The Atacama Desert

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Click on the locations above to learn more about locations in the Atacama Desert as profiled in Nostalgia for the Light.


The Atacama Desert in Chile is roughly 600 miles wide running from the border of Peru into Chile. At its center, the Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. There are stretches where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. Research suggests that some identifiable river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.

High altitude and aridity provide ideal conditions for observing the sky, and the Atacama Desert has both. As a result, it has become a popular location for observatories.

The European Organisation for Astronomical Research is a research organization for astronomy with 15 member countries that is also known as the European Southern Observatory, or ESO. While the headquarters are in Germany, all ESO operated telescopes and observatories are located in northern Chile.

La Silla Observatory: La Silla, in the southern part of the Atacama Desert, was founded in 1964 and is the ESO's original observation site. The New Technology Telescope located there employs pioneering adaptive optics scopes. It was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror (called an "active optics"