Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory

Asteroids discovered: 5
(87269) 2000 OO67 July 29, 2000
88611 Teharonhiawako August 20, 2001
astronomical telescopes and instruments located at 30.169 S, 70.804 W, approximately 80 km to the East of La Serena, Chile at an altitude of 2200 metres. The complex is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) along with Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Nicholas U. Mayall was intimately involved in its creation.

The principal telescopes are the 4-m Victor M. Blanco Telescope, named after Puerto Rican astronomer Victor Manuel Blanco, and the 4.1-m Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope, dedicated in April of 2004. The latter telescope is actually situated on the neighboring Cerro Pachon, but is managed by CTIO. Other telescopes on Cerro Tololo include the 1.5-m, 1.3-m, 0.9-m, and the Yale 1.0-m telescopes operated by the SMARTS consortium of universities and research institutes. CTIO also host many tenant observatories and research projects, such as PROMPT, ALO, WHAM, and soon LCOGTN, providing a platform for access to the southern hemisphere for U.S. and world-wide scientific research.

The NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which also operates the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Gemini Observatory. One of the two 8-m telescopes comprising the Gemini Observatory is co-located with CTIO on AURA property in Chile.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the funding agency for NOAO.



Prior to CTIO, the number of observatories in the Northern Hemisphere was 88, whereas the number of observatories in the Southern Hemisphere was 10. None of the Southern Hemisphere observatories had frequent clear night skies or exceptional “seeing,” as astronomers call atmospheric conditions. In fact, the Southern Hemisphere telescopes could only collect 10% of the light collected by the northern ones.

Most astronomers recognized that this imbalance in the world-wide distribution of optical telescopes was especially unfortunate because the southern skies boast many important astronomical objects. Astrophysically unique objects of the southern sky are the Magellanic Clouds, the brightest globular clusters, and the clusters and nebulae-rich Carina-Centaurus Milky Way region, to name but a few. Hence, astronomical problems requiring the study of such objects and also of all-sky observations were often neglected or were very difficult to carry out.

When surveyors began scouting for a site for CTIO, they already knew that the Atacama desert, in northern Chile, was the world’s driest desert. Hence, astronomical observations would be relatively free of distortions caused by moisture in the atmosphere. They also found that the desert air was unusually stable, due to a semi-permanent high pressure system. On November 23, 1962, the decision was made to locate the new observatory on Cerro Tololo and to call it the "Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory." Prior to that, CTIO was usually referred to by AURA officials as the "Chile Project." Before the selection of Tololo, in August 1961, a 0.41 m telescope had been hauled to the mountain top, on mule back. This telescope was used to perform the final site testing and subsequently used for serious astronomical research by Dr. J. Stock, and by University of Chile astronomers, especially Prof. Hugo Moreno.

The first construction efforts at CTIO were spent on building a primitive shelter for the 0.41 m telescope and laying a rudimentary road to a place called "El Zapallo” (i.e., "Squash") halfway to a watering hole named "Los Placeres" (i.e., "Pleasures") found on the way up to the mountain. The mule-trail to the mountain top was also improved. Before these improvements, a typical trip from La Serena to Tololo started with a 3 hour taxi ride to Vicuna over a very narrow and winding road, followed by a 5 or 6 hour mule or horseback ride to Los Placeres with an overnight stay to recuperate from the long ride, and a final 2 to 4 hours ride - depending on one's riding ability - to the mountain top. (Today it takes 1.5 hrs by car to go from La Serena to Tololo.)

On November 25, 1962 AURA bought the property called "El Totoral” which includes close to 30,000 hectares with Cerro Tololo near its center. "El Totoral” means a place where Totora grass, a reed-like plant used for roofing, grows. This grass is rare in AURAS’s Totoral, however.

A reliable water source also had to be developed. At about 1 km below the summit, two natural springs provided a convenient source. At the time AURA bought El Totoral, 15 families lived on the grounds and subsisted by raising goats. In order to keep the water source clean, a family and their animals had to be moved downstream a considerable distance. In retaliation, he converted his house into a bar-discotheque. This resulted in an unusual amount of night-time traffic on the Tololo road, a development that was promptly terminated. In regard to the goat-herding families within the AURA holdings, nominal yearly rental charges were imposed. This measure prevented the families from becoming owners of the land they occupied through squatters' rights. Thus, among AURA's diversified activities in Chile one should include those of a landlord.

By June, 1964, water was being pumped from Los Placeres to Cerro Tololo. The water delivery system was later improved, and by December 1965 a 50,000 gallon storage tank had been built near the mountain summit and the pumping station had automatic filtering and chlorinating facilities. Unfortunately, the springs dried up and CTIO had to develop another water source in 1975. At that time two more 50,000 gallon tanks were added for storage at the summit, and water was trucked from the Elqui River up to Tololo.

By the end of 1975, after 13 years had passed since the decision to develop CTIO, AURA had put into operation eight telescopes. The Blanco 4m telescope took only 7 years from the time its funding became available until it first saw light on the night of September 25, 1974. These were indeed proud achievements especially if one considers the complex supporting infrastructure that the telescopes require in order to operate effectively at a remote location. Although these telescopes were built before computers, they have all been modernized and CTIO still serves as a principle platform for U.S. astronomical investigation of the southern skies.

Work Environment

CTIO is known as a friendly and community oriented organization. Their activities include bike races from the guard gate to the summit (32.5 km, 1650 m vertical gain), galileaoscope building workshops and weekly, free tours of the telescopes. CTIO employs approximately 20 astronomers, 10 computer specialists, 30 engineers and 50 administration, facilities, and telescope operations staff.

New Projects

  • SOAR Adaptive Module (SAM) -- modern ultraviolet guide star system [1]
  • DECam / Dark Energy Survey -- imager with the widest field of view in the world [2]
  • Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) -- highest priority research activity in astrophysics for the coming decade [3]

External links

Coordinates: 30°10′9″S 70°48′21″W / 30.16917°S 70.80583°W / -30.16917; -70.80583

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