If it sounds like an otherworldly experience, that’s because it’s sure to be. And it’s one that thousands have eagerly been preparing for leading up to a December 14 total solar eclipse that will track across Chile and Argentina.
But virtually none will be able to go, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Both countries have sealed their borders to international tourism, and show no signs of reversing that decision before the once in a lifetime celestial spectacle.
Even veteran eclipse chasers, like Jay Pasachoff, a professor of astronomy at Williams College, say this year’s eclipse is far from a routine venture for those even able to go.
“This year is the worst,” said Pasachoff.
He’s one of three people globally to hold the world record for eclipse chasing, having witnessed thirty-five total solar eclipses since his first in 1959. That one, which he and fellow classmates his freshman seminar viewed from a plane, left him hooked on what would be a lifelong addiction.
“Each time it gets better and better,” he said.
A total solar eclipse meets a meteor shower
Solar eclipses are something that have to be seen to be understood. Astronomers and stargazers alike routinely travel tens of thousands of miles across the world, all in hopes of basking in the moon’s shadow for mere minutes every few years. There’s a reason for it, and most struggle to put it into words.
Some make a tradition of chasing eclipses around the globe, each rendezvous with the solar “corona,” or the sun’s atmosphere, like a familiar meeting with an old friend. Totality during December’s total solar eclipse will last just over two minutes, the fleeting phenomenon most spectacular shortly after 1 p.m. local time.
“If you add up all the eclipses I’ve seen, I’ve worked on seventy-five eclipses — annual and partial,” said Pasachoff.
“All the people just cheer as the diamond ring effect happens and it goes into totality,” Pasachoff explained. “It’s such a moving thing.”
Meanwhile, the Geminid meteor shower, which could slingshot dozens of shooting stars across the sky every hour, will have just peaked — meaning sporadic green meteors may make an appearance when the sun goes dark.
Included in the path are the northern fringes of Patagonia, a South American region known for its natural beauty. It’s home to desert, volcanoes, the Andes Mountains, glaciers, and breathtaking fjords.
Major travel hurdles
A number of travel agencies offered combined sightseeing and eclipse tours, scouting out locations to build an itinerary years in advance. In the past several months, however, they have been forced to cancel their trips.
The same is true in Argentina, where the U.S. Embassy has listed the country as being in a level 4 out of 4 “do not travel” advisory.
“Travelers to Argentina may experience border closures, airport closures, travel prohibitions, stay at home orders, business closures, and other emergency conditions within Argentina due to covid-19″ wrote the U.S. State Department.
Both Chile and Argentina last enjoyed a total solar eclipse, about a year and half ago, on July 2, 2019. That one featured a wide path of totality that crossed through La Serena, Chile, before passing south of Córdoba, Argentina. The eclipsing sun and moon set together just south of Buenos Aires.
An opportunity for researchers
Missing an eclipse is disappointing for astrotourists, but can have enormous implications for scientific researchers. A total solar eclipse is the only time when the sun’s atmosphere can be directly studied from earth. For solar scientists, opportunities for observation are few and far between.
Pasachoff secured a special visa from the Chilean government to enter for research purposes, but most others won’t be so fortunate.
“There is still a worry if I do get to go, and we’re trying to be as careful as possible and have encounters with as few people as possible,” Pasachof explained. “I actually did have to miss the annular eclipse in June [in Africa and the Middle East]. I was unable to get anywhere.”
Pasachoff is teaming up with Predictive Science, a San Diego-based organization that makes forecasts about the sun’s magnetism and atmosphere, and what the corona will look like. Pasachoff hopes to be able to map the corona in its entirety to help make better predictions in the future.
“We have other observations we are hoping to make too,” said Pasachoff. “We think it’s important to keep the solar cycle represented as often as possible. We’re working ahead with our equipment and our packing.”
The team is also working with atmospheric scientists to determine how the eclipse, and its sudden nightfall, affect the weather.
Pasachoff is disappointed that more people won’t experience the grandeur of this year’s eclipse, but he’s already looking ahead to next year’s.
That one will be even trickier to see — regardless of whether or not international borders reopen to travel — both because of its remoteness and the likelihood of clouds.
“On December 4th , there’s an eclipse that starts off the coast of South America and crosses Antarctica,” said Pasachoff. “The weathers statistics are not good for that one to see it from the ground.”
Naturally, Pasachoff has a plan.
“We will see that one from a plane.”