by William J. Bechaver
As I wrote earlier, I was in South America last week to witness the total solar eclipse.
Someone asked me why I would travel so far “just” to see a total eclipse of the sun. The answer is simple. A solar eclipse is a rare opportunity to witness the alignment of the Sun, Moon, and Earth.
In a total solar eclipse, the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, casting its shadow in a narrow band across the surface of the Earth. If you are not within that narrow band, you don’t witness totality.
Though not all that rare of an occurrence, a solar eclipse happens about every twenty two months somewhere on the planet, being in the right place at the right time to witness one is a rarity. One usually has to travel to where one occurs. To be living in a path of totality is extremely lucky.
It is estimated that less than fifteen percent of the people on Earth have actually seen a total solar eclipse.
The next one to occur in the United States will be in April, 2024, but the closest it will be to us will be in Texas. Walsenburg will actually lie in the southern path of totality for a later eclipse, but that won’t occur until 12 August 2045. The rest of our area will be just south of totality, so will have to fly north, if we have flying cars by then.
But witnessing the totality of a Solar Eclipse is a singular experience, to witness day instantly turned to night, and then minutes later, the return of day, is a unique phenomenon that is worth traveling to the ends of the earth to witness, if possible, and it is definitely worth a trip to Kansas or Texas.
So, that is the long and simple answer why I would travel to South America to see a total eclipse. As it turns out, many people travel to see eclipses just for the joy of it. Some on our tour, sponsored by The Planetary Society, had seen a half-dozen of the events over the years, from a variety of locations all around the world.
I have witnessed two, the one in 2017 in America, from Kansas, and this one, this year, in Chile.
The trip began with a four day visit to mysterious Easter Island. That was part of the allure that drew me to the eclipse expedition. As many know, Easter Island was populated about a thousand years ago, by polynesian sea men. In the centuries that followed, they established a society that shunned their sailing skills, and focused on their rock sculpturing talents, to create the mysterious Moai, the large stone statues that now populate the island, looking mysteriously into the distance, from long in the past.
The tours of the island were fascinating, from the quarries where the statues were created, to the distant places on the island where they were finally erected, the mysteries of how they were made, how they were moved, and how they were stood, all remain mere theory today. No one is sure how the native Rapa-Nui accomplished their magnificent feats of engineering. But the mysterious sculptures of their devotion and the descendents of those who created them, still inhabit the island today. One was our guide for the tour, and will remain a friend for life.
On the morning of the total solar eclipse, we awoke early at our lodging outside Ovalle, near La Serena, in Chili.
It is winter in South America, and still dark when we departed. I noted Venus above the eastern horizon, and hoped to be able to see it during the darkness of totality later in the day.
We then caravaned up into the Rio Hurtado valley, into the mountains at the base of the mighty Andes, to a small town of El Chañar. There we were hosted by the school, which has a total of nine students.
The parents of the school made us traditional dishes on which we dined, and provided a day full of entertainment with local dances and music. The hospitality of this small town of about 400 residents, was overwhelming.
As totality approached, I walked around the town, visiting the church yard and the local park. All was quiet as residents and visitors alike gathered for the event behind the school. I actually watched totality from the street near the school, with a few others.
As darkness descended on the high-mountain valley, the natives grew restless, whooping and hollering, beating drums and honking car horns. Then the moment of totality arrived, as the shadow of the moon darkened the entire valley.
I snapped a few images during totality, but then put aside phone and camera just to enjoy the spectacle of the total solar eclipse. The corona, the light shining around the Moon, was too bright to discern Venus in the darkened sky. A few stars did peer out above, but then were gone again, as the Sun reemerged, in a diamond ring apparition.
Totality lasted about two minutes. The small town that had generously hosted us sent us away with parting gifts by which to remember them.
There, in tiny El Chañar, I met Christian and his brother Pablo, two local young men from the area, a college student and his younger brother. In their excellent English, we visited, and they shared local lore with me, and extended their hospitality. It was a truly moving and amazing day, spent with the distant people in the tiny village of El Chañar, in Rio Hurtado, Chile.
Chile is a popular location for astronomical observations. In fact, most of the largest and most modern observatories are, or are being, constructed in the high mountains of Chile.
There are several reasons for this scientific boom on the high peaks of the Andes. The air is clear and dry way up there, the skies dark beyond compare.
Also is Chile’s location in the southern hemisphere. Being in the south, the constellation Sagittarius is perpetually in the night sky. Here in the north, we can only see the constellation in the summer months. Sagittarius lies toward the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. There, most of the stars and nebula of our galaxy can be seen. It is the active center of our home galaxy. With perpetual observation opportunities toward the center of the galaxy, Chile looks right into the heart of the galaxy, every night of the year.
This was my first venture in the southern hemisphere, and therefore, my first opportunity to view southern stars and southern constellations.
From Easter Island I first saw the beautiful Southern Cross, high in the sky, near the stars of Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, in the region of Proxima Centauri the stars a little over four light-years distant, the nearest stars to our own, and our nearest neighboring solar system.
In the early morning hours, I saw the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud, small irregular galaxies among some of the closest to our own. They were first charted by Magellan when he circumnavigated the globe.
Our normal constellations of Pegasus, Orion, and even the teapot asterism in Sagittarius were visible in the southern winter sky, but difficultly discernable. They are inverted in the northern part of the sky, basically upsidedown and oddly situated in the northern skies. Not at all where we are used to seeing and identifying these common celestial star formations.
As the Sun oddly traverses the northern sky, from east to west, the south strangely feels like it is north, but then the Sun would be rising in the west and sinking in the east. Likewise, along with the Sun, the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and all the planets traverse the sky in the north, a position directly opposed to everything in my astronomical experience. Everything in the sky, day and night, is strangely inverted in the southern hemisphere, and strange to get accustomed to in a brief time.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.