From Carnegie Institution for Science: “Carnegie astronomers preserve dark skies for generations”

Carnegie Institution for Science
From Carnegie Institution for Science

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Distant lights from Las Campanas Observatory by Ricardo García

12.16.18
Guillermo A. Blanc
Staff Associate Astronomer
Carnegie Observatories

Fifty years ago, when the first international observatories were installed in Chile, light pollution seemed unthinkable due to the low population density and small size of villages and mining sites in the Atacama Desert. A few decades later, Chile’s economic growth has brought it to the brink of becoming a developed country. This is great for our operations at Las Campanas Observatory (LCO) because of improved communications, energy, and transportation infrastructure, as well as a better prepared local workforce. But with this development comes the threat of light pollution.

Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory in the southern Atacama Desert of Chile in the Atacama Region approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena,near the southern end and over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

Carnegie 6.5 meter Magellan Baade and Clay Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

While 50 years ago the main astronomical sites in Chile all had virgin skies, the luminous haloes of growing cities, highways, and mining sites, are starting to have an impact on the sky’s brightness. Currently the Las Campanas sky towards the zenith (that’s looking straight up) is two percent brighter than natural levels. According to simulations based on nighttime satellite imagery, half of this artificial brightness comes from a single source near the observatory: the new lighting system of the Pan-American Highway between La Serena and Vallenar.

Don’t get me wrong! LCO is still one of the darkest and best sites on the planet for astronomy, but the evolution of light pollution, and the fact that single large projects can have a measurable effect is a bit worrisome and must be addressed. Imagine you are hiking a trail in Yosemite and you find a plastic bag with trash. That doesn’t make Yosemite a polluted park, but a place where action should taken to prevent littering to preserve its beauty. That is exactly what a team of Carnegie astronomers with representatives from other U.S. and European observatories in Chile are doing: raising awareness in the communities and helping the Chilean government in preservation efforts to allow us to have dark skies above the Atacama Desert for generations to come.

The Carnegie Observatories in a collaboration with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO), and the Chilean Government, fund and run the Office for the Protection of the Dark Skies of Chile (OPCC for its acronym in Spanish).

ESO/Cerro LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).
elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo

Giant Magellan Telescope, to be at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high

Via the OPCC, we have helped Chile to be in the forefront of light pollution regulation and dark skies preservation. Since 1998, Chile has one of the world’s most stringent regulations controlling outdoor lighting in regions of astronomical interest. In 2014, these regulations were updated to properly address the use of new technologies like LED lighting. The OPCC also runs education and public outreach projects to raise awareness about light pollution and sustainable illumination practices, and organizes scientific workshops bringing together expertise on light pollution across different areas such as astronomy, medicine, biology, energy efficiency, public policy, etc.

Chilean authorities can advance the protection of these natural laboratories, which are unique in the world. This requires an increase in the levels of compliance with current light pollution regulations and promoting new initiatives, such as the declaration of protected areas in the lands that surround astronomical observatories. It is also essential to establish a requirement to address light pollution in the environmental impact assessments, which are required for the approval of large construction and infrastructure projects like the Pan-American Highway.

Last October, Carnegie astronomers and our OPCC partners met with the Chilean Minister of the Environment, Carolina Schmidt, in Cerro Paranal. LCO Director, Leopoldo Infante, and myself had the opportunity to talk personally with Minister Schmidt and present the need for Chile to protect the scientific, cultural, and environmental heritage that the dark skies of the Atacama Desert represent. This was just the latest in a series of activities and initiatives involving Carnegie astronomers in Chile, aimed at advocating for the protection of these magical and valuable sites. Protecting the skies above astronomical observatories will ensure that humanity can continue discovering and understanding the universe for generations to come. We were pleased that the minister stated a strong commitment to help us move forward on these issues. In the meantime, we will remain active and vigilant in the protection of our starry nights.

See the full article here .


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Andrew Carnegie established a unique organization dedicated to scientific discovery “to encourage, in the broadest and most liberal manner, investigation, research, and discovery and the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind…” The philosophy was and is to devote the institution’s resources to “exceptional” individuals so that they can explore the most intriguing scientific questions in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Carnegie and his trustees realized that flexibility and freedom were essential to the institution’s success and that tradition is the foundation of the institution today as it supports research in the Earth, space, and life sciences.

6.5 meter Magellan Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile.
6.5 meter Magellan Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile