Astronomy ambassador role takes lecturer to Chile

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Chile’s nighttime skies are the stuff of astronomers’ dreams—pitch black and clear.

Brian Koberlein, senior lecturer in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy, experienced the dark skies of the southern hemisphere during a 10-day tour of telescope sites in Chile in June. He was one of nine science communicators from the United States selected for an outreach effort launched this year by the National Science Foundation.

The Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program gave science communicators access to large telescopes such as Gemini South, the Southern Astrophysical Observatory, Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array or ALMA. The scientists and engineers who operate and maintain the different observatories explained the science and instruments. The tour took the science communicators to amateur observatories that benefit from the astrotourism that has grown around Chile’s astroindustry.

“Chile has the perfect conditions for dark-sky astronomy,” Koberlein said. “It has elevation, dryness, clear skies and a long-term stable government open to scientific research. There are two points in the world for top-tier astronomy: one is Hawaii and the other is Chile.”

The telescopes in Chile are giving scientists access to some of “the most sophisticated observations ever made in astronomy,” Koberlein said. If the United States wants to be at the leading edge, it must have a presence in Chile, he noted.

Koberlein and his fellow ambassadors who completed the program are tasked with educating the general public about the astronomical research conducted in Chile. Koberlein will use his popular blog “One Universe at a Time” and public lectures to convey the importance of using NSF funding—U.S. taxpayer dollars—for astronomical infrastructure constructed outside of the country.

ALMA illustrates a new approach to doing astronomy. The $1.4 billion facility is a 30-year international collaboration of Europe and East Asia, Chile and the United States. It represents the continued trend toward a collaborative, international model and open-access data on an ever-wider scale, Koberlein said.

The trend toward leading-edge research conducted as an international effort can be seen elsewhere, Koberlein noted, in the International Space Station, the Large Hadron Collider and ALMA, for example.

“When we go to Mars, we’re going to go as an international effort, we’re not going to go as a single country,” Koberlein said. “The costs are so large and the risks are so high that cutting-edge research has to be done collaboratively. In many ways it is a good thing because it requires us to work together as a society and across international boundaries.”

To read Koberlein’s blog and to listen to his weekly podcast, go to