A trek of galactic proportions



In an earlier blog examining the climate zones and ecosystems of Mount Kilimanjaro, we pondered whether or not a trek greater than the climb up this mountain exists. Today we reveal that trek, a journey that takes place in South America, and that breaks the limits between the stunning and surreal. We will begin in Patagonia at Cerro Fitz Roy, and then travel north into Chile to discover a number of archeological sites found within the reach of an ancient road system built by the Incan Empire. Finally, we will we climb high onto an elevated expanse that is home to the driest desert in the world: the Atacama Desert of Chile, our destination. The high elevation, dry air, and vast size of this desert make it an ideal spot for several large, state-of-the-art astronomical observatories; however, we will concern ourselves with just two of them.

Our aim is to explore two game-changing, ground-based telescopes currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope. Afterwards, we will turn our gaze toward the heavens to appreciate yet another great telescope project underway elsewhere — the James Webb Space Telescope, a project poised to carry on the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Patagonian landscape and Cerro Fitz Roy (or Mount Fitz Roy)

Why begin at Cerro Fitz Roy? Simply put, Cerro Fitz Roy is a mountain marked by beauty and contrast. In terms of its beauty, the mountain rises with pomp and grandeur from the jaw-dropping vistas of the Patagonian landscape. And in terms of contrast, the sheer, jagged peaks of this mountain (reminiscent of the Dolomites in Italy) represent a bold departure from the nearly seamless geography shared with the nation-states of Argentina and Chile. The mountain itself is found in Los Glaciares National Park — named for its numerous glacial ice extensions that spread out from the world’s second largest ice expanse (second after Antarctica). Moreover, despite the inherent beauty of Cerro Fitz Roy, this mountain is said to be one of the most technical mountains to climb. Therefore, the vast majority of visitors and would-be climbers are contented simply to gaze upon the mountain’s scenic peaks and sheer cliffs from the nearby safety of a small glacier lake called Laguna de los Tres (see picture above).

Note: Los Glaciares National Park contains a vast number of glaciers born from one of the largest existing ice caps in the world (second after Antarctica). The park itself lies at the southern end of the world’s second largest ice field (again, after Antarctica), the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which is the much-larger cousin to its northern counterpart, the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. In fact, both ice fields are remnants of the Patagonian Ice Sheet. Furthermore, Los Glaciares National Park is the home to a very unusual glacier known as the Perito Moreno Glacier. The notoriety of this glacier comes from its atypical nature in that unlike most glaciers in the world that are actively retreating, the Perito Moreno Glacier is actively advancing.

The Inca Road

We now set out to find the so-called Chilean Inca Trail (the branches of the Inca road system in Chile) as we travel northward to the Atacama Desert, a search that will also allow us to explore several Chilean archeological sites along the way.

In Patagonia:

  • Cueva Fell—a natural cave near the Pali-Aike volcanic field
  • Pali-Aike National Park—location of a prominent volcanic cone called Pali-Aike Crater
  • Madre de Dios Island—a coastal island that contains several interesting and unique caves containing evidence of early cultures

In southern Chile:

  • Monte Verde—significant contributions to the fields of archeology and evolutionary anthropology were made here
  • Pilauco Bajo—a paleontological and archeological site
  • Chan-Chan—a coastal archeological site
  • Budi Lake—a brackish tidal water lake (unique because it is not of glacier origin)
  • The city of Purén
  • Mocha Island—the waters off this coastal island were the purported home of a whale that helped inspire the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, as predating Melville was an earlier novel by the American explorer J.N. Reynolds called Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific.

In central Chile:

  • Pucará del Cerro La Muralla—a strategic observation point believed to be the southernmost fort of the Incan Empire
  • Pukara de La Compañía—a fort used by the Incas. This site represents our first official stop along the Inca road system as we continue on our way toward the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.
  • Huaca de Chena—an archeological site containing the remnants of a purported ancient astronomical observatory

Remark: Note the importance of astronomical observatories among early civilizations, especially among early agricultural societies. These observatories came directly from the need of people to construct calendars on which they could incorporate their celestial observations to predict the position of the sun and the phases of the moon for crop planting and harvesting (Genesis 1:14, English Standard Version; Struik, 1987).

The Atacama Desert of northern Chile:

  • Tulor—the oldest archeological site in Chile
  • Pukará de Quitor—a stone fortress overlooking the valley of the river San Pedro
  • Atacama Giant—a large, famous anthropomorphic geoglyph carved into the landscape on the side of a hillcrest

Our Destination: the Atacama Desert

The Driest Desert in the World

The Atacama Desert is an elevated plateau placed in the middle of two separate mountain chains in northern Chile (the Andes to the east and the Chilean coastal range to the west). For three very different reasons, which together produce a sandwiching effect, this desert is the driest desert in the world.

  • The first phenomenon is the prevailing winds, the so-called easterlies or easterly trade winds, which blow out of the east and move westward. These winds must cross up and over the Andes — the mountain chain lying east of the desert. As the easterlies push up and over the Andes, any moisture that they contain condenses and falls as rain on the mountain chain’s eastern half (the side of the Andes opposite the desert). The critical feature of this prevailing system, and thus its significance to the dryness of the desert, is that the easterlies contain little-to-no remaining moisture as they continue blowing westward over the desert.
  • Second, as a result of the easterlies’ climb over the Andes, a system of high air pressure predominates over the Atacama Desert (and northern Chile).
  • And the last phenomenon mentioned, though not the least in significance, is the multifaceted effect of the Humboldt Current. The Humboldt Current is a specific cold water current that is found in the Pacific Ocean adjacent to South America. Near Chile, the chilled waters carried by the current effectually suppress moisture developing in onshore oceanic breezes. Moreover, similar to the aforementioned occurrence of moisture lost to the Andes as the trade winds make their way westward, any potential moisture contained within the westerly onshore breezes will be lost as these winds push eastward and rise up over the Chilean coastal range — the mountain chain lying west of the desert.

The View of the Sky from the Atacama Desert

milky-way-atacama-desert-redshift-scopeAtacama Desert salt flat reflecting the Milky Way

A remarkable feature within the desert’s perimeter is the presence of a large salt flat. In fact, it is the third largest salt flat in the world, and is known by the name Salar de Atacama. Moreover, a large segment of Salar de Atacama makes up a nature reserve called Los Flamenco National Reserve. At times, certain parts of the salt flat trap a thin layer of water that spreads discreetly over a very large surface area. This phenomenon gives the water preserved in this section of Salar de Atacama an absolutely docile, yet stunning appearance of mirrored glass. Perhaps one of the more intriguing things about this effect is that it offers guests unique opportunities to capture beautiful, unmarred images of our Milky Way Galaxy exquisitely reflected upon the clear surface (see picture above).

Note: Located inside the Los Famenco National Reserve is a strange landscape called Valle de al Luna, or “Valley of the Moon,” a name which is eerily suggestive of the lunar surface. In fact, even more bizarre is the striking similarities between the landscapes found throughout the Atacama Desert region as a whole and those of the planet Mars. Thus, for several decades now (click here to learn more), NASA has taken advantage of the desert’s Martian-like environment as the perfect location to test various prototypes of its Mars rovers.

At this point along our trip, prior to entering the final leg of our journey, we pause momentarily to think about where we have been and what we have seen. Looking back through our mind’s eye, we have travelled thousands of miles to encounter vistas as broad and extreme as they are majestic and surreal, and similarly we have enjoyed quaint places that seem timeless. In addition, beyond their significance to the fields of geology and geography, many of the places visited were important within the fields of archeology, anthropology and paleontology, as well as climatology and oceanography.

Starting out once again, each step now takes us up a winding road to discover a new, state-of-the-art telescope called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) atop Cerro Pachón (or Mount Pachón), until in tandem we move carefully to nearby Cerro Las Campanas (or Mount Las Campanas) to encounter the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). Afterwards, we will eagerly turn our gaze toward the heavens to appreciate yet another great telescope project underway elsewhere — the James Webb Space Telescope, a much anticipated project poised to carry on the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) at Cerro Pachón

At the time of this writing, first light is scheduled for early 2019.

The LSST is a new, unique telescope, and also a new paradigm — one that looks for movement and change across the sky in days, months, and years. Designers have engineered the LSST to perform at top-notch levels among three facets (speed, breadth, and depth), so the LSST will be distinctly capable of traversing the time domain instead of focusing purely on the space domain. At the heart of the LSST lies the largest digital camera ever constructed. The LSST essentially allows users to point an extremely large, telescope-sized camera at the night sky, pan the universe, and click picture after rewarding picture.

The first facet (speed) — The compact construction of the LSST allows for swift movements that sweep it around in arcs at 10 degrees per second, or 20 miles per hour. It actually will scan the entire southern sky every 4 days, an accomplishment which epitomizes the absolute shift in paradigm it achieves when compared to the composite map made of the northern sky once every year using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

The second facet (breadth) — Its three-mirror design facilitates a wide field of view, a focal plane large enough to capture the diameter of seven full moons in one picture (or the equivalent of Orion’s belt). The camera’s 3.2 billion pixels and lens of roughly 5.5 feet in diameter makes this range of view possible (see the accompanying picture of the camera and housing below).

lsst-camera-observatory-cut-awayA dissected view highlighting the large 3.2-gigapixel, state-of-the-art digital camera, with its roughly 5.5-foot diameter lens, that will be installed on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (top image), and a cut-away view showing the internal structure of the observatory planned to house this telescope (bottom image).

The third facet (depth) — At comparatively 3.5 times the size of Hubble’s 2.4-meter primary mirror, the large primary mirror of LSST will facilitate a much deeper view of the universe than we have been able to see thus far. The LSST is designed to utilize a primary mirror 8.4 meters in diameter, an adaptable secondary mirror 3.4 meters in diameter, and a tertiary mirror 5.0 meters in diameter. Interestingly, the LSST is the world’s first telescope to have a tertiary mirror embedded in its primary mirror, a beneficial alignment that contributes significantly to the compact size of this telescope (see image below).

lsst-mirror-configurationAlignment of mirrors with camera placement

Several scientific collaboration teams

Several research teams will collaborate to make sense of all the data coming in from the LSST. These teams will assist LSST directors in guiding the program’s scientific goals. For instance, the Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) Team will help work on galaxy structure goals. In particular, the AGN Team will work on mapping solutions to the challenges of doing quasar science with the LSST, and on leading investigations of super-massive black holes that are actively accreting with respect to the time domain.

Note: On the topic of quasars, a recently published article in Answers Research Journal, called “A Test for Quasar Cosmological Redshifts” by astronomer Danny R. Faulkner, emphasized the importance of incorporating the redshifts associated with these objects into the development of a recent creation cosmology.

Public participation

The LSST will have a robust educational and public outreach program for amateur astronomers and the community at large (click here for more information).

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) at Cerro Las Campanas

First light is scheduled for 2023.

artistic-gmtArtistic rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope

“Make no little plans” – George Ellery Hale

The GMT is the first telescope to incorporate off-axis primary mirrors (as pictured above). It will specialize in the infrared and visible spectrums, and will be sensitive enough to see a candle lit on the moon.

The GMT’s primary mirror is designed as a composite of seven individual mirrors: six off-axis mirrors and one central-axis mirror. Given that each of these mirrors is 8.4 meters in diameter, the effective diameter of the GMT is 24.5 meters (or slightly more than 10 times the diameter of the 2.4-meter primary mirror of Hubble). Moreover, the expected resolution of the images obtained with the GMT will be 10 times the resolution of the images from Hubble. Although the GMT is anticipated to come online by the end of the decade when the first four of its primary mirrors are in place (i.e., three off-axis mirrors together with the central-axis mirror), first light is officially planned for 2023.

Not only will the GMT incorporate seven primary mirrors, but it will also utilize seven secondary mirrors (each 1-meter in diameter). The technology behind each secondary mirror makes them readily adaptable to correct blurring in the imaging. In fact, this adaptive technology (called “adaptive optics”) combined with the presence of the large diameter of the primary mirror greatly contributes to the resolution made possible with the GMT.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor

The launch of the rocket carrying the JWST is scheduled for early 2021. The JWST will specialize in the infrared spectrum, and will be incredibly sensitive in this range (sensitive enough, in fact, to detect the heat signature of a bee on the moon).

artistic-jwstSize of the James Webb Space Telescope

With a primary mirror diameter of 6.5 meters, compared to Hubble’s 2.4-meter diameter mirror, the JWST has over five times more collecting area than Hubble, giving the JWST much more sensitivity. In addition, while Hubble orbits the earth at approximately 350 miles inside low earth orbit, the JWST will be situated roughly a million miles further away (and orbit the sun). Moreover, the JWST will optimally detect the infrared wavelengths of light, compared to Hubble which is optimized for visible and ultraviolet light. This means that the JWST will be much better suited (and much better situated) to detect and investigate very distant objects, since light emitted from such objects drops off very aggressively into the infrared spectrum.


Having reached the journey’s end, we take the opportunity to reflect upon the three large telescopes discussed here, as well as their significance. However, because each telescope offers renewed anticipation for us to peer deeper into our window on the observable universe (referred to as “look-back time”), we also wish to reflect upon something which bears repeating concerning our place in all of this.

primary-mirror-comparisonsA useful summary showing the relative sizes of the primary mirrors found in existing telescopes and the telescopes of tomorrow. (Notice all the telescopes mentioned here are found in the bottom half of the diagram.)

First Thought

In a recent blog, we discussed the redshifts of galaxies and quasars per our review of an article appearing in Answers Research Journal called “A Case for Cosmological Redshifts” by astronomer Danny R. Faulkner. In addition, we also included favorable comments about test results subsequently published by Dr. Faulkner that support extragalactic, cosmological redshifts, based on the redshifts of quasars and their corresponding apparent magnitudes, as follows:

One reason an understanding of cosmological redshifts becomes important to further study is that two telescope projects are currently underway: the Giant Magellan Telescope and the James Webb Telescope. The former is a land-based telescope located in Chile, and the latter is a space telescope scheduled to be the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Both of these telescopes will have better imaging capabilities than the HST, and thus reach farther back in look-back time. (“Remark,” para. 13)

Second Thought

Much enthusiasm is placed on the JWST carrying on the legacy of Hubble, and it is indeed true that the JWST will continue this legacy. Yet without sensitivity to wavelengths emitted across the visible and ultraviolet portions of electromagnetic spectrum, the JWST will not truly replace Hubble. The true replacement of Hubble will occur once first light is achieved collectively by all three of the telescopes discussed here (the LSST, the GMT, and the JWST). The day this happens will mean we have boldly entered a new age of discovery, an era when look-back time becomes greatly amplified.

Something that Bears Repeating

With these two thoughts in mind, let us return to the early 1990’s to the comments made by Alistair Begg (1994), who not only captured the sense of enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, but also reminded us of our true place in the age of deep space discovery:

That’s fine. That’s a wonderful telescope. As far as telescopes go, that’s really good. But here’s the deal folks — God has seen all this stuff from every angle that’s possible to see. He’s seen it when He created it; He’s seen it from every conceivable point. And what we ought to be saying is, ‘Isn’t it amazing that God in His providence has allowed us to grow smart enough to be able to design one of these things that allows us to begin to probe into the vastness of our solar system, and begin to scratch the surface of what God in His infinite wisdom has been able to do all along.’ (9:18 – 9:57)

Final Thought

In closing, as we wait for the day in the not-so-distant future when all three observatories are completed and the LSST, GMT, and JWST each become operational, we can rest assured that beliefs such as Alistair Begg’s concerning the bigger picture have neither lost their relevancy nor misplaced their appropriateness in helping keep our focus on this overall picture in perspective. And, rewardingly, it is the outlook offered by this perspective that is the reason why the journey described here ranks among the greatest treks on earth.


Begg, A. (Senior Pastor). (1994, January 23). Nehemiah goes into action [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.truthforlife.org/resources/sermon/nehemiah-goes-into-action/.

Struik, D.J. (1987). A concise history of mathematics. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Wininger, K.L. (2018, May 19). The expanding universe: The redshifts of galaxies and quasars indicate distance [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://studiesoncreation.org/2018/05/19/the-expanding-universe-the-redshifts-of-galaxies-and-quasars-indicate-distance/.