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.
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.