The Escondida copper-gold-silver mine produces more copper than any other mine in the world (1.483 million tons in 2007), amounting to 9.5% of world output and making it a major part of the Chilean economy. The mine is located 170 kilometers (110 miles) southeast of Chile’s port city of Antofagasta, in the hyper-arid northern Atacama Desert at an elevation of 3,050 meter (10,010 feet) above sea level.
This astronaut photograph features a large impoundment area (image center) containing light tan and gray waste materials (“spoil”) from of the Escondida mine complex. The copper-bearing waste, which is a large proportion of the material excavated from open pit excavations to the north (not shown), is poured into the impoundment area as a liquid (green region at image center), and dries to the lighter-toned spoil seen in the image. The spoil is held behind a retaining dam, just more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) long, visible as a straight line at image lower left.
Escondida means “hidden” in Spanish, and it refers to the fact that the copper ore body was buried beneath hundreds of meters of barren rock, and the surface geology gave no signs of its presence. Instead it had to be located by a laborious drilling program following a geologic trend—an imaginary line hundreds of kilometers long established by other known copper finds—with which Escondida lined up.
Escondida produces mainly copper concentrates. Assisted by gravity, the concentrates are piped as slurry down to the smaller port of Coloso just south of Antofagasta, where they are dewatered for shipping. The mine began operating in 1990.
Astronaut photograph ISS022-E-8282 was acquired on December 9, 2009, with a Nikon D2Xs digital camera fitted with an 800 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the the Expedition 22 crew. The image in this article has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast. Lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by M. Justin Wilkinson, NASA-JSC.
The impoundment area for waste materials associated with the Escondida Copper Mine in Chile is centered in this astronaut photograph from December 9, 2009.