I’ve had travels far and wide, but this is the most Starry-Eyed of them all…
The night was pitch black and freezing cold. We huddled in a semicircle, stamping our feet and hugging ourselves to try and stay warm, shivering even beneath our thick layers of coats and scarves. It was 11:30 p.m. and we had just been abandoned in the middle of the Atacama Desert, miles from anywhere. Once the van had sped off into the darkness, the only light came from the almost-full moon.
A figure appeared in the doorway of a small hut and came striding towards us. He looked a bit like the Michelin man – and much more prepared for the cold than us – wearing a thick, puffy, spaceman-like suit. “Hi, I’m John. Welcome to the Atacama Desert!” he greeted us, in a strong Canadian accent. “I’m an astronomer and I’ll be your stargazing guide this evening.”
There were about 25 of us amateur stargazers, who had been lucky enough to get the last spaces on the last SPACE tour for 5 days – tomorrow the moon would be full and the stars would be impossible to see properly. We craned our necks towards the sky and watched, mesmerised, as John used a faint red laser to map the constellations. He explained the geography of the Southern Sky, pointing out the Southern Cross, shining brightly, as a focal point. He gave us a potted history of astronomy and answered our eager, naive questions with good-humour and grace.
Once we had a basic idea about the night sky, John led us to a field full of telescopes. There were 9 altogether, some of them huge, so after we had listened to the explanations of what we would see through each one, we scattered ourselves and had our first glimpses of the stars up-close.
Never have I felt more truly Starry-Eyed than I did then. Of course, with the naked eye, stars look like tiny white specks in the sky, nothing more than twinkly little dots. Through a telescope however, those tiny white dots reveal themselves as shaking, shimmering clusters of stars, all different colours. One telescope was fixed on a cluster nicknamed as ‘The Jewel Box‘ because the stars are such vibrant colours -red, blue, purple, green. Another offered ‘The Butterfly‘, so named because the shape of the cluster looked exactly like a butterfly with its wings outstretched. Yet another telescope was trained on Jupiter. I went from telescope to telescope, trying to make a connection with what I was seeing through the telescope with what I could see with my eyes. I was spellbound. I went back to the Jewel Box three times, just to make sure that there really were a load of multicoloured stars hanging around up there.
But the best was yet to come. Two of the telescopes were focussed on the moon, offering different perspectives of it. I wondered why people were taking so long at one particular telescope, but when I reached it and peered into the tube to see the craters and peaks of the moon’s surface, I understood. I could barely tear myself away. The other telescope showed a full view of the moon – a brillantly magnified version – a bright milky white, with grey shadows dancing on its surface. John had been racing around, correcting the position of each telescope every few minutes as the stars moved across the sky. Now he came to this telescope and offered to take a picture for each of us of the close-up moon. We formed an excited queue, holding out our cameras until we each had a magical picture of the moon.
Giddy with happiness and wonder, we all traipsed across to the round hut, shrouded in darkness and only visible thanks to its one unobtrusive red light. We were handed blankets and mugs of steaming hot chocolate to warm us up and we sat on benches for a Q&A about stars, astronomy and the universe. It was 1a.m. at this point, but I was wide-awake and reluctant for the session to finish. But, as all good things must, it came to an end, hot chocolates drunk and cockles warmed. The van returned to take us back to civilization and the friendly astronomer bade us goodnight. His working day, of course, was just beginning, but I was soon tucked up in bed, my mind spinning with visions of the moon and the stars.