There are many international telescopes in Chile making use of the low humidity conditions in the Chilean mountains and high-altitude deserts. But as one of the most seismically active countries in the world, many of these observatories are built on shaky ground.
In the wake of the deadly 8.8 magnitude Chilean earthquake that hit the South American nation on Saturday, causing a tsunami to rush across the Pacific, how are these sensitive observatories protected from damage? The quake was reported as far away as 1,800 km from the epicenter, so there’s little doubt that the Chile-based observatories would have felt it.
Among the international astronomical projects is the Gemini Observatory (South) at 2,700 meters (8,858 ft) elevation on Cerro Pachón (a mountain in the Chilean Andes) and the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, a 2,635 meter (8,645 ft) high mountain in the Atacama desert.
Gemini South is approximately 800 km (500 miles) north of the epicenter and the VLT is approximately 1,370 km (850 miles) north of the epicenter. Undoubtedly both locations would have experienced some seismic activity.
But this isn’t the first major earthquake that would have shaken these observatories. According Anil Ananthaswamy, author of the forthcoming Edge of Physics (to be published in March), observatories such as the VLT have some novel anti-earthquake safety measures in place:
Also, in Helen Gavaghan’s 2006 article for Science, People and Politics, she describes what life is like working on Cerro Paranal, a location perfect for astronomy, but not-so-perfect as the foundations for a telescope:
According to the Universe Today, Gemini South’s servers are back online, but other observatories in the area have experienced power cuts, taking their servers offline.
So it seems unlikely these observatories will have suffered any serious damage in this most recent earthquake (there are currently no reports of such), but I wish the same can be said for the populated region surrounding the epicenter in central Chile. There has been severe damage to buildings and infrastructure and over 200 people have been reported dead (at time of press).