One of South America’s oldest observatories is located in this equatorial nation, which also offers a promising future for an increasing number of astronomers.
The Andes Mountains stretch through the middle of this equatorial nation on the northwest shoulder of South America, where Ecuador’s capital Quito is located. Despite the fact that February is the rainiest month, it is not raining today, so people are lounging next to a pond in Parque Alameda while fountains spray water through a lush palm.
The Observatorio Astronómico de Quito (OAQ), the park’s focal point, is where I’m going. I sense a time travel when I arrive at the elaborate, butter-yellow Victorian building. What is Astronomy?
With five turreted towers, it is arranged in the shape of a Greek cross. The Escuela Polytécnica Nacional (EPN), Ecuador’s sole astronomical research organization, still has its headquarters in the structure, despite the fact that it is now a museum.
I inform the guards that I’m there to meet the director in my shaky Spanish. Their expressions brighten, and one of them leads me to Dr. Ericson Lopez’s office. He recently got back from giving a lecture at EPN. As Lopez takes me into his office, students congregate in the anteroom around computer displays. Despite the contemporary computers outside, it yet has an old-fashioned vibe.
Setting up an observatory
Ecuador’s president Gabriel Garca Moreno, who personally lay the foundation stone, ordered the establishment of the observatory in 1873. Father Juan Bautista Menten was appointed as the EPN’s first director, and he brought a group of German Jesuit academics with him to start the observatory. When designing and building the OAQ, Menten took inspiration from Germany’s Bonn Observatory and purchased a 9.4-inch refracting telescope from Munich’s Georg Merz & Sons.
Astrometry, or the accurate determination of the position and motion of celestial objects, was historically the observatory’s primary function. Ecuador is the perfect place for this kind of research because of its equator-side location, which allows for the study of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
However, because of Quito’s contemporary light pollution, the study focus has changed from observing to computational astrophysics.
In Ecuador, Lopez was the sole practicing astronomer when he assumed the position of director in 1996. He tells me with pride that the number is at 30 and rising. Students have used data from sources like the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope since training young scientists is a top focus. The spectacular astronomy museum includes the resident instruments, which are no longer used for research.
Lopez takes me to a plaque in the museum that was given in 1743 by the First French Geodetic Mission, whose goal was to determine the true shape of the Earth. Instruments from the Second French Geodetic Mission, which arrived in 1901, are also on display in the museum. One of these is a stunning transit telescope that is still set up in front of its observing slit. There is an operational atomic clock from a later time. The stunning Merz refractor made of copper and brass, however, is the focal point. The horizontal mount appears to be alt-azimuth at first glance. Of course, it is equatorial; the pole star is merely visible here on the horizon.
On open-air observation nights, the telescope is very popular, and Lopez still enjoys hearing visitors’ stunned reactions when they first sight a planet.
Outside of the campus in Quito, the OAQ is active. The Magnetic Data Acquisition System (MAGDAS) was started by Kyushu University in Japan during the International Heliophysical Year of 2007. It is a global investigation into how the sun affects the magnetosphere of Earth. In order to detect the Earth’s magnetic field as part of MAGDAS, the OAQ set up a magnetometer in the Jerusalem woodland preserve in 2012.
Lopez, however, sees this as only the beginning. He imagines building a brand-new observatory high in the Andes, at a location around 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of Quito at latitude 0° 0′ 8.67′′ South. As he shows me a schematic drawing of the facility, he explains, “Having an observatory directly on the equator would allow for correlation of sky surveys between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Although the money to build it is not yet available, he is still optimistic.
The equator is unlike anywhere else in the world. The following day, I went to the Middle of the World or Mitad del Mundo.
The area where the equator was thought to be in 1980 has a large monument, but more recent GPS readings reveal that it is actually more than 790 feet (240 meters) wrong. The monument won’t be moved, although the actual equator is marked by a smaller park. Like a desktop globe, it has a large red line painted along the equator. I missed the Day Without a Shadow since it occurs on the equinox when the Sun is directly overhead at noon. For several minutes, shadows fall immediately beneath you, but buildings and other vertical objects don’t cast any shadows at all.
In Ecuador, astronomy has existed since considerably earlier than the 19th century. Since the Incan solstice festival of Inti Raymi is still widely observed in Ecuador, this area formerly belonged to the Incan empire. I was wandering about El Cajas National Park after leaving Quito a few days earlier. Wild orchids thrive on Polylepsis “paper trees” in this rough area, which has lakes and valleys carved out by glaciers as well as remaining populations of the critically endangered South American Condor.
My tour guide led me to a ledge that overlooked a valley and showed me a hole he had carved out of a rock. Why would someone travel so far to carve a hole in a piece of rock? He claimed that although no one was certain, it is believed to be an Incan solstice marker.
The Incas built markers that would only be illuminated at the time of the solstice in order to establish the precise moment that it occurred. Was this, however, a solstice marker? Given that it was pointing east, perhaps the dark hole would turn into a circle of light at dawn on the solstice. I inquired as to if anyone had ever visited on the solstice to observe the events. My guide was clueless. That could be a project for a later trip.