Dr. Chris Smith – Director del Observatorio Cerro Tololo

El Observatorio Interamericano de Cerro Tololo (CTIO), celebró recientemente sus 50 años de funcionamiento con diversos eventos. Dentro de las actividades desarrolladas por CTIO, se encuentra la que tuvo lugar en nuestra Universidad entre los días 6 y 9 de mayo de 2013. En dicho evento se presentaron varias charlas para especialistas y tres para estudiantes y público general. Además, se realizó una exposición de los objetos antiguos utilizados para la investigación antes de la llegada de la tecnología actual.

Pluma Roja tuvo la oportunidad de hablar con el actual director del Observatorio Cerro Tololo, el Dr. R. Chris Smith, quien nos entrego algunas apreciaciones en una entrevista que les presentamos a continuación.

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Why do astronomers choose Chile to do their research and install their state-of-the art telescopes?

Chile has naturally some of the best skies in the world. That is because Chile is beside the ocean and the airflow coming from the ocean is very smooth, and smooth airflow provides very sharp images when we are looking at the stars. Another reason, of course, is because it is a very dry place and also because Northern Chile has very long periods of cloudless skies. Those are the natural features that bring astronomers to Chile and that originally brought them in the 1950’s. Beyond that, when astronomers look around the world for good sides for telescopes, we have to look at the infrastructure that is available. Chile today has a first world infrastructure, very good roads and good economic conditions under which modern institutions can easily operate. Commitment to the future is another important factor. When you make a commitment to build a telescope, the whole process from deciding where the telescope goes to having the telescope finished it usually takes about ten years. After that you are going to use it for at least fifty years, therefore you are looking at a fifty to a one hundred year commitment. To do that you have to be really confident about the conditions on which you are deciding and whether these conditions will be the same fifty years from now. Chile has had a long record of supporting science and that is a very important factor for us in deciding where to put a telescope.

Chile has one of the clearest skies in the world: do you think Chileans appreciate that fact?

I think it’s a growing appreciation. It is easy to take the clear skies for granted and to think that it is obvious, but it is not. In Northern Chile the skies are a natural resource and they need to be protected. In the past only a few had realised the special nature of the clear skies in Chile. Now that realisation is slowly broadening and that is because the government itself is showing recognition and spreading the word about it.

I hear you are involved in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project: can you tell us more about that?

The LSST is an exciting project in the way that it is different from the normal telescopes we run. The LSST is a project to map the sky every three or four nights for ten years. It basically is a project to create a digital movie of a digital universe, so that all astronomers can go into the database and extract their observation instead of going to the telescopes. It is a new way of doing astronomy and it is an exciting way of taking astronomy to more astronomers and to the general public because this data will not just be available for science, but for educational purposes as well.

What are the next challenges for astronomy in Chile?

In scientific terms, trying to find a possible answer to a lot of the deep questions that remain unanswered is one of our challenges. Among these questions we find: what is the destiny of the universe? Is it really going to continue expanding more rapidly?… Besides that, we need to be looking at other phenomena such as the meteorite that recently hit Russia. We need to understand the risks involved in that matter. We also are trying to find out if there are chunks of rocks and asteroids that might come and hit the earth and we must understand how many of them are in dangerous orbits. Another interesting question is if there are any other planets similar to the earth. Astronomers have found over 850 planets surrounding other stars. So the planets are there, now we need to find out how many of those are in what we call habitable regions (the region around the stars where liquid water can survive), and how many of those planets can host life. Those are the things that we are going to be paying attention to with the new facilities that are coming to Chile.

Do you think that astronomy should be more emphasised in primary education?

Yes, I think astronomy is particularly attractive for primary students and we should use it to bring them into science in general. In order to influence the next generation we need to reach out to the kids and we also need to reach out to their parents so that they can encourage their children to learn more about science.

In your opinion and according to your studies: Is there any intelligent life out there?

There is something we call statistical evaluation and from that one can walk through how many stars are there in the universe. In just in one galaxy there are millions and millions of stars and a lot of them have planets. If we think about how many of those planets are in the habitable regions; how many may have liquid water and conditions for life, etc., I think the statistics are in favour of the idea that there is intelligent life out there. Even if we take all the statistics and still wonder if there is any life out there in the universe, the answer will probably be positive. The universe is fourteen billion years old, our solar system is four billion years old and we have only had intelligent life in our planet for over 20 thousand years. That is a very small window, therefore I do believe that intelligent life is out there. But I am much less confident when I think that we will ever be able to make contact.

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