One Hundred Nights of Solitude

Grant Tremblay after 13 nights of a winter shift. This is the Unit Telescope 2 console in the VLT control room. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Grant Tremblay after 13 nights of a winter shift. This is the Unit Telescope 2 console in the VLT control room. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

As a Fellow at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), my contract mandated 75% work on my own science, and 25% support for ESO operations. I fulfilled the latter component by serving as a Fellow Astronomer at the Very Large Telescope, arguably the world's most advanced ground-based optical observatory. 

In a way, I hated it. 

The Very Large Telescope reigns atop Cerro Paranal, deep within the Chilean Atacama Desert. The observatory is majestic beyond imagining. The landscape is indistinguishable from the surface of Mars. And getting there is a five-star pain in the ass. 

Grant Tremblay on the VLT platform, 2012 © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Grant Tremblay on the VLT platform, 2012 © Dr. Grant Tremblay


From my apartment in Munich, I rode a one hour train to the airport, flew two hours to Paris, burned a three hour layover, nursed a fifteen-hour-long headache on the flight to Santiago, flew a further two hours north to Antofagasta, and rode a three hour bus into the *textbook definition of nowhere* to finally arrive at Paranal. I did this as frequently as every other month for three years. I nearly filled a passport with stamps, accrued a shit-ton of Air France miles, and no, I never got upgraded. 

It was the greatest experience of my life. 

During my turnos, I was in charge of Unit Telescope 2, named Kueyen (second telescope from left in the image above). As for most observatory staff, it was our tradition to begin our shift by watching sunset bleed into twilight from the telescope platform. 

When my favorite author Gabriel García Márquez wrote of Solitude, I think this is what he was talking about. 

Our nearest star sinks into an ocean of clouds five thousand feet below. At this moment, from this vantage point, one has about the highest possible chance to witness a green flash (I saw three in the ~120 nights I spent at the VLT). The sky turns metallic. Gunmetal. A billion shades of purple. You can actually see the shadow of the Earth envelop the sky in real time (no, I'm not waxing poetic). As twilight gives way to night, the stellar disk of the Milky Way rises toward the meridian, so bright that you'd swear the Great Rift is a canyon into which you could fall. 

My amateur photos below don't do it justice, but I wanted to at least share some with you. They represent a typical night on the VLT platform, and are placed roughly in order from sunset to sunrise.

Looking south, twenty minutes before sunset. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

The Very Large Telescope. The large structures house the four eight-meter Unit Telescopes. I controlled the second from the left, (UT2 / Kueyen). The smaller domes are Auxiliary Telescopes, forming part of the VLT Interferometer.  © Dr. Grant Tremblay

North, toward Antofagasta. The clouds, thousands of feet below, hide the Pacific Ocean. A low inversion layer, like that seen here, portends excellent seeing for the night. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

It's just at this moment that you have the best place on earth to witness a green flash. I've seen four from this vantage point, but I never caught one on camera. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

The shadow of the Earth is clearly seen on the right. The telescope in the distance is VISTA, also part of ESO's Paranal Observatory © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Moonrise (this was taken on a different night from the photos below, which were taken in dark time). © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Me, with the Galactic center rising behind me. The Magellanic Clouds are clearly seen to my right.  © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Unit Telescope 4 boasts a Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics System. It has recently been upgraded as part of the Adaptive Optics Facility. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Yup. UT4 is observing Sgr A* here, the four million solar mass black hole in the very center of our galaxy. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

The galactic center directly above my head. Only 8 kiloparsecs away. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Twenty minutes before sunrise. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

Ten minutes before sunrise. © Dr. Grant Tremblay

I'm not a very good photographer - most of the night shots above are a simple 20 second tripod exposure with a cheap DSLR and a middle-tier 10 mm lens. Far better photographers than myself can give you more of a feeling for what it's really like to be there.

Grant Tremblay

Dr. Grant Tremblay is an Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics