For Williams astronomer with eye for eclipses, journey to Chile finds best seat in the house

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Editor's note: This article has been amended from its original version to correct the location of the National Solar Observatory, which is based in Colorado.

LA HIGUERA, CHILE — While millions of people had their eyes trained to the skies in the United States last week to watch Fourth of July fireworks, a small team of astronomers from Williams College were looking up to the heavens in Chile, waiting for the sky to turn black.

On Tuesday, Professor Jay Pasachoff, his students and associates stationed themselves at a remote mountainside location in northern central Chile to document a total solar eclipse that cut across the southern hemisphere. Other colleagues of the Williams expedition were based at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Coquimbo region to gain a different view and data set on the inner workings of the sun, as seen only during an eclipse.

This trip marked Pasachoff's 71st eclipse observation, and 35th time studying a total eclipse, keeping him at the top of the umbraphile leaderboard.

"We had a fantastic day with cloudless skies and beautiful corona," Pasachoff reported to The Eagle via email. "Out of my new total of 71 solar eclipses, this one ranks with the very best. The beautiful sparse and isolated observing site coupled with perfect sky conditions led to our satisfaction."

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During Tuesday's eclipse, the moon crossed into the sun's path during the late afternoon, casting a shadow over the viewing sites. This solar eclipse only lasted about two minutes and six seconds, but having a clear view to document the event through telescopes, spectrographs and other types of equipment takes years of planning so scientists can take advantage of the best imaging, angling and weather conditions.

The La Higuera team, stationed at an altitude of 2,500 feet, included Pasachoff and Williams College seniors Christian Lockwood, Erin Meadors and John Inoue. The Cerro Tololo team, based at the higher altitude of about 7,500 feet, included Williams alumnus Kevin Reardon of the National Solar Observatory, based in Colorado; Alan Sliski of Lincoln, Mass.; University of Massachusetts at Amherst alumnus and University of Pennsylvania graduate student David Sliski; and Aristeidis "Aris" Voulgaris of Greece.

Lockwood, Meadors, Voulgaris and David Sliski all previously joined Pasachoff on an expedition to Salem, Ore., to document the Aug. 21, 2017, total solar eclipse, the most recent to occur and be visible in the United States. The next total solar eclipse slated to slice across the U.S. will be April 8, 2024, with the path of totality moving from Mexico, and diagonally across Texas to Maine and into Canada.

With the moon blocking out the intense brightness from the solar disk, scientists can better observe the activity in the sun's dimmer corona, the outer edge. For Pasachoff and his teams, viewing a solar eclipse offers them the chance to study the sun's atmosphere and magnetic field through motion, emissions, temperature changes and other dynamics. For the average person, a total eclipse offers a rare chance to experience some very tangible effects, like temperature drop while watching the daytime cycle to dark and back into light in mere minutes.

"Many thousands of people from around the world traveled to South America for the eclipse and were rewarded with striking views of the dramatic eclipse phenomena," Pasachoff said.

The work of the Williams College team is supported from a new grant from the Solar Terrestrial Program of the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division of the National Science Foundation. The award provides $251,000 in funding over the three years and includes travel, equipment, summer salary for faculty and students, shipping charges, scientific-meeting participation and publication charges. This expedition included additional support for student travel from the International Travel Program at Williams College, with student research support from the NASA Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium.


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