Bárbara K. Silva
By 2020, it is expected that approximately 70 % of the world’s surface astronomical observation will be located in Chile, considering both optical and infrared telescopes, belonging to international institutions. How did this happen? Can we explain the overwhelming importance of astronomy in this southern country only because of its geography? This process began when scientists from Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union went to Chile in the 1960s, and each one of them decided to build a massive observatory in the country. The atmospheric conditions certainly had a role in these decisions, but they were also related to Cold War politics and, indirectly, to the previous history of astronomy in Chile.
The international dimension of astronomy in Chile had been preset since the mid-19th century, when the first modern astronomy initiative took place. An American expedition built the first observatory, which later became the National Astronomical Observatory. By the early 20th century, another American expedition had arrived in Chile, and this one stayed for more than twenty years. Decades later, the global dimension of astronomy took the decisive step in the southern country and set the milestone for the development in the hands of Europeans, Americans and Soviets. In the process, Chileans became involved with astronomy, trying to promote science, the country’s international relations, and to grasp the attractions of modernity.