A rare total solar eclipse plunged a vast swath of Latin America’s southern cone into darkness Tuesday, briefly turning day into night and enthralling huge crowds in much of Chile and Argentina. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Chile’s northern Coquimbo region near the Atacama desert — festooned with some of the planet’s most powerful telescopes — which was situated directly on the eclipse’s 150km-wide “path of totality.”
Large crowds congregated in the town of La Higuera near the landmark La Silla Observatory, some 2,400m above sea level and operated by the European Southern Observatory. The La Silla observatory and its fleet of powerful telescopes live streamed the event and opened the site to the public, hosting school tours along with talks and workshops. The eclipse had its longest duration as it made to La Silla: 2.36 minutes.
Solar eclipses happen when the Sun, the Moon and Earth line up, allowing the Moon to cast its shadow on Earth. The area where the observatory is located, with its dry weather, crystal-clear air and low light pollution, is a stargazers’ paradise. La Silla was one of the first international observatories installed in northern Chile. Today the region has almost half the world’s astronomical observation capacity.
To the west, in the coastal town of La Serena, thousands of people on the beach cheered and clapped at the moment when the Moon closed over the Sun and blocked it out completely. Many remained silent, enchanted and moved by one of nature’s spectacles.
Total solar eclipses are rare, but what is even rarer about Tuesday’s event is that it occurred directly over an area of the Earth most prepared to study the heavenly bodies. “Very seldom has it happened that the whole of an eclipse is seen over an observatory, the last time this happened was in 1991 at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii, said Matias Jones, an astronomer at La Silla.
Both Chile and Argentina were situated under the narrow, 9,600km band of Earth that experienced the eclipse. The eclipse began at 1:01pm local time in the Pacific Ocean, and a 150km-wide band of total darkness reached Chile’s coast at 4:38pm, before crossing into southeastern Argentina and into the wastes of the South Atlantic.
Scientists and astronomers will use data collected from studying the eclipse to verify theories and carry out experiments. “Eclipses are a chance to study the outer part of the atmosphere, which is the corona, since the moon is covering the entire central part of the Sun,” said Jones. The next total eclipse will be visible in southern Chile on Dec. 14 next year.
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