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In 1849, James M. Gillis led the first U.S. scientific expedition to South America for conducting astronomical observations. Their goal was to make parallax measurements that would help astronomers calculate the distance between the earth and the sun, and they brought a 6.5 inch telescope (the biggest yet made in the Americas) to collect data for their ad hoc observatory. Gillis hoped that the expedition would establish a lasting bond between U.S. and Chilean astronomers and, in fact, it did. The U.S. team worked with three students from the University of Santiago who continued working in their observatory after the U.S astronomers left the country. The U.S. and Chile have continued to work together to watch the southern skies, especially since the construction of the 1963 Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and, most recently, the construction of the huge Gemini observatory.
The most important long-term U.S. led astronomical observatory in South America prior to Cerro Tololo was led by Harvard University: the Boyden Station at Carmen Alto Observatory, Arequipa, Peru. The observatory, established in 1890, was meant to be a southern counterpart to the state-of-the-art observatory built in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and facilitate a long-term survey of the heavens that collected and processed thousands of glass plate photographs of stellar movements. Despite its isolation, Carmen Alto was well funded and received some of the best astronomical technology then being built, including a 24 inch telescope. The site was eventually abandoned in 1926, when Harvard moved its primary southern observatory to South Africa.
Harvard's southern observatory was only one of many established in South America by the U.S. and several European countries. It is yet another example of how Latin America continues to be exploited as a field where foreigners go to do science. To be sure, astronomy is less destructive or directly exploitative than, for example, sugar plantations or silver mines, but southern skies are nevertheless a valuable resource that the U.S. and Europeans simply cannot access in their home countries. Until science in the southern hemisphere can compete with that of the north, astronomical expeditions to Latin America will remain an integral part of international astronomy.
Reference: Isolabella, Alberto Parodi. Resena historica de los observatorios astronomicos de Monte Harvard, Chosica (1889-1890) y Carmen Alto, Arequipa (1890-1927). Arequipa, Peru: Consejo Nacional de Ciencias y Tecnologia (CONCYTEC), Lima, 1989.
CITATION: Harvard Observatory, Southern Station, Arequipa, Peru. Juan Eduardo Muniz, 1897. In: Isolabella, Alberto Parodi. Resena historica de los observatorios astronomicos de Monte Harvard, Chosica (1889-1890) y Carmen Alto, Arequipa (1890-1927). Arequipa, Peru: Consejo Nacional de Ciencias y Tecnologia (CONCYTEC), Lima, 1989.
DIGITAL ID: 13104