Sitting in my little rental car on Gabriel Mistral Street in Vicuña, I was getting impatient. Along with half a dozen other drivers, I was waiting for the convoy to the Mamalluca Observatory, nine kilometres away. I looked at the clock on the dashboard. 8.35. We were only five minutes late but I’d already been sitting there for more than a quarter of an hour. The engine was idling, my music was pumping and I was staring out the window, distracted by the quaint Bauer Tower that sits above the town’s tourist information office like a giant red chess piece.

All of a sudden, I was woken from my daze. The guide ferrying carless tourists to the observatory in a minibus tooted his horn and swung out from the curb with his hazard lights flashing. That was the signal. I flung the car into gear and watched the other vehicles zoom pass, not leaving any space for me to hop in. Finally the last car in the convoy, a large 4WD, flashed its lights and I joined the procession. We were off.

The guide in the minibus seemed to have forgotten that he was leading a convoy. He came to a stop sign, paused briefly and then roared off like a drag racing teenager before disappearing around a dark corner. We sped through the narrow streets of Vicuña trying to keep up as safely as we could. After about ten minutes of this reckless driving, the bitumen ended abruptly and we found ourselves chasing the minibus up a winding dirt road in the dark. My little car bumped and rattled along, as I struggled to keep up with the car in front.

When we reached top of the hill, it was dark. The only light came from our headlights and a man with a torch who was yelling out parking instructions in Spanish. I manoeuvred the car into an unmarked spot in the dirt beside the car I had been following and hopped out. It was windy and cold. Even though I was wearing a woollen jumper, a jacket and a parker, I could feel the chill in the air.

The man holding the torch pointed it in the direction of a well lit doorway about 50 metres away and along with my convoy buddies, I made my way through the darkness towards the light. When we reached the door, we were herded into a domed amphitheatre with neat rows of mostly empty chairs and a power point presentation about the solar system. The first slide had eight planets that were familiar from all those high school science lessons and three dwarf planets, including the relegated Pluto.

As I slid into my seat, I thought about all the science text books that must have been rendered obsolete by that single decision. Poor science teachers. Poor Pluto. It must have been a big day in space boffin land when they made the call.

We waited for a quarter of an hour as tourists from other convoys filed into the amphitheatre, filling the room up. When we were all seated and suitably hushed, a guide at the back of the room began giving a talk in machine gun Spanish. He clicked through the slides pointing out interesting facts with his laser pointer.

The main point of the lecture seemed to be that in the scheme of things, we are very small and insignificant. In case we were any doubt, he showed a short video that began with a close up of a map of Chile and then zoomed out until the entire Milky Way just a tiny speck on the screen. The guide talked about confusing things like dark matter using difficult numbers with lots of zeros which are even more confusing and difficult in fast paced Spanish. I know the presentation was funny because almost everyone else was laughing. I joined them in their enthusiastic applause.

We were split into three groups of 15-20 people in which ventured outside to stare into space. My guide was named Gonzalo and using his torch, he led our group to one of three telescopes perched on the side of the hill. It was still cold outside and now it was even windier. Gonzalo also spoke Spanish quickly but he was much easier to understand.

“Is anyone a Scorpio?” he asked when we had gathered around the telescope. Two people raised their hands. Gonzalo whipped a laser pointer out of his pocket and pointed out the scorpion shaped constellation. “There’s the tail…that there is the head and those stars there…and those are the claws,” he explained.

“Oh, yes. I see,” we all said, dutifully nodding our heads. Gonzalo repeated the same process for Saggitarians and Leos. We oohed and aahed and nodded again.

Next Gonzalo drew our attention to a fairly bright ‘star’ that wasn’t a star at all, but was actually Saturn. Unlike Pluto, Saturn is definitely still a planet. After pausing to let us ooh and aah a bit more about the tricky planet masquerading as a star, Gonzalo shifted his laser to a very familiar group of stars: the Southern Cross.

“The way to tell the true Southern Cross from the fake one is that it has five stars – A,B,C,D and E,” he said pointing them out, “while the fake one only has four.”

I swelled with patriotic pride as I realised that our flag was right and New Zealand had got it wrong. Gonzalo had encouraged us to interrupt with questions whenever we felt like it so now that we were in familiar territory, I decided to give it a go.

“Aren’t there two stars that ‘follow’ the Southern Cross?” I asked in my best Spanish.

“Yes,” said Gonzalo. “But the fake one has two pointers as well…where are you from?” He asked. My accent and dodgy syntax had given me away.

“I’m Australian,” I replied.

“Oh, Australia is a good place for seeing the stars,” Gonzalo said. “It’s very flat though. It doesn’t have good hills that enhance your view like we do here.”

Fair enough. But our flag is better than New Zealand’s, I thought to myself. But Gonzalo had moved on. Now he was pointing his later at a large black patch where, apparently, beyond our view, there was a fairly significant cluster of stars. He then swung the hefty telescope around and pointed it at the emptiness. The rest of us formed a queue in the darkness, taking turns to look through the lens and when we did, we saw the black spot in a very different light. It was still a black spot but now it was brimming with twinkling white stars.

“There are 2000 stars in that cluster,” said Gonzalo when we had all had a look. “It’s just a small one.”

He then located a cluster with 500,000 stars and yet another with 10 billion. Again, we lined up to look through the telescope and oohed and aahed some more. It was still cold.

But Gonzalo was starting to worry about something else. He pointed his laser down below us to the fog that was rising in the valley, saying we would have to hurry before it blocked out our view of the stars altogether. So he led us into the main observatory a little further up the hill which had an impressive domed roof and even bigger telescope.

We stood around the edge of the echoey room as Gonzalo explained some of the technical details. And then it was time for the fun. Punching some numbers into a keypad, our guide swung the telescope around and focused it on Saturn. He then invited us to look through the bigger lens one by one. I waited towards the back of the queue as other people oohed and aahed. It was worth the wait. Looking through the small lens, I could see Saturn in all its ringed glory, very shiny and twinkly but definitely not a star. The science text books had made no mistakes there.

Saturn: not a star but a ringed planet.

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