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Sunday, 7 July, 2002, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Perfect for washing and astronomy
Residencia, Eso
Residencia: A home from outer space
McGourty, BBC

From the dreary northern mining town of Antofagasta, it is a two-hour drive through the desert to reach the Paranal Observatory.

The landscape in this part of northern Chile is bleak - an almost exact replica of the dusty, reddish rock-strewn landscape photographed by Nasa's rover on Mars.


If you want to rely on being able to put your washing out in the morning and know it's going to be a good drying day, then you'll like it here

Harry Reay, Paranal resident
It is dry and lifeless - not an animal or plant in sight. Finally, the observatory comes into view - four giant white cylinders standing to attention on the mountaintop.

Some five kilometres down on the lower mountain slopes is the observatory base camp: a motley collection of assorted white buildings, including a dozen or so metal shipping containers, in which the luckless astronomers and engineers who work here used to live.

Fortunately, no longer. Newly opened in what must be one of the most unlikely places on Earth is a luxury 6m "Residencia" for Paranal's inhabitants.

All mod cons

While the relative merits of Europe's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the US Keck telescopes might be debated by the world's astronomers long into the night, no such debate surrounds their living quarters. Paranal is simply streets ahead of its rivals.

VLT, Eso
The office: Paranal's extraordinary VLT facility
From the exterior, the Residencia bears no small resemblance to the Teletubbies' home, though without the grass. But the path sloping down to the entrance can only be described as a path into another world.

Inside, a blast of hot, humid air greets you, along with the astonishing sight of a tropical garden, complete with palm trees and swimming pool.

The whole complex - with 120 stylish en-suite rooms, gym, pool, sauna, table tennis and satellite TV - has been built underground, to minimise any impact on the environment and also to prevent light from escaping and polluting the night sky.

It goes some way to compensating the astronomers, engineers and support staff who have to live and work in this desolate spot.

Little rain

Harry Reay, who works for the services company Serco and has been at Paranal since they started construction here five years ago, admits it is not to everyone's liking.

Residencia, Eso
The pool helps to put some water in the atmosphere
"There's no vegetation, no animal life," he told BBC News Online. "It's just red and brown rocks and desert in every direction you look.

"It's not the place to come if you like gardening, but if you like the sun, this is the place to be. If you want to rely on being able to put your washing out in the morning and know it's going to be a good drying day, then you'll like it here.

"In five years in Chile, I've only seen rain three times." At 2,600 metres above sea-level, there are very few problems with the altitude.

Straight up

But some people do suffer badly from the dryness of the atmosphere, which affects the skin, chaps the lips and can cause nosebleeds.

There are compensations, though. The view from the telescope platform on the mountaintop is spectacular.

To the west lies the Pacific Ocean and over 160 kilometres away to the east, the Andes on the Argentine border are just visible on the horizon.

The only problem being that, working by night and sleeping by day, the astronomers based here have little opportunity to appreciate it.

Their job, remember, is to look straight up.

Residencia, Eso
From the Residencia, it's a short commute up the mountain

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Christine McGourty
"Britain has joined the world's premier astronomy club"
The UK joins the European Southern Observatory.


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