Watch 9,700 kms of Latin America plunged into darkness by rare solar eclipse on 2 July

Some 3,00,000 tourists flocked to La Silla, where the dry, crystal-clear air & sparse light pollution created a stargazers' paradise.

A huge, 9,700-kilometre swathe of southern Latin America was plunged into darkness mid-Tuesday when day briefly turned into night under a rare total solar eclipse.

Captivated by the breathtaking spectacle, crowds of residents, tourists in the thousands took to beaches near the Chilean city of La Serena — cheering and clapping on the moment when the disc of the Moon fit perfectly over the Sun, blocking it out completely for over two and a half minutes. While everyone knew what they had come to witness, the two and a half minutes drew exclamations and awe-struck moans from the crowd, according to an AFP report.

"The truth is that even if one knows what's going on, it is shocking the minute that the shadow of darkness begins to come and that silence begins," Sonia Duffau, an astronomer, told AFP.

A total solar eclipse is a rare astronomical phenomenon just so. However, the eclipse on 2 July was doubly rare because of where it took place: directly over a region on Earth scattered with the best of telescopes and expertise to study heavenly bodies.

The Coquimbo region in Chile, near the Atacama desert is home to the planet's most powerful telescopes, and was directly under the solar eclipse's 160-kilometre-wide "path of totality."

"Very seldom has it happened that the whole of an eclipse is seen over an observatory, the last time this happened was in '91," Matias Jones, an astronomer at the landmark La Silla Observatory operated by the European Southern Observatory, told AFP. "I don't believe there's a better place in the world to see an eclipse than La Silla, because it is very dry, so it is almost certain that the sun will be visible," said Australian tourist Betsy Clark.

Some 3,00,000 tourists had reportedly flocked to La Silla, where the dry, crystal-clear air and sparse light pollution have created a sort of stargazers' paradise.

The eclipse began at 1.01 pm PT on 2 July (10.31 pm IST) in the Pacific Ocean, after which Chile's coastline was cast under a 150 kilometre-wide band of darkness around 4.38 pm PT on 2 July (5.08 am IST), before crossing into southeastern Argentina and into the wastes of the South Atlantic.

 Watch 9,700 kms of Latin America plunged into darkness by rare solar eclipse on 2 July

The total solar eclipse of 9 March 1997 as seen from Chita, Russia. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, who joined the crowds at La Higuera to watch the eclipse unfold, said that Chile was "the capital of the world in terms of astronomy...we are the eyes and the senses of humanity, being able to look, observe and study the stars and the Universe."

The region near the Atacama Desert in Chile today has nearly half the world's total astronomical observation capacity. Astronomers present and elsewhere will now make the most of the opportunity to study the totality, verify current theories and add new data from the totality to any related experiments they have undertaken.

"Eclipses are a chance to study the outer part of the atmosphere, which is the corona, since the moon is covering the entire central part of the Sun," said Jones.

But the sight wasn't just open to experts. Chile's observatory opened its gates to the public, hosted school tours, talks and workshops on the day, while its mighty telescope fleet recorded and streamed the eclipse for people around the world to view. Argentina wasn't as lucky. Little could be seen in the capital city Buenos Aires, where it was overcast, rendering the otherwise excellent view of the eclipse a waste. Perhaps the odds will be far better for them during the next total eclipse visible over southern Chile, on 14 December 2020.

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