Chile is sometimes called La Estrella Solitaria, “The Lone Star,” for the single celestial body on its tricolor flag. When the bandera was first adopted in 1912, however, its designers probably had no idea that Chile would one day boast the finest skies for stargazing in the world.
The high deserts of Northern Chile, are the driest on the planet; parts of the Atacama haven’t had a drop of rain in the four centuries since records have been kept. There’s very little moisture between you and the deep blue, and at altitudes ranging to 4400m (14,400ft) and peaks of 6885m (22,589ft), you aren’t that far from outer space to begin with.
The end of December 2011 brought a very special visitor to Atacama, one that the European Southern Observatory astronomer Gabriel Brammer dubbed, the Christmas Comet. It appeared on the Solstice and remained in the sky past the high Christian holiday.
Chile’s shooting star’s scientific name? Comet Lovejoy, named not in honor of the very real, if small, possibility that this was the fabled Star of Bethlehem mentioned in the Bible. No, it’s actually something of a coincidence; the comet was discovered by an Australian amateur astronomer, Terry Lovejoy.
While the Christmas Comet won’t return to the southern skies until the year 2325 (assuming it survives an upcoming close encounter with the sun), there’s plenty more going on in the impossible starry night skies above the Atacama. Check it out.