Total solar eclipses are like the Super Bowls of astronomy. Groups of scientists develop game plans for capturing knowledge months or years in advance of each one—as do beginner astronomers, working to create their own stellar photos or execute their own research—and all of it comes down to some precious seconds under the Moon’s shadow. When the clock runs out, and the sun re-emerges, it’s game over.
The eclipse on Tuesday in Chile and Argentina was a uniquely special experience. Not only did it happen during a so-called solar minimum, when activity within the sun’s 11-year cycle of energy release is at its lowest, thereby reducing the amount of “clutter” for sure sorts of analysis, it also occurred to streak directly above several of the world’s most prominent observatories. Their operators chose the places in Chile’s Atacama Desert because of the pristine viewing circumstances there—conditions that also contributed to incredibly crisp and clear viewing of the eclipse, even when the big telescopes had been shuttered for the event to guard their sensitive instruments.
The occasion didn’t disappoint. They observed with researchers and a small collection of enthusiasts atop Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Though the planning for the occasion started years ago, final on-site preparations came about within the days, hours, and minutes leading up to the two minutes of totality on the late afternoon in the southern winter, with the final push arriving after a pre-daybreak drive to the mountaintop from La Serena, on the Chilean Coast.