Towards the end of March 2020, whilst many of us were stocking up on tinned food and pasta, downloading zoom and cancelling plans to settle in for a prolonged stay at home, astronomers working on the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) project were busy making quite literally a startling discovery: the brightest comet in the Northern Hemisphere since Hale-Bopp in 1997.
Designated Comet/2020 F3 before being given its marginally more glamorous name of Comet NEOWISE, this comet could be seen with the naked eye for several months and came within a whisker – only 103 million kilometres – of Planet Earth.
In July, there was a chance the NEOWISE comet could also be seen from the Southern Hemisphere for a few minutes just after sunset, something the team at our Relais & Chateaux lodge, Awasi Atacama, was keen not to miss. In fact, given the high altitude and clear, dry skies there are few better places on the planet to stargaze and the region is home to several of the world’s principal observatories.
Given these optimal conditions, and with the tantalizing opportunity of spotting such a spectacle, Awasi Atacama manager Nicolás, along with Maitre d’ Catalina and Head Guide Nico, headed out late one afternoon to Vilama Valley, a peaceful spot only 20 minutes away from our lodge.
At around 3,000 metres above sea level, the Vilama Valley lies just below the Atacama Altiplano, fed by warm water which sustains various species of flora and fauna in this mystical, magical but often barren land.
Settling in to enjoy the coming dusk, the team enjoyed the sunset at this quiet spot. And with so few tourists currently around, they had the place entirely to themselves.
And so, with the sun setting and the shadows elongating, they peered into the skies above to hunt for the NEOWISE comet and put their astro-photography skills to practise.
Rewarded for their efforts, as soon as the sun passed beyond the rocky horizon, they were able to see the comet pass for a brief moment, a faint pinprick of light in the darkening skies.
The air is so clear in the Atacama desert that only minutes after nightfall the stars come out – there’s no need to wait until the middle of the night to get excellent shots of the night sky. Proof, if any were needed, can be seen below – Nicolás captured this fantastic picture of the Milky Way before heading back to the lodge for dinner.