Astronomy From Planet Earth

Date: 2007
Owner: ESO
Source Type: Videos


The Very Large Telescope (VLT), part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), is one of the most recent high powered telescopes built in Chile by foreign astronomers. The VLT is actually four different 8.2 meter optical telescopes that work in tandem to collect massive amounts of light (collecting light is the basic goal of optical telescopes), and these telescopes alone can collect more light than every pre-1990 telescope in the world combined. This was a huge shift in perspective; in the 1960s, before Europe and the U.S. built large observatories in Chile, telescopes in the southern hemisphere gathered negligible amounts of light compared to those in the north.

Astronomers are attracted to Chile's Atacama Desert, considered by many to have the best conditions for observing the heavens of anywhere on earth (due to the lack of pollution, high altitude, and arid climate) and the U.S. and Europe both built state-of-the art observatories there. In 1963, the U.S. funded and staffed the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, which was soon followed by the Carnegie Institutes Cerro Las Campanas Observatory and the ESO's observatory at La Silla. The ESO began in 1962 as a conglomerate of 8 northern European nations interested in pooling their astronomic and economic resources in order to compete with U.S. astronomers in the southern hemisphere. Whereas U.S. observatories rented land from Chile, the ESO actually purchased the territory around its observatory at La Silla (this area is the largest diplomatic enclave in the world) and ensured that all of its European staff members enjoyed diplomat status and were exempt from taxation.

Until very recently, there was a significant amount of tension between many Chileans and the ESO's European staff. The ESO refused to recognize Chilean labor unions on its property and Chileans complained that La Silla's scientists had an overtly neo-colonial attitude towards Chile and simply wanted to extract knowledge from it while giving nothing in return. Indeed, while the U.S. owned observatories have given Chilean astronomers 10% of the total "glass time" to conduct research since they commenced operations, the ESO was reluctant to give Chilean's access to their equipment well into the 1990s.

As you are watching this video (which the ESO made in 2007), pay attention to the aspects about the ESO, Chile, and astronomy in general that the video's producers chose to emphasize. Some questions to keep in mind include: how is "big science" being glorified? What is implied about the relationship between Chile and the ESO? How are scientists, technology, and outer space itself depicted?

Reference: McCray, W. Patrick. Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Digital ID: 13101