La Silla Observatory, Chile
Built and operated by the European Southern Observatory organization, La Silla Observatory in Chile is one of the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The observatory is located in an area rated as one of the driest and loneliest places in the world – the Atacama Desert. However, for scientists this remote and inhospitable area is perfect, as it is located far from sources of light pollution, offering one of the darkest night skies anywhere on earth.
Upon deciding in 1963 that Chile would be a good place to build the ESO observatory, various locations in the country were assessed for their suitability. Eventually La Silla was chosen, and for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is far from dust sources and artificial light. Other reasons for La Silla being an attractive option is the fact that it is at an altitude of 2400 meters, is easily accessible and has a relatively flat surface for building on, and it was government property. In 1964 contracts were signed, 245 square miles of ground was purchased, temporary facilities erected, and an access road completed. In 1969 La Silla was fully operational with permanent buildings and facilities, as well as several telescopes. The project was inaugurated by then President Eduardo Frei Montalva on 25 March of that year.
Around three hundred academic publications have been attributed to the work carried out at the observatory and La Silla has been instrumental in a significant number of scientific discoveries. The three telescopes of La Silla are the New Technology Telescope (NTT), the 3.6m ESO Telescope and the 2.2m MPG/ESO Telescope. With the level of technology offered by these telescopes, astronomers at La Silla have been able to find low-mass extrasolar planets, and have detected the system around the red dwarf star Gliese 581 which contains what is believed to be the first known rocky planet located in a habitable zone beyond the solar system. La Silla’s telescopes have also played a crucial role in linking burst of gamma-rays with the explosions of massive stars in a display of power that could be likened to the Big Bang. The latest reported discovery at La Silla was on 2 February 2011 when astronomers discovered an unusual pure disk gallery by means of the Wide Field Imager on the 2.2m telescope. The new find has been christened NGC3621.
Over the years, as technology has continued to advance, La Silla has remained at the cutting-edge of astronomy. With the insatiable curiosity and seemingly endless ingenuity of man, when it comes to exploring the starry heavens at La Silla, clearly the sky is not the limit.