Mon, Apr 21, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Desert paradise and amazing home for astronomers

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer, LONDON

A walk down the alleyway that leads from Paranal observatory’s entrance gate into its astronomers’ residence produces one of the most striking changes in surroundings a person can experience in a few footsteps.

Outside the air is parched and the ground bleached by sunlight from a sky that is hardly ever troubled by clouds. Push through the double swing doors and enter a rainforest — and a path that leads down through towering ferns and tropical plants to a swimming pool in the residence’s lowest level. As accommodation goes, it is exotic as you can get — though hedonism was far from the minds of the architects when they designed it.

To battle the arid conditions of the air at 2,621m Paranal, they wanted a way to keep it moist and fresh for the scientists staying there. The answer was a swimming pool and an indoor tropical garden that is constantly watered with supplies imported by trucks from the coast every day. Moist air from the pool and garden then circulates around the rest of the residence. The result is a building that is remarkably airy and light — until 7pm when, every night, all openings and windows, including the vast glass dome over the pool, are closed and shuttered automatically to prevent any glint of light from affecting observations made on the mountain top.

The scale and style of Paranal and its residence is extraordinary and movie producers have fallen over themselves in their attempts to film it. Most have been turned down — with the exception of the 2008 Bond film, Quantum of Solace, whose final scenes were filmed here. In contrast the last X-Men film was turned down flat because its producers wanted to fly helicopters near the observatory’s precious telescope complex.

Given the vast cost of building and running Paranal, filming was not allowed to disturb its tight observation schedule.

“I was woken up by the sound of someone repeatedly jumping on to the balcony in the room next to mine,” one astronomer said. “It turned out to be the actress Olga Kurylenko — who plays the film’s heroine, Camille. It was quite a shock. I mean you don’t get that sort thing happening at other observatories.”

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