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date: 18 February 2020

Chile: A Center of Global Astronomy, 1850–2019

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: history of astronomy, history of Chile, history of science and technology, transnational astronomy, global Cold War, Atacama Desert, outer space, exploration

Why Study the Development of Astronomy in Chile?

Nowadays, Chile is known worldwide as an astronomical center.1 Scientists around the world work with observations from telescopes located in Chilean territory, and this trend is accelerating. By 2020, it is expected that more than 70 % of the world’s surface astronomical observations will be made from facilities in Chile—largely from optical and infrared telescopes which belong to international holdings.2

The overwhelming dominance of astronomy in Chile is attributable in part to some telescopes currently under construction or recently completed, such as the E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope–ESO), GMT (Giant Magellan Telescope–Carnegie), LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope—AURA) but also to well-established facilities such as VLT (Very Large Telescope–ESO), ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array—ESO, AUI & NAOJ), APEX (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment—ESO, Max Planck & Onsala), Gemini South (AURA) and several others. To this list we also have to add the first observatories that were built in the 1960s, most of them still in operation, and which were expressions of the modern development of astronomy in Chile: CTIO (Cerro Tololo International Observatory–AURA), La Silla (ESO), and slightly later, Las Campanas (Carnegie),3

Generally, the explanation offered for this unusual astronomical development is Chile’s atmospheric conditions. This is indeed a contributory factor: the low humidity, clear skies, and the absence of turbulence all contribute to optimal viewing. These conditions were evaluated and assessed when this story began, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that time, scientists from Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union went to Chile, seeking to observe from the southern hemisphere, and thus access portions of the sky not visible from the northern hemisphere. Each of them decided to build massive observatories in the country, which would be in operation by the end of the 1960s. In this decision they certainly considered geography: latitude was appropriate, and good locations above the sea fog were close enough to main ports, meaning transportation could be efficient.

But along with these facts, we have to consider other issues: to begin with, those first telescopes were not in the driest part of Atacama, but in the Coquimbo region—the semi-arid area of southern Atacama, with similar conditions to other locations in the southern hemisphere. Also, these initiatives implied investing enormous amounts of resources, and therefore the risk had to be kept at minimum. In addition, international actors needed to find a host country with whom it would be possible to negotiate, in order to secure their investment of both money, and scientists’ time. For this condition to be met, the country in question would have to have some kind of interest in developing astronomy in its territory.

Consequently, by studying the development of astronomy in Chile we can analyze how global and local dimensions are intertwined, in this case through scientific, technological, and political dimensions. Astronomers wanted to unveil the mysteries of the universe, powers of the north-Atlantic world were competing for models of the future in which science was indeed important, and Chileans—as other Third World countries—saw a unique opportunity to become involved in high-tech science.4 That is why, even though atmospheric conditions certainly had a role in the decision to settle in Chile in the 1960s, the process is also related to Cold War politics, to Chilean politics, and, indirectly, to the previous history of astronomy in Chile, which we can trace to the mid-19th century.

As happened with other sciences in the mid-19th and early 20th century, in Chile but also in many other Latin American countries, expeditions from Europe or North America led the first scientific initiatives in many fields. From naturalists’ voyages to innovations in medicine or mining technologies, international relationships were important in promoting and installing new practices and techniques. These projects, though, implied a close collaboration with locals.

1849: Lieutenant James Melville Gilliss on Santa Lucía Hill

The first initiative in modern astronomy in Chile took place in the mid-19th century, led by Lieutenant James Melville Gilliss, a United States naval officer. Gilliss was involved in establishing the US Naval Observatory, and in 1849 was given the responsibility of heading a mission to Chile. Its task was to study the solar parallax, a phenomenon of interest to the international scientific community for many decades. The ultimate goal was to obtain measurements that would enable the calculation of the dimensions of the earth’s orbit, and integrate these data to calculate the size of the solar system.5 After several attempts, one method suggested by a German scientist was to measure the transit of Venus, at the same time, in several points of the same longitude, but different latitudes. That was the main reason for Gilliss to travel to Chile, and to build a small observatory on the summit of Santa Lucía hill, in Santiago.

As the 19th-century Chilean historian, Diego Barros Arana, described, he had to observe “simultaneously with the observatories in the north, planets of Venus and Mars during their respective stationary ends and oppositions in the years 1849, 1850 and 1852.” But at the same time, while registering the transits of Venus and Mars, he would make “other astronomical observations, and also those relative to meteorology and magnetism, and those which would be possible to register related to the Earth’s tremors.”6

In this first initiative of the United States in Chile for the study of astronomy, it is already clear that the mission would have a broader scope than merely registering the astronomical data they were seeking. In fact, in Gilliss’s records, later published in four extensive volumes, we can read the American’s impressions of Chilean flora, fauna, meteorology, and seismology, as well as the urban landscape of Santiago de Chile.7

When his mission was over, the Chilean government wanted Gilliss to stay. However, once it was clear the naval officer would return to the United States, they honored the previous agreement by which the government would buy the American facilities and instruments. Foreseeing his return north, Gilliss worked with three assistants, so that they could learn how operate the equipment.8 The purpose of this procedure was to establish the National Astronomical Observatory of Chile. Karl W. Moesta, a former assistant to the mission, was appointed as the first director of the observatory, and not long after this, the observatory was moved to a new location, in Quinta Normal.9

Although Gilliss went back to the United States, and even though his stay in Chile was short and his mission temporary, he contributed in establishing the first modern observatory in the country, and therefore gave impulse to the development of astronomy in Chile.10 The National Observatory continued its operations, but faced problems due to the lack of astronomers, and scarce funding, among other factors.

The Southern Station of the Lick Observatory

Approximately half a century later, another American expedition with astronomical purposes sailed for Chile.11 This time, William Wallace Campbell, from the Lick Observatory, California, had designed a plan to solve the so-called sidereal problem. The sidereal problem consisted in understanding the structure, size, and dynamics of the Milky Way and in measuring the trajectory of the Solar System through the universe—an extraordinary task for the time. To discover how matter was distributed in the universe, and how celestial bodies moved through the galaxy, Campbell needed to measure the radial velocities of the brighter stars of the entire sky, not only those visible from the northern hemisphere.

The astronomers knew they needed to go south, and navigation through the Pacific, though long and perhaps dangerous, seemed the most direct way to reach the southern hemisphere. Still, they needed to secure their mission, so negotiations with the Chilean authorities began almost immediately after they got the money from their donor, the banker Darius Ogden Mills. It is not clear if Campbell knew about Gilliss’s experiences in Chile, but he must have had some information on the southern country. In fact, the observatory’s donor, James Lick, had lived through his own adventure in South America, decades earlier.12 Campbell’s team got in touch with some English and American businessmen: apparently, Chile, even with a language that would make things difficult for them, was somehow trustworthy, with a reputation—albeit a discourse construct—of being different to the rest of South America.13 Of course, part of Chile lay on the appropriate latitude for observations that would help solve—or it was hoped would help solve—the sidereal problem.

Campbell was appointed as director of the Lick Observatory, and later he injured his back, so it was impossible for him to accomplish his lifelong dream of leading the mission south. His former assistant, William W. Wright, assumed the position of acting astronomer, and sailed from San Francisco in February 1903. With this, the second story of American astronomy in Chile began, not without its surprises. Despite having planned every detail they could think of, they had to overcome unforeseen difficulties: when they arrived at Chile’s main port, Valparaiso, there was a massive strike, which jeopardized the safe downloading of the instruments. Luckily, Wright managed to secure a rowboat, and was able to take the mirrors and the rest of the equipment ashore.

After studying a few places to erect the observatory, they decided San Cristóbal hill was the right place: it was used as stone quarry, and there were no houses or facilities there. It was at the edge of the city at that time, and had the appropriate altitude for a low daily range of temperature—a critical condition for the spectrograph to operate. But the unexpected challenges would not end with the astronomers settling on the hill. They found out that they had to share the summit, when almost at the time they were opening the dome for the first time in 1903, the archbishop of Santiago laid the first stone for an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary, right there on the summit of the hill. Moreover, after a few years, they faced one of the most frightening experiences in the country’s repertoire: the 1906 earthquake, barely four months after the one in San Francisco.

They completed the construction of the observatory, and though they had planned for the expedition to last for two or three years, they stayed for 26. There it was that the relationship of these astronomers with the early 20th-century Chilean society began. It was easy to bond with the elite, but it was a different story dealing with workers: there were different rhythms, codes, mentalities that the scientists did not always understand. As an example, one of the acting astronomers, Joseph Moore had to do some renovations in his house: “Finally, the paper hangers came bright and early and got everything already to work and then left word that they were going for “desayuno” [breakfast] and would be back in a “rato” [bit]. We did not see them again for three days.”14 It was not only about science; they were living they everyday lives far away from home.

Acting astronomers changed every three or four years, and even if at first the adjustment to the Latin American society was not easy, all in all, they learned to love the southern city, and when they were called back to Mount Hamilton, they felt genuine sorrow. Then, in 1909, one of the Americans went to the northern area of the country: to desolate Atacama.

Exploring the Atacama Desert

As the Southern Station of the Lick Observatory extended the mission’s time, Campbell and his colleagues began thinking about the possibility of a permanent station in the southern hemisphere. Santiago had its attractions, but the acting astronomer, Heber Curtis, decided to explore some spots in the Atacama Desert. If a permanent station was ever going to be real, it had to be set up in an appropriate place.

Deeply desolate, Atacama was populated by a few mining villages that challenged the scarcity of water and overcame severe difficulties of communication. When exploring the area Curtis made detailed reports, which included weather conditions, but also noted whether there were railroads, schools, electricity, housing, and even English-speaking communities—as the mining activities were carried out mainly by British companies. These records were later known as the Curtis Report, and from them we can know and understand the unique place that was Atacama in the early twentieth century.

One of Curtis’s reports picked out a particular place in the Copiapó area, Llano of Puquios. It impressed him particularly because there was no whitening toward the horizon. He had noted that “all along this coast, just as in California, an extremely heavy fog (chamacha?) rolls in and fills up everything to an altitude of about 4,000 ft.”15As impressed with the site as he was, he could not help mentioning this thick fog, probably not being able to reproduce the local word—camanchaca-, which would be a deal-breaker to any idea of an observatory there. The way to escape from the fog was to go up to the mountains; the problem then was the very difficult communications, in the driest place on earth.

But Atacama had a unique quality that Heber Curtis appreciated: “Not a cloud was visible day or night during my stay here and at Puquios (. . .) the impression of all with whom I talked is that the overwhelming majority of all days and nights are perfectly clear.”16 This was a condition that made the location attractive, but the surroundings imposed huge difficulties, and to overcome all of them would have been very expensive. The desert was overwhelming, even dangerous, and to deal with no roads, no water, no food, and no supplies, was more than the astronomers were able to cope with.

On his way back, Curtis tried to find out about the southern area of the desert: Coquimbo. He did not carry out direct site testing, but he managed to get some information. As far as he could find, “La Serena has 20,000 inhabitants, good schools and stores, said to be unhealthful from poor drainage. Vicuña, east of Coquimbo, is 2,400 feet above sea level and has 2,400 inhabitants; a dull little place from all accounts. Region around is fertile.” The unhealthiness and the fog made him reject the idea of even testing the area, and he concluded: “There is no suitable base between Copiapó and Santiago which would be any better as far as altitude and freedom from sea fog is concerned.”17

He discarded the Coquimbo area immediately, and thought San Cristóbal in Santiago was good enough for their purposes. They had a fair number of clear nights a year, and the quality of their spectrographic plates was as good as the ones taken from Mount Hamilton. From Curtis’s recommendations and other impressions, if Americans were thinking of staying in Chile, Santiago was the right place.

Despite these plans, they never concluded the project of moving the observatory, nor the one of building a permanent station in the southern hemisphere. They managed to extend the funding from Mills, but after he died in 1910, they found that his heir was not as enthusiastic as his father on spending money on science.18 Campbell managed to get the University of California more involved, and secure the funding from “friends” of the Lick Observatory.19 But, after some years, and even though the astronomical research was making progress, especially in the study of binary stars, Campbell did not get more funding, and the research was not cutting-edge as it once had been. In addition, World War I made supplies scarce, and political and administrative changes in Chile—such as being required to pay taxes—made the mission more difficult.20 Hence, the American astronomers decided to leave. They sold the facilities to the Catholic University, a small private university that wanted to get into science. Their problem was basically the same one that the National Observatory faced: there were no astronomers to direct the observatory. They hired another German astronomer, Erich Heilmaier.

1960s: International Astronomy Takes Off in Chile

When the Lick astronomers left, there were two observatories in Chile. After an educational reform in 1927, led by Carlos Ibañez del Campo, the University of Chile—the public university―was appointed to run the National Observatory, and it became part of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics.21 In 1928, Manuel Foster, alumnus of the Catholic University and a former member of the diplomatic service, bought the Southern Station of the Lick Observatory and donated it to the university, which named the observatory after him.22 Both observatories were fully functioning, but faced issues in funding, renovations, and equipment, among others.

Nevertheless, approximately two decades later, the situation of astronomy began to change, and these observatories linked to the two universities in the country had a role in the process, particularly the National Observatory.

By the 1950s, the world—and Chile—had significantly changed. Cold War politics shaped not only the international system but also national politics, and countries all over the world appropriated the dichotomy of communism and anticommunism.23 Latin America was considered a “natural” zone of US influence, but it was at risk, since the victory of the Cuban Revolution showed it was possible to establish a socialist regime in the region. At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union challenged their rival in politics, ideology, culture, and of course, in science and technology.24 In this matter, the space race was a sensitive mater, as the power struggle moved to previously unknown arenas. This scenario opened a particular gap in the development of astronomy in Chile, which also intertwined with the background of American astronomy in the country.

In 1957–1958, the international community of scientists celebrated International Geophysical Year (IGY), aiming to use scientific development for pacific purposes. It brought together more than 60 countries around the world, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and Chile. Among other studies, the exploration of Antarctica and tracking of satellites had a priority; it is no coincidence that Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. In the Chilean IGY committee, Federico Rutllant, director of the National Observatory, was appointed to take charge of the topic of latitude and longitude, and Erich Heilmaier, director of the Foster Observatory, assumed leadership of the topic of southern lights and aerial luminescence.25 In this context, Operation Moonwatch sought to build a network of astronomers—professionals and amateurs—to provide information about tracking satellites all over the world.26 Rutllant was in charge of visual observations in Chile, and this, along with his commitment to IGY, took him to the United States. During this visit he got in touch with Gerard Kuiper, an astronomer at the Yerkes Observatory.27

But the pathways that led to international astronomy settling in Chile are quite complicated. There are several stories running at the same time: we have to consider not only the IGY, or the connections between Rutllant and Kuiper, but also the birth of a European organization for research on astronomy.

In 1954 six European countries signed the Carte de Janvier, now known as the birth certificate of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).28 They recognized the need for observation in the southern hemisphere, and recommended building an observatory in South Africa. In a defeated post-war Europe, a group of astronomers including Jan Oort, and Otto Heckmann, put together a new project: to combine efforts, and set up a southern observatory. It would be a way to deal with the scarce funding of science in European countries trying to rebuild themselves, even if that would mean significantly more bureaucracy. The Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, France, Netherlands and Sweden signed a formal agreement on October 5, 1962.29

At the same time, the relationship between Kuiper and Rutllant produced a result: Jürgen Stock, a German astronomer working in the United States, was appointed to undertake site testing in Chile.

And there were other actors in the country. In the trip Rutllant took in 1958, he visited the Soviet Union to attend a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), as well as one of the meetings of the IGY.30 It is possible that as a direct result of those meetings, or if not, as a consequence of less well-known efforts, Soviet astronomers from Púlkovo Observatory and the Soviet Academy of Sciences came to Chile and started working at the National Observatory31.

In the space of two to four years, several international actors came to Chile, intending to build massive observatories. In these negotiations, agreement with the state university was critical. But to have a government willing to welcome international science was of equal importance as scientific relations. To understand both connections, we have to examine both personal and institutional links. In a world organized by an apparently binary structure of Cold War, for the Third World this meant possibilities for embracing high-tech science.

Erich Heilmaier, the director of the Foster Observatory, was in frequent contact with Jan Oort, the distinguished Dutch astronomer who was active in the first negotiations about ESO’s creation. In fact, a few years later, in 1962, his plans of studying with Oort became plausible. The Catholic University signed a formal request for Heilmaier: “The Catholic University would be very interested in professor Erich Paul Heilmaier visiting Holland to encounter new methods in astrophysics, which have reached advanced development in this country, and at the same to have the opportunity to work with professor Dr. J. H. Oort, which without doubt will result in benefit to the Institute of Physics and Astronomy.”32

Even if this plan of working with the Dutch astronomer might seem to be a coincidence, it is a sign of a very particular situation in Chile with regard to astronomy. There is no direct connection between the aftermath of the Mills Expedition and the international agreements of the 1960s that gave shape to modern astronomy in Chile. But, we can state that the international dimension of science, and particularly of astronomy, was becoming more and more important in Chile; slowly, a network of global astronomy was quietly landing in the country.

This statement becomes clearer when considering the case of Dr. Jürgen Stock, a German astronomer working for AURA who headed the site testing work that Americans undertook in Chile between 1959 and 1961. He had studied with Dr. Otto Heckmann, another one of the “founding fathers” of ESO, and also with Donald Shane, by then employed at the Lick Observatory.33 This network of astronomers, linked in one way or another to Chile, were key actors in the development of astronomy in the country from the 1960s onwards.

Stock’s Site Testing in Chile and the Multiple Decisions to Settle

In 1959, Jürgen Stock came to in Chile,; he returned in 1960–61, with an extensive program for site testing, and recorded his experiences in what later was known as the Stock Reports. He decided to go to Coquimbo: the same area discarded, unvisited, by astronomer Curtis five decades before.

In his first visit, Stock had the idea of site testing in the vicinity of Santiago, but he soon realized there were outstanding conditions in northern Chile.34 He decided to explore the mountains near Coquimbo, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Santiago. It took him almost 24 hours to travel by car from Santiago to La Serena (an eventful journey: there was just a dirt road from Los Vilos, he suffered a flat tire, his emergency brake was shattered, which he repaired with wire taken from a random fence, among many other problems).35 He made it to La Serena, and then Vicuña, a town in the Elqui Valley. The plan was to explore local mountains such as Guamayuca, El Morado, Tololo, and other places.

Stock’s experience in the mountains of the Coquimbo Region combined the expertise of astronomy with local knowledge, and the importance of building relationships with local people. The astronomer could grasp the relevance of daily practices. For instance, he reported the certainty of a local man, Don Fidel, on the matter of clear skies: “Don Fidel is willing to give us a written guarantee of more than 200 completely clear nights per year (Personal comments: At least that much. The administrator of the hotel told us that they used to advertise that people would not have to pay on cloudy days. We had to pay for every day!).”36

Connections with locals had indeed multiple consequences, as their need for mules showed. It was complicated and expensive to rent mules to carry the equipment uphill, because they were key to the subsistence of small peasants of the area. This condition made Stock think of buying mules, and led to an ironic situation, as Stock himself reported: “We are thinking of four animals, $75 a piece. So the Administration of the University of Chicago may soon find itself in the curious position to have some mules on the staff.”37

In the meantime, while carrying site testing in South Africa, in the Karoo region, Europeans knew about Stock exploring potential observatory sites in Chile, and AURA’s plans to build an observatory in the southern hemisphere. In relation to Stock’s explorations, in 1959 the ESO Committee stated: “This project will have little influence on the development of ESO.”38 For Europeans, it made more sense to travel south directly, and to bet on South Africa, especially bearing in mind that Great Britain was at that time a member of ESO.39

However, ESO shifted their priorities, and in 1961 decided to explore sites in Chile, having had sight of the favorable results of Stock’s site testing.40 As noted before, Stock had a relationship with Heckmann and probably several other astronomers at ESO. Further, in 1959 ESO had secured a grant from the Ford Foundation of one million US dollars.41 Besides funding, a few years later, when ESO’s plans had changed, both institutions held a meeting at the summit of El Morado. Even if there was an intention of working together, this idea did not follow through. Both wanted to stay in Chile, but for Americans, the plans for cooperation “were dropped because of certain diplomatic problems and the complexities of dealing with an organization which was itself a combination of the scientists of five European countries.”42

Despite the massive investment each one of them would have to make, it seemed reasonable to follow separate paths, for negotiations with bureaucracy—both domestic and with the host country—might get even more complicated working as a threesome.

AURA and ESO decided to build their observatories in Chile. AURA built Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, and ESO built La Silla Observatory, during the 1960s. By the end of the decade they both saw their first light, and plans kept growing. To reach this point, they both worked together in agreements with Chileans: ESO managed to sign with the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Chile, and AURA signed with the University of Chile (and afterwards at government level), which ironically had already been working with astronomers of the Púlkovo Observatory from the Soviet Union.

Research in Chile, Entangled Global Astronomy, and Further Development

This development can be understood as an intersection between international actors working on astronomy in Chile, and the country’s desire to grasp avant-garde science, develop technology, and take a leap in its modernization plans. By the early 1960s, Chilean politics were becoming strongly polarized within the global Cold War scenario. Therefore, each political actor needed to be seen as a modern force, working towards the country’s future. This had an impact in welcoming the arrival of international scientists, but also, connected with internal politics regarding the promotion of science and technology.

In 1965, the University of Chile created its Astronomy Department, the first one in the country, and accordingly, they initiated an Astronomy undergraduate degree.43 Before this, there were group studies and courses in the Physics department, both at the state university and the Catholic University. But, even if in astronomy the intersection between global and local politics was clear, this intention of developing science and technology in Chile was not restricted to astronomy. Other areas experienced breakthrough: solar energy, both in thermosolar applications and photovoltaic panels; and the use of nitrogen in agriculture.44 These and other examples led to the creation of public policy on local development of science and technology, which reached its highest point with the creation of CONICYT (National Commission of Scientific and Technological Research), in 1967.45

Hence, it was not a surprise that, when the time came, the President of Chile, Eduardo Frei, participated in the inauguration of La Silla, the ESO observatory, in March 1969.46 The presidential presence meant the opening of a modern, massive, international observatory would be shown to citizens but also to the international community. With a welcoming environment—both geographical and political—for international science, astronomers came in numbers to Chile. A few years later, the Carnegie Institution entered the field and built an observatory in Las Campanas, and Soviet astronomers started planning their own observatory, to be equipped with a Maksutov astrograph, south of the others, in Cerro El Roble.47

Chilean politics became even more polarized, and the coup of September 11, 1973 changed the country in several and profound ways, both for Chileans and the world. Soviet astronomers left the country immediately, and gave all their equipment to the University of Chile. Americans and Europeans remained in the country, even though a few years later the attitude towards the dictatorship would shift to rejection due to its systematic and widespread violations of human rights. Perhaps this was the reason for Western institutions not looking to drastically increase their investment. Despite this, ESO started negotiations in the late 1980s to secure a place in the Atacama Desert, Paranal, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Antofagasta.48

When Chile regained its democracy, in 1990, new projects for building new observatories emerged. Technology had changed hugely in almost two decades, and now without the political difficulties of dictatorship, international astronomers could make the most of their existing facilities and cooperation agreements in Chile. In this new stage, there were two projects: Gemini South, a twin observatory of Gemini North, in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and Paranal, in the hands of ESO. Both were opened in the late 1990s and made their first observations in the early 2000s. Gemini was located in the same area of AURA’s headquarters near La Serena. But Paranal took its place in the desert itself, inaugurating a new area of deep potential for astronomy.

Paranal is about 230 miles (370 kilometers) north of Puquios. This might seem far away, but in the Atacama Desert, an area of 41,000 square miles (105,000 square kilometers), the distance is not exceptional.49 Desolate Atacama, now host to so many major telescopes, and with more possibilities for development, was the diametric opposite of Curtis’s 1909 appraisal. Almost a century after Curtis’s adventure, scientists were able to plan enormous new astronomical projects.

After Gemini, Paranal and other initiatives, a new plan was taking shape: radio astronomy. The idea was to set up 66 antennas working together to form a virtual an antenna of 19 miles (30 kilometers) diameter. This became ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/ Submillimiter Array), built in Llano de Chajnantor, approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) northeast of Paranal, in the Andes.50 This huge project needed the joint effort of AUI, ESO, and NOAJ. To bring this project to fruition astronomy had to blur the imaginary borders of nations, to challenge the limits of what astronomers thought possible in knowledge of the universe.

From a national point of view, from the 1990s onwards the situation for Chilean scientists changed. Although Chileans, especially at the University of Chile, had been working with American astronomers at AURA since their arrival, these new projects demanded a revisiting of the original agreements, and an important addition was made: Chileans would have 10 % of observation time in these massive new telescopes.51 The combination of this new condition and the background of developing astronomy over previous decades meant that the landscape of local astronomy drastically changed. This translated into an impressive increase of astronomy studies in the country. In 2005 there were 40 astronomy students (adding together postgraduate and undergraduate); ten years later, there were 645.52 These numbers show a rough path towards developing science in a southern country, one blessed with the perfect geographical conditions, and with continuing international interest in investing in astronomy.

Astronomers’ Paradise in Chile

The Atacama Desert in Chile has been called an “astronomers’ paradise,” not only because of the several massive observatories settled there, but also in recognition of the perfect conditions for astronomical observation.53 But, to understand how this “paradise” was built, we need to be aware of its history, to go back a few decades, and understand that it was neither obvious nor mandatory to build observatories there. The historical processes intertwined in the development of astronomy in Chile can shed light on different actors, national and international, involved in the development and current status of astronomy.

The history of astronomy allows us to understand there is a historical net; it leaves traces here and there that are not easy to follow. Through those traces we can begin to understand the minds of astronomers of the 1960s, linked to the previous experiences of the early 20th and the mid-19th century. The history of astronomy makes us come to understand that science does not exist in a separate area of society. On the contrary, it is part of a time, of an era, of a mentality. By integrating some historical consciousness into study of the scientific process, it is possible to see knowledge at a crossroads between disciplines, and maybe, to become aware of the fascinating history surrounding those who threw themselves to unveiling the mysteries of the universe. In addition, we might bring some consciousness to preserving our dark skies, and the ability to be overwhelmed by the beauty of starlight.

Discussion of the Literature

When studying the history of astronomy, different trends of historiographical work intersect. The intersection points will depend on the focus of the research, the period of study, the actors involved, and the historical questions that guide the inquiry. Therefore, this discussion of literature is not exhaustive, but it aims to provide examples of several area studies, as well as some key works and authors, that will be useful in reconstructing the history of astronomy in the global Cold War era.

History of astronomy naturally connects with history of science; in this case, particularly with the history of science in the so-called global South. In this field, the work of Eden Medina, Ivan Costa, and Christina Holmes is essential reading.54 There are other works on the global dimension of science, a required perspective when working on the global south, such as the work of Lissa Roberts.55 In the same area, and to understand the history of science in connection with other areas, in addition to the classic book of Thomas Kuhn, there is the work edited by Robert Bud and others.56

More precisely, if the period to be studied is the history of science and technology during the Cold War era, one needs to integrate general discussions on the global dimension of the Cold War, a perspective largely developed by Odd Arne Westad and Tanya Harmer.57 Also, it will be necessary to broaden the scope of the study of the global Cold War, not as merely a matter of politics; for example, opening the discussion to the cultural Cold War.58 Of course, if the main research involves Latin America, works such as those of Patrick Iber, or Major and Mitter will be more precise.59 Beyond culture, the literature focused on science and technology during the Cold War is necessary to understand how this process moves far beyond the ideological or political struggle. In fact, to characterize the struggle in terms of the future of the world, science and technology were indispensable. There is a compelling literature on this topic, from which one needs to mention the work edited by Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, as well as the studies of Gabrielle Hecht and Audra Wolfe.60 There are many others.

The history of astronomy, not in Chile or in Latin America, but in the world, is illuminated by works in the field which discuss the fascinating history of the technology that enabled the take-off of modern astronomy. In this area we can find works such as those by Alexander MacDonald or Patrick McCray, the first centered on the space age, and the second on the development of telescopes.61 The work of David Evans aims to pull together the history of astronomy in the southern hemisphere in different locations, but it was published in 1988 and so does not address the current take-off of astronomy.62 There are some other studies focused on national developments of astronomy written by former astronomers or people related to the field, such as Frank Edmonson’s book on the United States, the work of Adrian Blaauw dedicated to the European Southern Observatory, or the book edited by Raymond Haynes and others on Australia.63

Despite astronomy becoming a popular subject in Chile, it is not a strong field in the discipline of history. Some area studies have recently begun to be developed, and there are works in progress. There are some previous publications, mainly written by astronomers or physicists, which rely in the intersection of scientific outreach and a willingness to contribute to the history of astronomy. In this category we can find the works of Quintana and Salinas, Phillip Keenan, and, with a broader scope, Augusto Salinas, who has studied the development of science and the universities in the 1960s.64

This discussion is not exhaustive, but gives an idea of how many different perspectives can and should be integrated when studying the history of astronomy, or for that matter, of any other science. The approach should be to understand the connections between the global and the local, as well as science and technology as an embedded part of society.

Primary Sources

To work in history of astronomy, as in many other areas of history of science and technology, research must include different and dispersed historical sources. There is not a single archive holding all the information, but, rather, different type of source, which the researcher will have to define and prioritize.

To begin with, we have to consider both national and foreign sources, as the development of astronomy has had an international dimension since its beginnings. Depending on the research focus and period, researchers will have to dig for information in different organizations and archives.

The four volumes by Gilliss on his mission in the south addresses the history of his expedition, and it is a key element to understand this topic. Also, 19th-century historiography refers to the visit of the lieutenant to Chile, as in the writings of Diego Barros Arana. Other documents dealing with Chile’s 19th-century history can be found at the Archivo Nacional de Chile.

The experience of the Mills Expedition is mainly documented in the Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory Endowment at the University of California Santa Cruz. Due to its connection to the Catholic University of Chile, which later bought and administered the observatory, some information can be found in the historical archives of the university.

To study the development of international astronomy in Chile, during the 1960s and 1970s, researchers should combine research in the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Chile with investigations in the archives of the University of Chile, known as Archivo Andrés Bello. Some relevant information can be found also in the official publications of the university, such as Anales de la Universidad de Chile, available in several libraries and archives throughout the country.

Regarding international actors, there are relevant records in the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States of America, at College Park, and also at the University of Arizona, in the Kuiper Papers. The Stock Reports are also an amazing source of information, written by Jürgen Stock himself; there are copies in Arizona and in Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory’s Library. For ESO, there is some information in ESO’s headquarters, in Garching, Germany, and also in private archives, as gathered in Adrian Blaauw’s work ESO’s Early History: The European Southern Observatory from Concept to Reality, published by ESO in 1991.

Regarding Soviet sources, the language barrier can be difficult to cope with, and therefore has been challenging to address, at least in this research.

Another interest might be to connect the development of astronomy with its public impact, a topic which presents an interesting and fruitful perspective on the study of the history of astronomy in a Latin American country. There are noteworthy references in the press (both in magazines and newspapers), regarding all actors involved, almost all of them available at the National Library of Chile.

Besides all the above, in research of history of astronomy, other sources will relate to the historical processes of the country, or to public policy and the state, which can be found in different archives, among which the Archivo Nacional de la Administración de Chile is definitely useful.

National Archive of Chile.

Astronomy Department of the University of Chile, with information on the National Astronomical Observatory.

Mary Lea Shane Archives of the Lick Observatory Endowment, UCSC Library.

Ask an Astronomer, Cornell University.

Cosmolearning, a series of BBC documentaries.

Further Reading

Blaauw, Adriaan. ESO’s Early History: The European Southern Observatory from Concept to Reality. Garching: ESO, 1991.Find this resource:

Barandiaran, Javiera. “Reaching for the Stars? Astronomy and Growth in Chile.” Minerva 53 (2015): 141–164.Find this resource:

Duerbeck, Hilmar W. “National and international astronomical activities in Chile,” Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 292, ed. C. Sterken (2003): 3–20.Find this resource:

Evans, David S.Under Capricorn: A History of Southern Hemisphere Astronomy. Bristol, UK: IOP Publishing, 1988.Find this resource:

Hamuy, Mario. El universo en expansión. Desde el Big Bang al Homo Sapiens, Santiago, Chile: Debate, 2018Find this resource:

Mc Cray, Patrick. Giant Telescopes. Astronomical Ambition and the Promises of Technology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Medina, Eden, Ivan da Costa Marques, and Christina Holmes, eds. Beyond Imported Magic. Essays on Science, Technology and Society in Latin America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Oreskes, Naomi and John Krige, eds. Science and Technology in the Global Cold War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Ruiz, Maria Teresa. Hijos de las estrellas. Un maravillosos recorrido sobre los origenes del universo y del ser humano. Santiago, Chile: Debate, 2017.Find this resource:

Silva, Bárbara K. Astronomy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century in Chile and the United States. Chasing Southern Stars (1903–1929). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.Find this resource:

Silva, Bárbara. “Transnational Astronomy. Science, Technology, and Local Agenda in Cold War Chile.” In David Pretel and Helge Wendt, eds., Technology in Latin American History. Special Issue, History of Technology 34 (2019): 187–202.Find this resource:

Wolfe, Audra J. Freedom’s Laboratory. The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.Find this resource:


(1.) This article is a product of the 3170099 FONDECYT Research project Stars and galaxies from the South. Chile and its scientific—astronomical insertion in the Global Cold War, 1962–1973, PI Barbara Silva.

(2.) Michele Catanzaro, “Chile: Upward Trajectory,” Nature 510 (June 12, 2014): 204–205.

(3.) Astronomy uses lots of acronyms, not only for naming instruments and telescopes, but also for organizations and associations. Some of the ones used in the brief introduction are: AURA: Association of Universities for Research of Astronomy (an American association); ESO: European Southern Observatory, AUI Association of Universities Inc. (also an American Association); NAOJ: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

(5.) Andreas Schrimpf. “An International Campaign of the 19th Century to Determine the Solar Parallax,” European Physical Journal 39, no. 2 (February 2014), 225–244.

(6.) Diego Barros Arana, Un decenio de la historia de Chile 1841–1851 (Santiago: Universitaria, 1905–1906), 405.

(7.) James M. Gilliss, The US Naval Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere (Washington, DC: A. O. P. Nicholson Printer, 1855); Amarí Peliowski and Catalina Valdés. “Santa Lucia. Imágenes de un cerro que mira una ciudad,” Urbana 10, no. 1 (January–May 2018): 232–249.

(8.) Arturo Aldunate Phillips, “Los grandes observatorios astronómicos instalados en Chile” [manuscript, 1977], 10.

(9.) Hilmar W. Duerbeck, “National and International Astronomical Activities in Chile,” in Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 292, ed. C. Sterken (2003): 5.

(10.) Patricio Rogers, “La Astronomía en Chile durante la segunda mitad del siglo XX,” Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografía 150 (1982): 29.

(12.) Rosemary Lick, The Generous Miser: The Story of James Lick of California (Los Angeles, CA: Ward Ritchie Press, 1967).

(13.) Bárbara Silva, Identidad y nación. Patria Vieja, Centenario y Bicentenario (Santiago, Chile: Lom, 2008), 79–85.

(14.) D. O. Mills Expedition, General Correspondence 1912–1919—J. Moore to W. W. Campbell, January 9, 1912, UA 36. Ser 04. Box 10 Folder 1, Lick Observatory Records, Special Collections, Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California Santa Cruz.

(15.) D. O. Mills Expedition, Correspondence—Herber D. Curtis to W. W. Campbell, “Trip to Puquíos,” June 29, 1916. UA 36. Ser. 04. Box 7 Folder 9, Lick Observatory Records, Special Collections, Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California Santa Cruz. Curtis seems to be unable to reproduce the local word, camanchaca.

(16.) Heber D. Curtis, “Report on Astronomical Conditions in the Region About Copiapo,” D. O. Mills Expedition: Report on Site Survey Near Copiapo. April 17, 1909, UA 36. Ser. 04. Box 8 Folder 12, Lick Observatory Records, Special Collections, Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California Santa Cruz, 13.

(17.) Heber D. Curtis, “Report on Astronomical Conditions in the Region About Copiapo,” D. O. Mills Expedition: Report on Site Survey Near Copiapo. April 17, 1909, UA 36. Ser. 04. Box 8 Folder 12, Lick Observatory Records, Special Collections, Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California Santa Cruz, 19.

(18.) William W. Campbell, A Brief Account of the Lick Observatory of the University of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1931), 21.

(19.) William W. Campbell, “Notes from Pacific Coast Observatories,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 40, no. 236 (1928): 251.

(20.) Beverly Hard, “Notes on the Directors of the D. O. Mills Expedition to Chile,” 1972. Expeditions, UA 36. Ser 04. Box 12 Folder 6, Lick Observatory Records, Special Collections, Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California Santa Cruz, 12.

(21.) Phillip Keenan, Sonia Pinto and Hector Álvarez, The Chilean National Astronomical Observatory 1852–1965 (Santiago: Universidad de Chile, 1985), 145.

(22.) “Reportaje Observatorio ‘Manuel Foster.’ Mirando a las estrellas,” Revista Noticias PUC, n.d., D. O. Mills Expedition—History, UA 36. Ser 4. Box12 Folder 6, Lick Observatory Records, Special Collections, Mary Lea Shane Archives, University of California Santa Cruz.

(23.) Odd Arne Westad. The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(24.) Erik M. Conway, “Bringing NASA Back to Earth: A Search for Relevance During the Cold War,” in Science and Technology in the Global Cold War, eds. Naomi Oreskes and John Krige (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 251.

(25.) Pablo Mancilla. “Chile y el proceso preparatorio para el año geofísico internacional 1950–1957,” in El Año Geofisico Internacional en la perspectiva histórica chilena 1954–1958, eds. Mauricio Jara and Pablo Mancilla (Valparaíso: Universidad de Playa Ancha/Puntangeles editorial, 2012): 37–54.

(26.) Patrick McCray. Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

(27.) Keenan et al. The Chilean National Astronomical Observatory, 153.

(29.) “Convention Portant la Création d’une Organisation Européenne pour des Recherches Astronomiques dans l’Hémisphère Austral, signée à Paris, 5 Octobre 1962.” Archivo del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile, Fondo Organismos Internacionales, Vol. 400.

(30.) Actas del Consejo Universitario de la Universidad de Chile, 9 de abril de 1958. Archivo Andrés Bello.

(32.) Alfredo Silva, Rector UC, Desde Holanda piden visita de Heilmeier, 9 de marzo de 1962, Código 06IIC-0001, Caja 74, Archivo Histórico Universidad Católica de Chile.

(33.) Dirik Lorenzen, “Jürgen Stock and his impact on modern astronomy in South America,” Revista Mexicana de Astronomía y Astrofísica 25, 1996.

(34.) Blaauw, ESO’s Early History, 43.

(35.) Jurgen Stock, “Report No. 1” [February 8–18, 1960], Chile Site Survey Reports, w/d, Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory Library, Coquimbo, Chile.

(36.) Jurgen Stock, “Report No. 1” [February 8–18, 1960], Chile Site Survey Reports, w/d, Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory Library, Coquimbo, Chile.

(37.) Jurgen Stock, “Report No. 2” [February 18–March 5, 1960], Chile Site Survey Reports, w/d, Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory Library, Coquimbo, Chile.

(38.) Blaauw, ESO’s Early History, 44.

(39.) Great Britain was still part of the ESO agreement, until 1961, when their representatives stated they would rather plan a Commonwealth observatory. Blaauw, ESO’s Early History, 9.

(40.) “Documents pertaining to the Secretariat of the ESO Committee,” in Blaauw, ESO’s Early History, 48.

(41.) Frank Edmonson, “The Ford Foundation and the European Southern Observatory,” in Blaauw, ESO’s Early History, 255.

(42.) “Letter from Herman Pollack to Ralph. A. Dungan, American Ambassador in Santiago,” March 29, 1966, National Archives College Park, United States, Record Group 59, Entry 3008D, Box 20, Folder SCI 21 Visits, Missions. Astronomy.

(43.) “Creación del Departamento de Astronomía y de Licenciatura en Astronomía,” Anales de la Universidad de Chile 136, no. 123, ser. 4 (October–December 1965): 264.

(44.) Julio Hirschmann. “Évaporateurs et distillateurs solaires au Chili,” New Sources of Energy. Proceedings of the Conference. Rome, 21–31 August 1961. Volume 6: Solar Energy (New York: United Nations, 1964), 224–238; William San Martin. “Nitrogen, Science and Environmental Change: the Politics of the Green Revolution in Chile and the Global Nitrogen Challenge,” Journal of Political Ecology 24, no. 1 (2017): 777–796.

(46.) “Frei Inaugurará Nuevo Observatorio ‘La Silla’,” El Mercurio, Santiago, sábado 22 de marzo 1969, 38.

(47.) For Las Campanas: Patrick Mc Cray, Giant Telescopes. Astronomical Ambition and the Promises of Technology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 239; For El Roble: Duerbeck, “National and International Activities”, 18.

(48.) Javiera Barandiaran, “Reaching for the Stars? Astronomy and Growth in Chile,” Minerva 53, no. 2 (2015): 152.

(49.) W. Rauh. “The Peruvian–Chilean deserts,” in Hot Deserts and Arid Shrublands, eds. M. Evenary, I. Noy-Meir and D.W. Goodall (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1985), 239–266.

(50.) Eric Hand. “The Patchwork Array,” Nature 495 (2013): 156–159.

(51.) López, Sebastián (coord.), Mario Hamuy, Luis Felipe Barrientos, José Maza, and María Teresa Ruiz, “Astronomía”, Análisis y proyecciones de la ciencia chilena 2005 (Santiago: Academia Chilena de Ciencias y Programa Bicentenario de Ciencia y Tecnología de Conicyt, 2005).

(52.) Sociedad Chilena de Astronomía, “Censo 2016 De Astrónomos En Instituciones Chilenas,” 2016.

(53.) For example, Govert Schilling, “An Astronomer’s Paradise, Chile May Be the Best Place on Earth to Enjoy a Starry Sky,” Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly. July 22, 2015.

(55.) Lissa Roberts, “Situating Science in Global History: Local Exchanges and Networks of Circulation,” Itinerario 33, no. 1 (2009): 9–30.

(56.) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012 [1962]); Robert Bud, Paul Greenhalgh, James Frank, and Morag Shiach, Being Modern. The Cultural Impact of Science in the Early Twentieth Century (London, U.K.: University College of London Press, 2018).

(57.) Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(58.) Frances Stonor Saunders, La CIA y la Guerra Fría Cultural (Madrid, Spain: Debate, 2001).

(59.) Patrick Iber, Neither Peace nor Freedom. The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Patrick Major and Rana Mitter, “East is East and West is West? Towards a Comparative Socio-Cultural History of the Cold War,” Cold War History 4, no. 1 (2003): 1–22.

(60.) Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, eds., Science and Technology in the Global Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014); Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies. Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Audra J. Wolfe. Freedom’s Laboratory. The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

(61.) Alexander MacDonald, The Long Space Age. The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017); Patrick Mc Cray, Giant Telescopes. Astronomical Ambition and the Promises of Technology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

(62.) Evans, Under Capricorn.

(63.) Frank K. Edmonson, AURA and its US National Observatories (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Blaauw, ESO’s Early History.; Raymond Haynes et al., eds., Explorers of the Southern Sky. A History of Australian Astronomy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(64.) Hernán Quintana and Augusto Salinas, “Cuatro siglos de astronomía en Chile,” Revista Universitaria 83 (2004): 53–60; Phillip Keenan, Sonia Pinto, and Hector Álvarez, The Chilean National Astronomical Observatory 18521965 (Santiago, Chile: Universidad de Chile, 1985); Augusto Salinas, La ciencia en Chile y en los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica: un análisis histórico comparado (1776–1976) (Santiago, Chile: CONICYT, 1976).