La Serena, Chile – Spiral galaxies, Jupiter’s moons, Magellanic Clouds, the smouldering glint of Mars – these marvellous sights of the sky have lured eager stargazers to Chile for years.
The heavens sparkle with stunning clarity in the mountainous north, which boasts the darkness, isolation and dry air that astronomers so highly covet.
Now, a string of revolutionary space observation projects, worth billions of dollars, are coming to the country. Government reports predict Chile will host 70 percent of global astronomic infrastructure by 2020 – with a boom in tech innovation, engineering and astro-tourism set to follow.
The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), scheduled to begin construction this year, is a 3.2-billion-pixel camera that shoots “a colour movie of the universe”.
It will create the largest public data set in the world – a complete map of the sky that enables astronomers to conduct detailed investigations without telescope access.
“This will start a new era – some people call it the democratisation of astronomy,” said Chris Smith of Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, a hallowed institution that includes the world’s largest camera.
“Astronomers will use the digital maps for digging information, with less observing time, and then develop follow-up projects with real telescopes,” he told Al Jazeera.
At the University of Chile in Santiago, the National Laboratory for High Performance Computing was opened in 2010 to develop methods for managing these huge volumes, as well as to educate a new generation of experts that will meet surging demand.
“This is the astronomic equivalent of genome research,” said Eduardo Vera, the laboratory’s director. “The data will be too big to handle – that’s why you need algorithms, just like what Google is doing with the internet.”
Every night, 20-30 terabytes of data, cataloguing hundreds of transient events – such as supernovae, asteroids, comets and new stars – will arrive from the LSST on a blazing connection of one gigabyte per second, before being stored and analysed by giant supercomputers.
“Chile can become a world leader in informatics and leapfrog the competition, because this stuff is so new that we’re not following anyone,” Vera told Al Jazeera.
Production of instruments is another key field.
Although Chile lags behind established players such as the United States, several institutions are collaborating with international partners to build pieces of appliances for projects like the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), set to become the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope when it is completed in 2023.
The Pontifical Catholic University is working with European engineers on the SIMPLE high-resolution spectrograph – a tool designed to study nuclear physics, planets outside the solar system and the chemical enrichment of galaxies.
Research is also under way to produce equipment for the $1bn ALMA radio telescope, an array of 66 antennae in the northern Atacama Desert that searches for our cosmic origins. It is stationed at 5,059 metres on a mountaintop in the “Astronomic Park”, a 35,997-hectare plot that has been protected to encourage more new installations.
The eventual goal is for Chile to lead production of one or two world-class instruments in the $5-$20m range. Chilean scientists are also given 10 percent of telescope time at all observatories in the country – a huge opportunity to carry out original studies.
“Astronomy can build bridges between industry and universities that we do not have,” said Mónika Rubio, director of astronomy at the National Commission of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT), which operates under the Ministry of Education.
In 2013, its astronomy budget rose to $1.8m per year.
Rapid growth in astro-tourism has accompanied all this scientific progress. Today, Chile is a stargazing destination to rival New Zealand, Canada, and the southern United States.
“The government has realised astronomy isn’t just scientists,” said Smith of Cerro Tololo as he drove through the scenic Elqui Valley, which boasts up to 300 clear nights per year.
“The focus used to be sand and sun – now it’s just stars. Astronomy brings people all year, but the beach is only two months,” he told Al Jazeera.
In 2013, the central Coquimbo region – which includes the Elqui Valley – welcomed 150,000 visitors.
During high season, garish electronic billboards appear on the Avenida del Mar, which connects the popular west coast spots of La Serena and Coquimbo.
It’s just one example of light pollution threatening to damage the same skies that attract so many travellers.
Of 23 tourist observatories, a dozen are located near the town of Vicuña, an hour inland from La Serena.
The first opened at Cerro Mamalluca in 1998 and is often fully booked during the holiday months of December to February, when hundreds of hopeful stargazers pass through every night.
“We never thought it would have such touristic impact – the project was oriented to education,” said Luis Vigorena, the director at Mamalluca.
“Interest is increasing even for people who know nothing about astronomy. It’s very romantic, like Copernicus with his primitive telescopes,” he told Al Jazeera.
But as more businesses arrive to exploit natural resources – both in the sky and below the earth – they leave a trail of light pollution.
The Coquimbo region’s population has soared on the back of Chile’s recent mining boom. Beneath a mesmerising canopy of stars, the eerie orange glow of civilisation rises alongside profit margins.
“Advertising, sport facilities and mining are the main dangers,” said Pedro Sanhueza, director of Chile’s national office for protecting the northern skies.
“The health ministry obliges mines to use large amounts of light – more than a city – and we think that impact could be felt as far as 200km from a professional observatory.”
A series of government decrees have been issued to regulate light emissions, but Sanhueza said “there is a big gap between lawyers in the office and having people on the street at night, measuring light.
“From the abstract point of view, we have stronger organisations for enforcement, but in practical terms they are not doing their job,” he said.
A 2010 study confirmed that contamination reaches about 15 degrees above the horizon over La Serena and Coquimbo.
Although it’s still not enough to disrupt scientific work, upgrading street lamps and launching a campaign for UNESCO Astronomic World Heritage Sites have not alleviated fear that dark skies could one day become a victim of Chile’s own success.
Follow Frederick Bernas on Twitter: @frederickbernas