Back when she lived in the rural stretches of northern Chile, Ileana Cortes spent few evenings watching television.
"The best entertainment was looking up into the skies," says the amateur astronomer, recalling the star clusters she regularly sought out - the Magellanic Clouds, Orion's Belt, the Southern Cross. "Chile's heavens are privileged," she says.
Space-based telescopes such as the Hubble and land-based ones in Hawaii may be better-known centers of astronomical study. But with consistently clear skies, northern Chile is one of the best windows on Earth to the stars and home to several world-class telescopes.
Astronomy in Chile is ready for the world's stage: A new optical telescope is up and running. Enhancements on another are nearly done, which will make it the world's largest, and plans are advancing to build one of the biggest radio telescopes ever.
The projects herald "a golden age of astronomy," says Malcolm Smith, director of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory near the northern city of La Serena. "It's a marvelous time to be an astronomer."
Last May, astronomers at the California Institute of Technology said a two-year-old radio telescope high in the Chilean Andes detected radiation waves from nearly 14 billion years ago, adding credence to the Big Bang theory of the universe's creation.
With the new generation of telescopes, more landmark discoveries are waiting to happen, astronomers say.
"We'll be able to see things we've never seen before," says Chilean astronomer Eduardo Hardy, speaking of the planned Atacama Large Millimeter Array radio telescope (ALMA), which will link 64 39- foot antennas when fully operational in 2011. "It will revolutionize the study of formation of galaxies and stars."
The new devices will also help identify planets in other solar systems, assist in the search for life on other planets, and help determine the size, shape, and other details of the universe, astronomers say.
The Chilean Tourism Ministry has even gotten in on the act, pushing travel along the so-called "Route of the Stars," which links northern Chile's various observatories. As part of that effort, local authorities have opened amateur viewing facilities, like the Mamalluca Observatory outside the northern town of Vicuna.
The arid, cloud-free climate of northern Chile, home to the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, is ideal for stargazing. …