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One week until the South American total solar eclipse

By Joe Rao
June 25, 2019, 6:30:58 PM EDT

On Tuesday, July 2, a lot of ocean and a few tiny bits of land will lie under a moon-blackened sun. A total solar eclipse will take place that day ... the first total eclipse of the sun since the Great American Total Eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017.

On that day, the long, thin finger of the moon's dark umbral shadow will again draw its tip — averaging 95 miles (150 kilometers) in width — across Earth's surface. But unlike the total solar eclipse in 2017, which offered a multitude of possibilities for land-based viewing, the 6,800-mile (11,000-km) path of the 2019 eclipse will be confined almost exclusively to the South Pacific Ocean.

south america total solar eclipse promo

As the moon blocks the sun during the total solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, the sun's wispy corona came into view. (Image credit: ESO/P. Horálek/Solar Wind Sherpas project)

Story of the shadow

The total eclipse track begins at local sunrise, 2,175 miles (4,000 kilometers) east-northeast of Wellington, New Zealand. The moon's dark shadow will make its very first landfall when it moves across Oeno Island, a remote coral atoll and part of the Pitcairn Islands. Oeno Island serves as a private holiday site for the few residents of Pitcairn Island, who travel there and stay for two weeks in January, during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

The total area of Oeno Island measures only 120 acres. The island is known principally for its colony of Murphy's petrels; with about 12,500 pairs, the site is estimated to be the second largest colony of these birds in the world. The birds — and likely some hardy eclipse chasers — will experience 2 minutes and 53 seconds of total eclipse at 18:24 GMT.

The moment of greatest eclipse comes just 1 hour later, when the duration on the centerline of the eclipse path lasts the longest: 4 minutes and 32.8 seconds, at a point about 1,600 miles (2,600 km) southwest of Isla Isabela of the Galapagos Islands, but still over open ocean waters.

The shadow at this time also misses the mystical Easter Island, passing some 670 miles (1,080 km) to the north. However, a special airborne expedition will attempt to "chase" the shadowusing a 787 Dreamliner aircraft, in hopes of extending the length of totality to 9 minutes.

Sadly, there will be no other landfall along the entirety of the Pacific track of 5,900 miles (9,500 km). Out of the 161 minutes that the shadow's umbra will be in contact with Earth, only in the final 4 minutes will it make its second landfall in central Chile, at 4:39 p.m. local time (2039 GMT), before rapidly continuing east-southeast through central Argentina. The path will come to an end just before reaching Río de la Plata and the nation of Uruguay, and then it will lift off Earth at sunset and return to space.

World-class observatories in the path

observatory total solar eclipse

This simulation shows the predicted path of the eclipsed sun in the sky above the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile on July 2, 2019. (Image credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi ( Horálek)

The shadow's path will take it on a southeastern course, where it will envelop the Elqui Valley, a region 87 miles (140 km) long that stretches from the Pacific Ocean eastward into the Andean foothills. The valley typically enjoys exceptionally dry and clear weather, which is the chief reason, notes astronomer and highly regarded eclipse expert Fred Espenak, "that a string of major international astronomical observatories have been built there; it's no surprise then that the Elqui Valley is the focus of many 2019 eclipse expeditions."

Indeed, it is a very fortuitous circumstance that Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, a world-class facility of astronomical telescopes and instruments located 50 miles (80 km) east of La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters), is within the totality path and will witness 2 minutes and 6 seconds of total eclipse.

Several observatories in the track of totality of the solar eclipse have now announced live webcasts; here's how to watch them live online.

After the eclipse passes over Chile, the speed of the umbral shadow will rapidly increase as it begins to slide off Earth's surface. In fact, the shadow covers the 800-mile (1,300 km) stretch across Argentina in only 3 minutes. That equates to an average speed of 16,000 miles (26,000 km) per hour!

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