The temperature dropped, the sky dimmed, then darkened, wavy shadows moved across the ground, and shouts rang out! This could only describe one thing – the July 2, 2019 solar eclipse that started out in the Pacific Ocean, raced toward Chile, crossed most of Argentina, and ended just south of Buenos Aires. I was just outside the town of El Molle, Chile, at the CasaMolle Villa hotel with a small tour run by Sky & Telescope magazine.
It was a great group of 27 eclipse watchers. Most had seen at least one, many had seen several. My roommate from Maryland had seen 18 total eclipses. Several amateur astronomers were in the group and about six photographers of various skill levels. Leading the tour was Sky & Telescope senior editor Kelly Beatty, whose descriptions of various celestial and terrestrial sights during the tour were extremely informative.
The full group met in Santiago on June 30, with a few late arrivals including myself. Because of severe weather in New York and along the East Coast, my Miami flight had been canceled, which made me miss my connection to Santiago. Eventually I made it to Buenos Aires, then connected to Santiago, arriving in the evening with a couple from Tucson, who’d been even more delayed.
The next day we all flew to La Serena, Chile. Our ultimate destination was El Molle, a small town in the Elqui Valley with a better forecast for eclipse day. Winter in La Serena often brings fog that could block the sun in the afternoon. Fortunately eclipse day was cloudless and thousands of people gathered on the beach there to experience it.
Our first night we visited Del Pangue Observatory near the town of Vicuna. It’s a private observatory that rents out their telescopes for stargazing. We all got out of the vans, looked up at the dark sky and remarked, “Holy cow!” as a brilliant Milky Way arched overhead and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds hovered over the horizon. From Scorpius to Crux and beyond, we were seeing a big part of the Milky Way that most of us don’t see from the northern hemisphere (except for the couple in our group from Auckland, New Zealand). I brought my camera and ended up doing more shooting than observing.
The morning of the eclipse the sky was perfectly clear and stayed that way throughout the day. Our viewing area was at the edge of a golf course with nice sightlines through the valley.
I set up three cameras – a 500mm telephoto lens for tight shots and a wide-angle lens for a sequence. A short 70mm telephoto on the third camera was just for totality. My little Sony RX100-iii was set to do a video.
About 3:23 pm local time a small bite was taken from the sun and the eclipse was on. The sun/moon started moderately high in the northwest and made a diagonal from right to left as the day progressed.
It started to get chilly a few minutes before totality and remained much cooler during and after. The wind also picked up, complicating things for photographers.
Just before second contact, when the moon covers the sun’s disk, the light dimmed dramatically. The “diamond ring” effect seemed to linger for a few seconds, then shadow bands were very visible on the grass. The shadow bands look like narrow shadows racing across the ground and usually are hard to see. Shouts were heard from the crowd as we marveled at the bands.
Then it seemed as if someone flicked a light switch. Suddenly it was as dark as a deep twilight. Above the horizon was a black hole in the sky with a shimmering corona surrounding it.
We were in the shadow of the moon. Everyone cheered or shouted in awe.
Since the sun and moon were only 13 degrees above the horizon, the eclipse looked quite large to me, like the phenomenon of a full moon rise. The sky appeared much darker than during the 2017 eclipse – almost like night. Of course, I was fiddling around with my various cameras and had to force myself to look up while triggering the cameras with a wireless remote control.
We saw Venus at the very start of the eclipse right on the ridge of a mountain. I turned around to the east to see a bright Jupiter already up. It was dark all around, making it difficult to see some of the darker landscape. Time seemed to stop, though totality was only about 2 minutes and 21 seconds at our site. I felt like we were part of this incredible alignment of objects in our solar system.
As the diamond ring appeared at third contact, the shadow bands reappeared. I turned around to look at the large white domes set up for food and drinks and saw the bands rippling across the light-colored fabric. Amazing.
As the bands faded, so did totality. The moon slowly slid away from the sun, and the partial phases continued. Another cheer went up and the happy crowd toasted each other with champagne. I immediately checked the camera with the telephoto lens to make sure everything was working. Images of totality appeared and I was relieved. I continued to shoot the partial phases. From our vantage point the sun would be setting behind mountains while still partially eclipsed. As it approached the ridge line, the outline of the mountain could be seen along the bottom of the sun as the moon still eclipsed it. We were calling this “fifth contact.”
My roommate Martin viewed it all through small binoculars and reported large solar prominences along one quarter of the disk. All in all, it was a very nice eclipse, low in the sky, so easy to view, with mild temperatures and a beautiful setting.
I was doing some work for my former employer, Agence France-Presse (AFP), and spent the next couple of hours editing and sending off a set of pictures. They got used on many news sites, including a nice display in the Atlantic Monthly.
Our S&T tour continued through the Elqui Valley. I skipped the tour of the La Silla Observatory to meet up with my friend Henry Roe. He’s the deputy director of the Gemini South Observatory on nearby Cerro Panchon, and offered me a tour of the telescope and of the new Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) under construction on the mountain. That was hard to turn down. The Gemini telescope has an 8.1-meter mirror, which seems enormous in person, and images in infrared and visible wavelengths. I saw the secondary mirror of the LSST, the coating chamber for the glass, and stood under the spot where the main telescope support will be added.
The next day three couples returned home, while the rest of us continued on to the Atacama plateau, an extension to the tour that we had eagerly signed up for. The high desert of Chile, home to many observatories, did not disappoint.
Among the sights we saw were high-altitude salt flats with flamingos, geysers, and lagoons. But our main interest was ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.
We toured the Operations Support Facility where a consortium of international groups runs the array of radio telescopes. The highlight was a close-up view of one of the antennae, which they call a telescope, in the maintenance facility undergoing upgrades. It was impressive to see the big dish, which was made out of parts from three countries assembled on site with incredibly small tolerances.
The night before, we viewed more dark skies at SPACE, the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations, a privately-owned complex of telescopes.
But well before that, all on the tour were talking about where to be in 2020 for the next total eclipse.