Chilean telescopes that explore galaxies brought down to earth by coronavirus


SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean telescopes that comb the skies seeking answers about some of the universe´s most fundamental questions have confirmed they, too, have fallen victim to the mass disruption brought about by the new coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: Workers of Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA) and visitors gather around a special vehicle as it loads a parabolic antenna during the ALMA observatory inauguration, some 140km (87 miles) east of Calama, March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Observatories dotted above the coastal city of La Serena and in the Latin nation´s dry northern deserts have closed for the first time since some opened several decades ago, citing the risk of potential contagion among international visitors and scientific staff.

Research teams who often work in shifts traveling to the observatories from their homes in nearby cities and the capital Santiago were also hampered by flights cancellations and quarantines and curfews around the country.

The closures imply potential delays in significant research by international teams using material generated by the telescopes, their managers told Reuters.

Chile is home to 70% of global astronomy investment. In recent years its telescopes have contributed images to advance theories of planet and galaxy formation and discovered a collection of planets that could help find life beyond Earth.

Last year, Chilean astronomers played a significant part in helping to unveil the first ever image of a black hole.

Sean Dougherty, director of the ALMA telescope located thousands of meers above sea level in the cloudless northern Atacama Desert, said the shutdowns were “unprecedented” but unavoidable.

“A team continues working at the observatory to keep vital telescope systems operational and ensure that we are ready to restart operations whenever that is feasible,” he said in a statement sent to Reuters.

Steffen Mieske is head of science operations at the European-run Paranal Observatory 370 miles north of Santiago, which has been looking at planets beyond the sun and the black hole in the Milky Way.

He told Reuters its operations were curtailed after Chile´s devastating 2010 earthquake and during the social protests last year, but never closed in 21 years of operation.

“All the visiting projects of scientists who come to conduct observations, typically from abroad, during April and May were canceled,” he said. “We anticipate that a significant number of projects will be affected.”

Karla Pena, assistant professor at the University of Antofagasta in northern Chile, told El Mercurio newspaper the closure meant she had to forgo a critical night´s research at the Las Campanas telescope in the Atacama.

“The problem is that the objects I was looking at are only visible in certain windows of time,” she said.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Leslie Adler

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