When Australia became a strategic partner of the European Southern Observatory my PhD supervisor encouraged our group to actively think about proposal ideas. New telescopes and new instruments implied opportunities for new science. Within my team we came up with a few proposals, ranging from observing galaxy kinematics to investigating odd objects. The thought of submitting a proposal to ESO was quite intimidating as a student, not to mention that we decided to ambitiously ask for about 50 hours in grey/dark time on the VLT. Thanks to team effort, we were granted all the time requested in visitor mode, albeit broken into two runs - 3 nights in June, and 3 nights in August 2018.
ESO policy states "As a rule only one observer per observing run is accepted in Paranal and La Silla. Requests for additional observer(s) must include a scientific justification for the presence of multiple observers and the names of the proposed observers". As a Co-I, there was a chance for me to make my case to be a second observer. I wrote to VAtravel (firstname.lastname@example.org), which is the office that takes care of the logistics. I explained to VAtravel that I am aware that I'm not supported by default; however, given that the science is crucial to my PhD thesis, I requested that they provide me with any kind of support for at least one of the runs. I was not sure whether I was asking too much, but I also knew I did not have anything to lose, because the observation would still be carried out by the PI. Within a few days I received an email from VAtravel that ESO had approved my request to be the second observer for both runs, and that they would cover my accommodation. It remained for me to cover the transportation myself.
With the promise of free accomodation, I submitted a travel support request to ASTRO3D. Two observing trips to Chile from Australia were not going to be cheap. However, I made the case that I was able to obtain free accommodation, and simply needed ASTRO3D to cover my transport, for at least one run. ASTRO3D was very generous, and granted approval for both trips. Due to other commitments on my part, I had to skip the first run, and book the trip for the August run. But still, Chile, here I come!
Arranging the transport
Arranging the transport to Chile was actually pretty simple. First, TWO MONTHS before the run, we had to submit a travel form on the ESO website, providing our passport numbers, etc. I did it a little bit late, but VAtravel gracefully accepted my form. From there ESO will book essentially everything for you if you are the lead observer, from door to door. For me, I had to book the international flight from Canberra to Santiago first, input that flight information in the travel form, and have VAtravel take over from there, booking the taxi, ESO guest house accommodation, domestic flight to Antofagasta, and the bus trip to Paranal observatory. During the process VAtravel prepared a very detailed email with instructions of all the procedures.
The promised land
The ESO hotel, aka La Residencia at Paranal Observatory, is like no other. It's underground, with desert on the outside, and a tropical forest on the inside. The food at the hotel is also pretty amazing. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in a buffet-style food court. Everything has both Spanish and English descriptions, and samples in the front. You can either learn the names of the dishes in Spanish, or just use English, as the workers there know some basic English. We stayed at the hotel during the day, and our support astronomer met us there during/after dinner, and drove us up to the telescopes.
Being a tourist at Paranal
The telescopes are situated up the 'hill' from the hotel, and there is a 'star-track' going from the back of the hotel to the top. I attempted this walk with my co-observer. In total we ascended 500m or so, but it was stretched over a very long distance, and it took us about 1.5 hours. I foolishly decided to carry 3+ kg of camera gear instead of water. It is not a treacherous hike, but it is rather deceptive, because the desert gave no reference for distance scale, and our choices were only eventual summiting or giving up.
Typically, visiting astronomers arrive one day before their run to acclimate. During this first day one can request a telescope tour to visit the summit during afternoon/sunset. It is during this tour that one can walk amongst the great engineering marvels, into the dome(s), and see the legendary instruments in person. As a long term user of IFU data, seeing MUSE was both exciting and terrifying -- hats off to whoever had to do cable management there. While the VLTs are 8 m class telescopes, being on an ALT-AZ mount, the dome was very compact in comparison to the AAT, which is on an equatorial mount, so the internal space of the VLT (UT4) dome felt pretty cosy. On the telescope platform one can look west, see the sunset between the clouds over the South Pacific Ocean, and look east, and see the flat top of Cerro Armazones, where the E-ELT is being built.
Being an astronomer at Paranal
The instrument we used was FLAMES, with the Argus Integral Field Unit on UT2. We proposed to observe a few dozen dwarf galaxies. Constructing the observing list for UT2 was pretty straightforward, performed within one's own ESO portal account, where one can construct observing blocks using their web API. The only decision needed to be made by us was the scheduling of targets. WARNING, if all your targets are in the north, prepare some back-up targets in the south. This is because high wind speeds can limit VLT pointing directions, since the wind at the summit typically comes from the northern direction. The staff at the observatory made everything very simple for visiting astronomers. Our instrument was tested and some calibration frames were taken for us during day time, and at night time we were able to go straight to our science targets.
Most importantly, do make sure to go outside during the night, and have a look at the Milky Way. You might also catch UT4 shooting lasers up into the sky, and they are very visible to the naked eye.
- Chocolates to share; it is well known they have the power to guarantee a clear night. Better chocolate means a clearer night!
- Warm clothes -- it's cold and windy outside at the summit.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses, it's pretty sunny there.
- Moisturiser, since it is one of the driest places on Earth.
- Good headphones; there are a lot of alarm sounds throughout the night claiming 'there is no cause for alarm', followed by 'but there probably will be'.
- Make sure there is at least USD$117 on your bank card, as Australian citizens entering Chile get charged a reciprocity fee on arrival in Santiago airport, and you must pay this before proceeding to Immigration.
- A pair of binoculars, you might be able to see the Andromeda galaxy.
- Gym clothes/shoes, there is a gymnasium, with basketball court, indoor soccer goals, mini bouldering wall, and squash court.