn’t even class myself as amateur, especially when it comes to astrophotography. I don’t really have a desire to be perfect at it. It can take a lot of expensive equipment and technical knowledge. I’m just trying to use my camera to capture one of the things that I love doing the most, so there will be many technical faults and limitations with my images.

I have a Nikon D3300 – one of the most standard DSLRs on the market – and I’m using the 18-55mm lens that came with it. The only thing I’ve spent extra money on specifically for this is a tripod. I want to share these images with you. You should be able to make out the Milky Way and a few of the key constellations (turn up the brightness on your screen if you have it low).

I’m hoping that our world travel will give me an opportunity to learn more about my new hobby. I’ve heard the skies in Patagonia and New Zealand are something to behold. It’s definitely never too late to learn more about something you love.

Full moon in Pisco Elqui

Full moon in Pisco Elqui

Star constellations after moonset

Star constellations after moonset

A bright (albeit blurry) view of the Milky Way

A bright (albeit blurry) view of the Milky Way

Another shot of the night sky

Another shot of the night sky

Milky Way over mountains

Milky Way over mountains

Stars over mountains

Stars over mountains

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