Chilean police are investigating the disappearance of a prominent British astrophysicist who went missing from the facilities of one of the world’s most powerful telescopes, allegedly after falling out with a PhD student.
Thomas Marsh, 61, a professor at the University of Warwick, was last seen on September 15 at the remote La Silla Observatory, high up in the Atacama desert. He and the student, who is understood to be studying at the same university, had arrived together from the UK two days previously.
Police have questioned the 23-year-old student, who has not been named.
There is no suggestion that he may have been involved in the professor going missing but that interview is said to have provided important information, although local authorities would not elaborate. The student is understood to be free to leave Chile should he wish.
Police officers and soldiers were scouring the rocky, barren terrain around the telescope for signs of Prof Marsh. His room, including his personal belongings, remains untouched at the observatory residence.
However, his keys were found in the desert between the telescope and the residential building. It is understood that it was the student who raised the alarm after Prof Marsh failed to show up for work on the morning of the 16th.
Adrian Vega, local prosecutor, said the search involved sniffer dogs and drones. “There are no reasons for us to think that he is not alive,” he told local newspaper El Día.
“Having mapped most of the area, the search has been focused on the more obvious areas for hiking, and we have found indications of people walking in those places,” Mr Vega added.
The paper also reported the alleged falling out between the astrophysicist and his student but without providing detail.
Members of Prof Marsh’s family were due to arrive in the area late on Wednesday, according to Chilean media.
His wife, Felicity, has tweeted a desperate plea for information about her husband’s whereabouts, urging anyone who knows anything to call the British police. “We and his friends and colleagues miss him desperately,” she wrote.
One of Prof Marsh’s colleagues, Odette Toloza, said that it was routine for him to take PhD students with him when he visited La Silla, which was important for his research into gravitational waves due to its exceptional instrument speed and ability to record images of the highest resolution.
She said that the student had sent out an email when the academic had failed to show up to calibrate instruments in line with the observatory’s strict protocol.
In an interview on Chilean TV, Prof Toloza, who is Chilean, added: “I’m not clear on the details but I know from the student that he asked after him at the observatory and no one could help.
“I met this student two weeks ago during a visit to the University of Warwick. As colleagues we’ve decided not to press him. He’s a PhD student, a young person. You can’t imagine being involved in a situation like this, having to report someone missing and give a statement, especially about someone who is your mentor.”
“The first thing that comes to mind when myself and colleagues speculate on what might have happened is a walk. The observatory has very nice walking areas around it and is a great place to see sunrise and sun fall from.
“Our first conclusions were that he went off for a walk and didn’t return but it’s madness to think that someone can disappear just like that and no one knows anything.”