Malcolm Smith once worried, some say obsessed, about light bulbs. Not just any light bulbs, mind you, but the thousands of 70-watt bulbs lining the streets of this tiny Chilean town. He warned the few people willing to listen that the lights would eventually ruin the town's most valuable asset: utter darkness.
Smith's concerns were more than aesthetic. Vicuna boasts some of the planet's most dramatic night skies, an asset that has drawn US$1.2 billion in international telescope projects, millions of dollars in construction jobs and a blossoming tourism industry.
"Chile is at the center of the greatest construction program ever undertaken in ground-based astronomy," says Smith, director of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory home to one of the world's most-touted optical telescopes. "These all depend, for their success, on the skies over northern Chile being preserved in their current pristine condition."
Since 1963, with the construction of the Cerro Tololo observatory on a plateau at 2,200 meters, the mountains around Vicuna-population 8,000--have been recognized as one of the world's most promising locations for optical telescopes. The hilltops dotting the Atacama Desert combine dry air with cloudless nights to produce skies clearer than any found in the Northern Hemisphere. Even without a shot glass of the region's legendary pisco liquor, the night sky over Vicuna appears to swirl like a web of stars, pressing close to Earth.
The $1.2 billion in astronomy-linked projects includes more than a half dozen world-class telescope facilities. The European Union, the Carnegie Institute, the National Science Foundation and other institutions have all chosen northern Chile for their undertakings. And while the high tech equipment is manufactured abroad and imported to Chile, construction jobs alone have injected $150 million into the local economy in the last several years. The boom is expected to continue for at least the next decade, with plans in the works for the 2011 inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array radio telescope, or ALMA, which will link more than 60 huge antennas in a search for life in space.
In the early 1990s, as development and population growth headed toward the area, light pollution threatened the stargazing industry. But Mother Nature pushed the area toward a remedy in 1994, when a severe drought forced Vicuna to conserve electricity. City officials first switched from mercury to more energy efficient...