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Experience – Atacama, Chile: Paranal Observatory

The Paranal Observatory is an astronomical observatory operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It is located in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile on Cerro Paranal at 2,635 m (8,645 ft) altitude. It is the largest optical-infrared observatory in the Southern Hemisphere by total light-collecting area. The drive from Antofagasta takes about two hours.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT), the largest telescope on Paranal, is composed of four separate 8.2 m (320 in) telescopes. The site also houses two survey telescopes with wide fields of view, the 4.0 m (160 in) VISTA and the 2.6 m (100 in) VLT Survey Telescope for surveying large areas of the sky; and two arrays of small telescopes called NGTS and SPECULOOS which are dedicated to searching for exoplanets.

There is a hotel for scientists on-site, which appears as if it’s built underground; you’ll enter the foliage-filled lobby as part of the tour. The free visits are allowed on Saturdays, at 10am and 2pm. You must show up half an hour early; tours last two hours and you’ll need to schedule months in advance (reservations are only accepted through the Paranal Observatory website), and you’ll also need your own vehicle to get there.

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