Planning for the Unplannable

What it takes to run ESO’s scientific cities in the Atacama Desert

2 November 2018
What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • How ESO’s telescopes and staff are kept safe in the unforgiving Atacama Desert
  • The biggest challenges faced by a Site Safety Engineer at ESO
  • The risks involved in building and operating ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope
ESO manages and operates some of the most complex scientific instruments in the world, in some of the remotest places on Earth. Making sure they perform reliably is vital for providing astronomers with as much observing time as possible. Site Safety Engineer Christian Muckle tells us about how he protects ESO’s exceptional equipment and its employees by designing regulations that prevent disasters — or at least lessen their impact.

ESO’s goal is to build observatories and provide scientific data to the community, so we need to carefully consider the risks involved in designing and using this equipment.

Q: What is the duty of a Safety Engineer and how did you come to work in this role?

A: In principle, a Safety Engineer is an advisor. In French, it is nicely called le conseiller en prévention: the prevention advisor. I studied architecture, but I was always interested in the safety functions and the very basic sheltering features of buildings. After beginning my career at the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), I started my own company dealing with building evaluation, fire safety, and fire prevention for the hospitality industry — that company is now headed by my wife. And in 2010 I wanted to do something new, which is when, whilst being trained in industrial safety, I became an ESO Site Safety Engineer.

The crux of my work is to advise anyone with a safety issue on how to solve it. But we are not just implementing regulations at ESO; as an international scientific organisation we must develop and write them ourselves, especially when it comes to the one-of-a-kind equipment we produce. ESO’s goal is to build observatories and provide scientific data to the community, so we need to carefully consider the risks involved in designing and using this equipment.

Q: What kind of risks does ESO’s equipment face?

A: There are specific risks associated with every place on Earth. ESO’s telescopes are in Chile, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but also one of the most seismically active ones, which doesn’t go hand-in-hand with delicate telescopes! And the observatories are in the very remote Atacama Desert — there are no public emergency services or hardware stores there, so it’s essential that our equipment works safely. It must also resist all the sand and extreme temperatures without wear or safety issues. That’s my main focus — making sure the equipment that will one day end up on the mountain works well and doesn’t come with “surprises” for the people using it.

Q: ...and what kind of risks do ESO’s employees face? What does ESO’s safety record look like?

A: Here in Germany the highest risks typically involve people cycling to work in wintertime, skidding on ice, and other work-related traffic accidents. Traffic safety is one of the most challenging areas of my job — unfortunately, we can’t just tell the staff to take the subway!

Many people working at the ALMA radio telescope commute 28 kilometres each way on a narrow gravel road at altitudes of up to 5000 metres, so we must consider their vehicle type, promote drowsiness awareness, think about oxygen levels and more. At La Silla and Paranal Observatory, the traffic issue are less relevant, and the 24/7 operational and maintenance risks on large moving structures prevail. But, fortunately, ESO is a truly caring employer, and people rarely get hurt.

Q: How difficult is it to keep ESO running smoothly?

A: If there is a safety issue, calling the fire service or an ambulance is not an option — we have to take care of it ourselves. We are running whole villages on these mountains and tasks like moving the telescope domes, transporting and cooking a lot of food and storing and providing large amounts of fuel and water don’t come without risk.

Some activities come with predictable safety concerns, for example the Very Large Telescope shines powerful lasers 90 kilometres through the atmosphere. It was, and is, necessary to take precautions when building and adjusting the laser, and of course, we must be careful never to look into it! We also cooperate with local air traffic authorities to avoid dangers to aircrafts. Other technologies might come with unexpected safety risks, especially as our telescopes and their enclosures don’t exactly come off the shelf!

When building a telescope in Chile, it is vital to account for earthquakes. The ELT will weigh 8000 tonnes in total, and there is no immediate way to stop that much mass.


Q: How do your worries change with the construction — and then maintenance — of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)?

A: When building a telescope in Chile, it is vital to account for earthquakes. For the safety of the staff and the telescope itself, our mechanical engineers are doing many calculations to ensure that when the ground beneath the ELT starts shaking, the telescope remains as stable as possible. And what happens if there’s an earthquake while part of the equipment is in an unstable position on a crane? We need to consider potential dangers at every moment.

The bigger the structure, the more vigilant you have to be about its mechanical parts; the ELT will weigh 8000 tonnes in total, and there is no immediate way to stop that much mass. We will also have to recoat at least one of its 798 mirror segments each day. It will be a whole new world for us to work at such an industrial scale.

Construction is underway at Cerro Armazones — the home of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). When construction is complete the ELT will be the largest optical telescope ever built, with a dome the size of a cathedral.
Credit: ESO

Q: What experiences at ESO have been particularly important to you?

A: Maybe the moment I visited Paranal for the first time and saw my safety plans and contributions in place. When you see ESO’s telescopes in operation, and you see them under the starlight, how they move and perform, and the happy faces of the scientists who are gathering data — I think that’s one of the most rewarding moments. But there have also been some funny moments over here in Germany, like when we tested the Laser Guide Star system and people came through the fields and bushes to ask whether a new dancing hall had opened, because they had seen the light in the sky!

Q: Finally, what can we all do to make sure to maintain an excellent level of safety at ESO?

A: Safety is not only a matter of technology, it’s also a matter of soft skills, of awareness, empathy, and taking care. We should remain risk aware and empathetic towards our colleagues, understand the risks and preserve our fellows from harm — that’s the best prevention model.

Interview with:
Christian Muckle

Numbers in this article

1-2 Number of mirror segments of the Extremely Large Telescope that will need to be recoated each day.
8000 Mass in tonnes of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope and its dome.
28 Commuting distance — each way — for staff working at ALMA OSF.
90 Length of the beam of the Very Large Telescope’s Laser Guide Star.
2010 The year in which Christian Muckle joined ESO as a safety engineer.

Biography Christian Muckle

Born in 1964 in Heidelberg, Christian was brought up in Brussels. He studied architecture at the Technical University Kaiserslautern before returning to Brussels to work for the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). Following this role, Christian founded a hospitality consultancy office, offering building assessment and fire prevention advice to hotel groups. In 2010 he joined ESO Headquarters as Site Safety Engineer in charge of ESO’s safety referentials, the Garching/Vitacura Health, Safety, Security and Environment (HSSE) office, and the safety conformity assessment advice to projects. He now also supports the ELT as safety lead. Outside the office, you might encounter him boating at sea or on vintage car rallies.