La Silla Observatory

Between 2000 and 2004 I worked as an astronomer for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.  ESO had 2 observatories in Chile at the time – the older La Silla Observatory that had been in operation since the 1960s, and the new Paranal Observatory where the Very Large Telescope was just starting operations with all 4 of its telescopes (there is also now ALMA Observatory, with first light in 2011). 

The year I arrived, I was the only Astronomy Fellow to be assigned to La Silla, everyone else was assigned to Paranal.   I remember being a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to work on the largest and newest telescopes and instrumentation, but in the end – it turned out that I had won the workplace lottery!    None of my friends at Paranal enjoyed their time at the observatory (it has changed a lot since then), whereas we had such a great time on La Silla that I never wanted to return home to Santiago.

La Silla Observatory
Standing in front of the 3.6m/CAT telescopes looking down at the main part of La Silla Observatory

It was the last of the really great years of La Silla, when there were still plenty of staff and visiting astronomers up there to form a really vibrant and fun community, and we certainly took advantage of that!   It was a beautiful place (all observatories are in incredible locations) with very special people – and it is the main aspect of my life as an astronomer that I miss.  Profoundly!

For this reason, every time I come back to Chile, I send a request to the Director of the observatories (who knows me from when I worked at ESO) asking if I can stay a few nights at La Silla.  He always says “yes” thank goodness 🙂  This year was no exception, and I got to stay for several nights over Christmas 2016.

Words cannot describe the feelings I have for La Silla, however, the following image from Buddha Doodles sings to me of the observatory.  Sitting with great friends above the clouds on the top of a mountain, with the even higher Andes in the background, looking at the night sky – it’s what we did there.

Buddha Doodles - La Silla memories

Another expression of La Silla comes from this piece of music from the IMAX movie “Hidden Universe 3D“.  This movie was inspired by a trip the Director of the movie and I took through the observatories in Chile in 2008 and, although the composer had never talked to me about my experiences, he captured my feelings perfectly. 


If you’ve seen the movie (if not, you should go see it!), you know that the crescendo at the beginning leads up to the first reveal of the glory of a nebula in the night sky.  I listened to this piece of music over and over again this trip to La Silla while laying out on the upper ramp to the New Technology Telescope (NTT) looking up at the southern summer sky.

La Silla Observatory
View from the upper ramp of the NTT. The 3.6m and CAT telescopes under a southern summer sky at La Silla Observatory. The two galaxies in the top right are the Magellanic Clouds

Then, after the crescendo, the music descends into a slightly melancholic feel – exactly reflecting how much I miss working at observatories in general, and La Silla specifically.

I have come to think of La Silla is my “spiritual place”, which is really saying something given that I am not at all comfortable using the word “spiritual”.   And I plan to continue returning for as long as ESO will let me – recapturing and remembering a really special time and place in my life.


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