Matt BenDaniel traveled from Boston, Massachusetts to
Chile for two weeks to photograph the southern skies in April 2002
My visit to Chile was hosted by my friend Daniel Verschatse of Santiago de Chile. I imaged on medium format film using Pentax 67 cameras with an Astro-Physics 130 EDF refractor, an A-P 600E QMD mount, an ST-4 autoguider, and camera lenses. Daniel imaged with an ST-10E on an A-P Traveler. My equipment filled six large cases, which were checked as airline baggage. Before my arrival Daniel purchased for me a 115Ah marine battery.
Vicuña is a seven-hour drive north of Santiago. It is a town of 8,000 people, situated near Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory and Cerro Pachon. The half-hour drive from town to our photography site was over a rugged dirt road into an uninhabited, arid, level valley. We were able to leave our mounts in place, because we hired a graduate astronomy student to watch the equipment during the days.
All my Chilean contacts assured me that the weather would be dry and clear, with relative humidity about 40% at night. However on the second night, it clouded up. Daniel and I covered up the equipment and went back to the hotel. It started to thunderstorm and dropped an inch of water, which I'm told is a once-yearly event.The clouds lingered for three more days and nights. After that, the skies were clear but the humidity rose above 90% for the next two nights. Luckily I brought dew heaters. Finally the last few nights were excellent -- with limiting visual magnitude exceeding 7.0 -- and clear down to the horizons. At midnight the Milky Way was at zenith. The central Milky Way cast soft shadows. The Small Magellanic Cloud was naked eye even at lower culmination.
Each night I performed a touch-up drift alignment. Then I would manage about five 90-minute exposures through the telescope, while piggybacking a second camera. The process of setting up each exposure included focusing, composition for both cameras, and guide star acquisition. At twilight we covered up the equipment and returned to the hotel.
During the days, Daniel and I drove to other areas, looking for the perfect site for Daniel to establish Chile's first stargazer's inn. I hope to be the first guest there.
It took me about six months to prepare for the trip. The work involved site selection, equipment choices, figuring out how to transport the equipment, preparing the equipment for travel, figuring out how to power the equipment, and target selection and image composition. After returning home, it took about 5 hours of digital processing per image.
© 2002 Matt BenDaniel