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Solar eclipse at Easter Island
Posted: 9 July 2010

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A spectacular total solar eclipse over the ancient statues of Easter Island is set to occur on 11 July, where those lucky enough to have made it to the Pacific will witness the last total eclipse to occur until November 2012.

The solar eclipse as seen from China on 22 July 2009. Images: Nick Howes.

Unlike recent eclipses that have passed over large land masses such as China, parts of Russia, Turkey and Africa, the 11 July eclipse passes over mainly ocean, with only a small scattering of tiny Polynesian islands experiencing totality. The total eclipse begins at 18:15UT, in the South Pacific, but the nearest islands are Tonga 700 kilometres to the north-west, and New Zealand 1,800 kilometres to the south-west. The shadow of the Moon in front of the Sun heads north-west, passing very close to Raratonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, whose small population will see 99 percent of the Sun covered at 18:19UT. The first island to fall under totality is Mangaia, the second largest of the Cook Islands. Tourists flocking to tiny Mangaia will experience three minutes and 18 seconds of totality. Cloud should hopefully be at a minimum over Mangaia; July is its driest month.

The path of totality skirts close to, but doesn’t include, the likes of Bora Bora and Tahiti, before hitting the small atoll of Hikueru and moving on to what some consider to be the main event: the eclipse over Easter Island. Known to the Polynesians who colonised the island over a thousand years ago as Rapa Nui, Easter Island is famous for its 887 giant stone statues, locally called ‘moai’, and the giant stone platforms on which they stood, called ‘ahu’. The majority had been toppled during feuds between the island’s colonists by the time the early European expeditions in the eighteenth century arrived, but renovation efforts have repaired many of the ‘moai’, and to witness the eclipse standing amongst these great statues will truly be a once in a lifetime experience.

The track of the eclipse across the Pacific Ocean. AN graphic by Greg SmyeĞRumsby.

Totality begins for the thousands of tourists that will fill tiny 11 x 23 kilometre Easter Island at 20:11UT, and lasts for four minutes and 41 seconds. The event commences with first contact at 18:40, second contact is at 20:08, third contact 20:13 and forth contact 21:34.

The downside is that, unlike the Cook Islands, Easter Island is in the middle of its rainy season, although there is still a 50 percent chance of clear skies, and any clouds that do form offshore or above Rapa Nui’s three extinct volcanoes, called Rano Kau, Poike and the largest, Terevaka, should clear as the air cools prior to the eclipse. The southern coast of Easter Island is recommended as the best spot in regards to the weather.

Not everyone will be on an island; there will undoubtedly be eclipse chasers on aeroplanes and cruise ships in the Pacific too, which will enable them to manouevre into position to experience a full five minutes and 20 seconds along the best parts of the track.

The eclipse actually hits continental land when it passes over Southern Chile at 20:49UT, but the Sun is just a mere five degrees above the horizon and totality lasts just two minutes and 57 seconds. To compound matters the region of Chile over which it passes is riddled with fjords and mountains, though anyone passing through the tourist village of El Calafate with the Sun just a degree above the horizon will see the eclipse over Lake Argentino. One hundred and thirty kilometres south-east of El Calafate the eclipse comes to an end after two hours and 39 minutes, and 11,100 kilometres of largely ocean water. The majority of us can only wait with envy to see the images of the eclipse from those lucky few that have been able to make it out to the Pacific Islands along the eclipse track, and we’d be delighted here at Astronomy Now to feature any images from readers who have been fortunate enough to make it out there.

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