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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

One Picture, My Three Favorite Sciences

By Phil Plait

A photo combining geology, meteorology, and (indirectly) astronomy? Why yes, I’ll take one please:

Oh, you do indeed want to click to embiggen that! Taken by European Southern Observatory photographer Armin Silber in northeast Chile, it shows two ancient volcanoes: Licancabur on the left, and Juriques on the right. Both tower over the plains of the Atacama Desert, which I’ll note sits on a plateau that in some places already reaches the incredible elevation of 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet). Licancabur reaches a peak at 5,900 meters (19,400 feet!) and Juriques 5,700 meters (18,700 feet).

Weirdly, the border between Chile and Bolivia wraps around the two volcanoes. Chile gets the caldera for Licancabur while Bolivia gets the caldera for Juriques. I wonder how that was negotiated?

The clouds are interesting, too. The Sun was low on the horizon, so the snow on the volcanoes is pinkish-orange. The peaks pierce the clouds, which show the same color. I imagine that’s from the reflection off the snow. Note that the clouds farther out from the volcanoes are gray.

And what does this have to do with astronomy? The Atacama Desert is the location of several observatories, including Paranal, La Silla, and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, a radio telescope observatory that has only been fully operational for a year or so. See the bus making its way across the picture in the foreground? That’s taking staff to ALMA control center for their eight-day shift.

One of my biggest regrets in life was not attending the inauguration of the observatory; I was invited but a previous engagement prevented me from going. I really wanted to see that area, go up to those soaring elevations, experience the amazing geography for myself.

Someday. I’ll add it to my already ridiculously long list of places on this planet I have to see. It’s a big world, and you could spend 10 lifetimes trying to see it all.

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