Solar Eclipse Will Pass Over A Major Observatory In Chile

Jul 2, 2019
Originally published on August 19, 2019 5:28 am


Later today, an eclipse will sweep across the Pacific Ocean and then pass over parts of Chile and Argentina. One thing that makes this eclipse special is that it's going to pass directly over a major observatory in Chile. And you know who is there right now at that observatory? Our own Joe Palca.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. I'm going to try to pronounce this - the observatory is called Cerro Tololo, correct?

PALCA: That's right. It's the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.

MARTIN: OK. And what makes it such a good spot to view the eclipse?

PALCA: Well, as you can imagine, they picked a spot where the air is extremely clear. And it's 7,000 feet above sea level, so you don't have too much of the lights from the ground to worry about. And it's just a spectacular spot. The air's so clear. And for day or nighttime viewing, you get a amazing sight of the sky.

MARTIN: So they're going to be watching this thing because it'll be an amazing spectacle. But they're also going to do science, presumably (laughter). What are they going to look at?

PALCA: Absolutely (laughter). Yes, that's right. If they can stop gawking for a few minutes, yes, they will do science.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PALCA: So the eclipse presents this really unique opportunity to look at some of the outer atmosphere of the sun, called the corona. It's normally - it's very hot. It's wispy. And it's actually very important because it's the particles that are energized in this outer atmosphere that are shooting down in the solar wind and can actually, in solar storms, cause problems here on Earth. That wispy outer atmosphere is only completely visible when the sun's light, which is much brighter, is blocked out.

So people have brought up all kinds of instruments. They don't reside here. They've come up here partly because there's a telescope here. And the telescope has - they're not using the telescope that's here; they're using the infrastructure that's here that allows them to drive up a road and connect to the Internet...


PALCA: ...And do all these other things so they can do their science.

MARTIN: So you are there at this moment, on top of this mountain...

PALCA: I am...

MARTIN: Just explain what you're looking at. What is this place like?

PALCA: Well (laughter) - well, right now I'm inside the dome of the largest telescope up here, the Victor Blanco Telescope. And I mean - so I'm in a little room. I can't see anything right at the moment. But as I...

MARTIN: That sounds spectacular

PALCA: Yeah, really. You've got to come here sometime.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PALCA: But as you - as we walked up to this site at about 6 in the morning, it's completely dark 'cause we're in winter down here. So it's cold, it's dark. But the sky is unbelievable. And off in the distance, you can see the twinkling lights of a town - well, not even twinkling because there's no disturbance from the atmosphere. I mean, these lights are practically solid bright.

So it's just - I mean, if you need something, Rachel, to lift your spirits, come up to the top here sometime, and just wait until nighttime and look around. It's fantastic.

MARTIN: I wish I could get on a flight to Chile. But you know what? Worst-case scenario, you, Joe Palca, will tell me what you see, and it will be spectacular.

PALCA: You bet. I'll do it.

MARTIN: NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.