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New Time-Lapse Gives Rare Glimpse at Atacama’s Starry Nights

(Make sure to watch this full-screen with the sound on!)

It’s cold, it’s dry, the air is thin. The nearest city is miles away across a barren landscape of boulder-strewn hills. At night, the only lights to guide you are the stars in the sky. Astronomers, welcome to paradise.

Known as the driest place on Earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert has long been recognized as an ideal spot for ground-based telescopes. The skies are free of light pollution, and the high plains enjoy long stretches of steady atmospheric conditions, allowing astronomers to peer deeply into the cosmos without having to worry about turbulence distorting the data.

(Related blog: “The Dry Edge of Life—Studying ‘Martians’ in Chile.”)

In the new time-lapse movie above, photographers Christoph Malin and Babak Tafreshi (founder of The World at Night, or TWAN, program) offer a rarely seen glimpse of Cerro Paranal, one of the high hills in the Atacama that houses instruments for the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Made by invitation from the ESO, the video includes more than 7,500 still images taken between October and November 2011. It shows the beauty of the dark Atacama skies, sometimes framed by the four main domes of the Very Large Telescope, as well as a brief “behind the scenes” look at what telescope operators see from inside one of the domes.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi

In an email to National Geographic, Tafreshi says of the Atacama:

There are not many locations left on this planet where you can still experience a dark sky like this. I have been to similar dark skies in other continents, from the heart of Sahara in Algeria to Himalayas or islands in the Pacific. But what makes Atacama beat others is being dry and clear for so many nights per year.

It’s not permitted for tourists and regular visiting groups to stay on Paranal at night time, as it might affect the expensive work time of the ultrahigh-precision telescopes. However, to enjoy the stunning night sky of Atacama it’s not necessary to be on this mountain or exactly this region. … [You] just need to be far from the few main cities in the area and the dusty mine industry. Some of our footage in this video is also made from mountains and desert areas some kilometers away from Paranal.

Walking on the desert near Paranal between the scattered stones and boulders on the pale red dust feels like being on Mars, but under the Earth sky.

One of the most astonishing experiences under such a starry sky is the view of the Milky Way. In several scenes of the film, the setting arc of the Milky Way is captured over the cloud-covered Pacific coastline. The band of the Milky Way is bulged and becomes most brilliant toward the galactic center in the constellation Sagittarius, which is prominent in these scenes. Watching the arc of the Milky Way near the desert horizon is a true scene of science fiction.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi

Malin adds:

It is of course kind of sad that Paranal is not open to the public, but it is a remote place, operated in a very extreme desert environment. … Safety precaucions are omnipresent at Paranal—the place is extremely well organized. … Paranal is organized down to the minute for every day and hour, 365 days per year, to utilize the instrument research time the best possible.

That said, it is still sad, because this magic place shows … how the nights on our planet can truly look like if there is no light pollution. Those are silent, peaceful nights. In pauses when all equipment is running, and you have a moment off, you get immediately thrown back to yourself and to your role in the universe, in a direct, straightforward way just by watching that beautifully glowing night sky. In fact, if you stand there, you see a shadow of your feet just from the light of the Milky Way.

In Europe you have to climb some remote, distant peaks, hike into the most remote, hidden valleys, search for dark places in national parks, fly to the islands to experience such a raw, unspoiled beauty of the starry skies. In this respect, it is a good movement that the Chilean government/tourism board is actively marketing their beautiful night skies and trying to protect them at the same time. I hope that other countries will also start to work on those topics.

Astronomer’s Paradise is just the first installment in Tafreshi and Malin’s “Atacama Starry Nights” series. The next time-lapse movie, to be released in March, will focus on the northern Atacama, the Valley of the Moon, and another major observatory, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi

Video and photos are copyright Christoph Malin and/or Babak Tafreshi. Used with permission.


  1. […] impressed with it's performance. If you are a Rocket Scientist, well just watch to the stars here: New Time-Lapse Gives Rare Glimpse at Atacama’s Starry Nights – News Watch. and enjoy some of my work. Cheers C timelapsers "Render No #1" Build: ASUS […]

  2. […] which highlight the gorgeous spangle of stars visible over lovely locales (for instance, in the high Chilean desert, the northern U.S. West, and the mountains of La Palma, in the Spanish Canary […]

  3. […] which highlight the gorgeous spangle of stars visible over lovely locales (for instance, in the high Chilean desert, the northern U.S. West, and the mountains of La Palma, in the Spanish Canary […]

  4. […] source : National Geographic […]

  5. David Guinart
    Barcelona (Catalonia)
    March 8, 2012, 12:53 pm

    Great video!

    “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
    -Carl Sagan –

  6. Glenn Roncal
    March 8, 2012, 12:49 am

    Nice work, however The Atacama Desert does not belong to Chile.

  7. […] Christoph Malin and Babak Tafreshi contains 7,500 images that will make you want to pack up and go! Link -via I Am […]

  8. […] Christoph Malin and Babak Tafreshi contains 7,500 images that will make you want to pack up and go! Link -via I Am […]

  9. nightdiver
    February 29, 2012, 8:54 am

    This is amazing looking, but I am puzzeled how the background of stars reverses direction if all of this footages was taken from the same place. Most all is clockwise rotation as it should be in the southern hemisphere but some clips obviously have the stars rotating counterclockwise. This is not looking at different portions of the rotation, that is the sector moving up vs the sector moving down. There are poritons with obvious rotation in the opposite direction. Also the telescopes are different in this part.

  10. Ernesto
    Rancagua, Chile
    February 29, 2012, 7:30 am

    Maravilloso, espectacular, hermoso …. me faltan adjetivos calificativos positivos para poder demostrar mi admiración.

  11. Tom Kilroy
    Albuquerque, NM USA
    February 28, 2012, 5:46 pm

    I lived in the Atacama for 5 years back in the late 60’s and can attest to the beauty of the area. I now do photography and will get back to San Pedro de Atacama to get the beautiful sky shots. The fishing in the Rio Loa and Rio Putana nearby is wonderful too

  12. ester shipman
    February 28, 2012, 11:47 am

    Hace 2 meses que estuve en San Pedro de Atacama y me vine maravillada de mi pais, y este video es un ejemplo. Cuando uno dice desierto, se imagina nada! No, no, no, no, el lugar es mistico y con una belleza dificil de explicar hay que sentirla, les recomiedndo visitar el Norte de Chile, saludos

  13. […] New time-lapse gives rare glimpse at Atacama’s starry nights […]

  14. […] New time-lapse gives rare glimpse at Atacama’s starry nights […]

  15. Rich
    February 26, 2012, 7:19 pm

    To see seven of the best time lapse video, The Aurora, The Mountain, Yosemite, and more go to;

  16. Lusilu
    February 26, 2012, 5:43 pm

    Its so amazing to be able to see such tremendous space in front of your own eyes, to experience the universe. And imagine, this is only a small part of it.

  17. Francisco Chinchilla
    February 24, 2012, 4:37 pm

    Increibles las imagenes, me siento demasiado orgulloso de vivir en este pais. Con este video aumentan mis ganas de ir a San Pedro de Atacama y observar el firmamento.

  18. Nuno Gois
    February 24, 2012, 7:59 am

    Thank you for sharing your dedication and Love for our Universe, my dream has always been to discover what is beyond what my eyes can reach, so THANK YOU FOR allowing me to Daydream :))))

  19. Rambles with Reese
    February 24, 2012, 2:05 am

    That was just stunning! This video of the sky shows us truly how magnificent and wonderful the Universe is and how we’re just a small part of it. Thank you.

  20. […] will never seen by those of us who live near civilization. Find out the details of this video from National Geographic and Vimeo. Incredible footage with some tranquil music leads to an out-of-this-world experience for […]

  21. Alex
    Riga, Latvia
    February 23, 2012, 2:42 pm

    Awesome movie. Watched it on full screen in HD.
    Got amazing time, feeking “universe”

  22. Kevin Crosby
    Nova Scotia, Canada
    February 23, 2012, 9:02 am

    That really shows the power and size of th universe.Would love to get copy of that video.Truly amazing!

  23. oliver
    Montego Bay, Jamaica
    February 23, 2012, 6:17 am

    this is awesomely cool and breathe taking. great job

  24. Anne Malecki
    February 22, 2012, 11:37 pm

    Thank you for the beauty. This filled me with wonderment.

  25. Gregory Overcashier
    February 22, 2012, 7:13 pm

    What is the red burst at 4:08

  26. Afrose Khan
    February 22, 2012, 4:56 pm

    I saw the night sky and it was so beautiful i wish that the sky had so much stars for the world to see.

  27. nathan
    February 22, 2012, 2:19 pm

    Well done. How do I get a job like this. No really I want to know send me an email.

  28. Marthe
    france ksa
    February 22, 2012, 1:16 pm

    thank you for posting this incredibly beautiful sharing of the universe 🙂

  29. Michelle
    New Mexico, USA
    February 22, 2012, 11:09 am

    Wonderful. We have good skies too, but the Chilean skies are superb.

  30. Eva María Pujante
    Torrevieja España
    February 22, 2012, 8:15 am

    Hermoso, fantástico, increible. El ser humano es un grano en el culo del universo, pero está hecho de la misma materia… Somos hermosos, pero aún no lo sabemos. Vivimos en un lugar increíble aunque no lo valoremos. El ser humano es un Dios pelele, sin memoria y sin escrúpulos. Espero que algún día despertemos de nuestra ausencia y seamos capaces de devolver a su estado original lo que hemos maltratado por ignorantes.
    Perdonad mis palabras, aún estoy conmocionada con tanta belleza. Paz.

  31. emma
    February 22, 2012, 7:18 am

    fasinating! so mysterious and beautiful!! what an amazing job you have!

  32. Jan Maly
    Czech Republic
    February 22, 2012, 6:54 am

    That’s incredible. I love the night sky.

  33. Philip Bailey
    February 22, 2012, 5:52 am

    A breathtaking display of the night sky and Milky Way. Such a shame that such sights are denied to the majority of Earth’s population. Still, a wonderful privilege for those able to experience it! I look forward to further instalments. Thank you for sharing the footage.

  34. Elif Kutbay
    February 22, 2012, 3:36 am

    Loved it so much! And I loved the slogan as well: one people one sky 🙂

  35. Wayne Cavanagh
    February 22, 2012, 12:12 am

    At 4:07 you can see a meteor explode…in time with the music. Is that what I am seeing? Great video too by the way.

  36. tbo
    February 21, 2012, 8:34 pm

    Any chance of seeing some of these images available as desktop backgrounds? Preferably at 2560×1440.

  37. R.Boggess
    February 21, 2012, 6:23 pm

    This video was AWESOME!!!! Thanks so much for sharing!

  38. Marcela Stevenson
    Argentina South America
    February 21, 2012, 5:52 pm

    Magnificas fotografía de un lugar árido y bello como es Atacama y su maravilloso panorama del cielo, límpido. Paisaje estelar único.

    February 21, 2012, 5:38 pm


  40. andre rodrigues sousa
    sao paulo brasil
    February 21, 2012, 5:32 pm

    fantastico !

  41. […] The video includes more than 7,500 still images taken between October and November 2011. It shows the beauty of the dark Atacama skies, sometimes framed by the four main domes of the Very Large Telescope, as well as a brief “behind the scenes” look at what telescope operators see from inside one of … https://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/… […]

  42. Duane Faulkner
    February 21, 2012, 5:13 pm

    Sooo So Sweet! Thanx for shareing! Very inspirational 🙂

    February 21, 2012, 5:09 pm


  44. christine
    Dawson Creek,B.C
    February 21, 2012, 5:09 pm

    All I can say is…Awsome!!!!! : )

  45. Janis Gay
    February 21, 2012, 5:06 pm

    Beautiful. The telescopes bothered me until I saw them as modern day Stonehenge. What must it have been like for early man to experience the night sky so intimately! Stars give us life and mythology.

  46. Jason
    February 21, 2012, 4:57 pm

    I thought the driest place on Earth was Antarctica?

  47. allison hannon
    February 21, 2012, 4:27 pm

    I had the pleasure of seeing the night sky in the sahara some years ago. the sky was so clear. it was awesome.