On Tuesday morning the sun rose over Oeno Island, a normally uninhabited coral atoll in the South Pacific, as a black hole in the sky, feathered with pale whiskers of light.
And so began, once again, one of the great spectacles available to the inhabitants of the Earth. The great cosmic rinse cycle of death and rebirth. The dying and return of the light against an ethereal wallpaper of the stars. A total solar eclipse.
Every two years or so, in their ceaseless rhythmic dances through the sky, the sun, moon and Earth line up like cosmic billiard balls. Somewhere along a narrow arc of Earth — this time in Chile and Argentina — the shadow of the moon sweeps across the world, the day dies, colors melt and dissolve the landscape, the stars step out of sudden twilight, animals go to sleep and wake up, the temperature drops, the wind blows. The whole shadow, moving at a thousand miles an hour, is ringed by a wall of rainbow.
Anchored by a circle of black absentness, ghostly streamers of light from the sun known as the corona spread out, pinned to the sky like a butterfly on a lepidopterist’s board.
It is a revelation so brief, lasting only a few minutes at most, and spiritually violent, that grown-ups often find themselves inexplicably screaming, crying and then booking flights to the next eclipse site as soon as they can.
The last total eclipse seen on this planet was in August 2017, when noonday darkness swept across the continental United States coast to coast. The next one due will be in Argentina in December 2020.
For most of the next two hours after it left Oeno Island, however, Tuesday’s eclipse was a show reserved for porpoises and the occasional eclipse cruise ship. It traced a path to the northeast with its cargo of just four minutes of darkness maximum, just missing Easter Island — now that would be a place to watch time melt! It then curved southeast, its shadow not hitting land again until it reached La Serena, Chile. It sprinted across the Atacama Desert and Argentina before ending at sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.
As it happens, that last small stretch of eclipse track in Chile is home to some of the biggest, most modern observatories in the world, including La Silla Observatory, operated by the European Southern Observatory, and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, headquartered in La Serena. Not that you need an 8-meter-diameter telescope to see the sun.
Photographers and astronomers were strung out across the Atacama Desert waiting for the sun to spread its coronal wings on their examining table.
Astronomers are particularly interested in the corona, a mandala of energetic hot gases flying off the sun’s surface and filling the inner solar system in radioactivity and magnetic turbulence. But it can be seen only when the sun’s disk is blotted out because the corona is too faint — about as bright as a full moon — to be seen against the rude glare of the full sun.
They want to know how the corona winds up at temperatures of a million degrees, thousands of times hotter than the sun itself, perhaps by being jackhammered by magnetic fields near the surface, a reminder of the intricacies as well as the violence that come with living alongside a star.