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Total solar eclipse to bring black sun, sudden nightfall to Antarctica

It is the last solar eclipse until 2023, but precious few will be able to see it.

A total solar eclipse seen from Vicuña, Chile, on July 2, 2019. (Matthew Cappucci)
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Day will turn to night for a few fleeting moments Saturday in Antarctica as the new moon intercedes between the Earth and sun. Daylight will be extinguished during the ephemeral total solar eclipse, the last worldwide until April 2023.

Unlike recent total eclipses seen from the United States and South America, only a select few will enjoy this one — and doing so required months or years of careful planning.

Total solar eclipses occur worldwide about once every 18 months. They’re not terribly rare, but their paths are quite narrow — sometimes only a few miles wide. That means any given location on the globe will witness a total eclipse only once every 375 years.

It was real, and it was spectacular. Remembering the 2019 solar eclipse over Chile.

Saturday’s eclipse in Antarctica falls nearly a year after the Dec. 14, 2020, eclipse that darkened skies over Chile and Argentina, although an atmospheric river spoiled the show with cloud cover remaining thick for some sky watchers.

Total solar eclipses occur when the moon fully blocks sunlight from reaching a narrow sliver of Earth. While the sun is 400 times wider than the moon, the moon is 400 times closer. That near perfect match allows for the moon to occult the sun for seconds on the minute. The longest that totality can theoretically last during a total solar eclipse is 7 minutes 32 seconds. Saturday’s will bring only up to 1 minute 54 seconds of totality.

Solar eclipses are special because they afford Earth dwellers the chance to bask in the moon’s shadow while simultaneously viewing the atmosphere of the sun. The solar “corona” is millions of degrees hot and can be seen radiating into space, its milky-white luminance resembling hair blowing in the wind as solar plasma traces lines of magnetic field.

Total eclipses are the only time the corona can be seen from Earth, making each an extremely important opportunity for astronomers and solar scientists. Predictive Science, a California-based company, released forecasts of how the corona will look.

It’s the first total solar eclipse to occur in Antarctica since Nov. 23, 2003, when a picturesque sunrise total eclipse left a jet-black void in the sky where the sun otherwise would have appeared. Because the corona’s light was shining though greater lengths of the atmosphere, it appeared tinged with amber hues.

This time around, the shadow, or umbra, will make landfall over Antarctica near Berkner Island, and exit the continent near Shepard Island. The path of totality will be up to 260 miles wide.

Because of the atypically large shadow, any fringes of daylight will be suppressed near the horizon, squashing back the prodigal “360 degree sunrise” that accompanies solar eclipses. It will also render totality darker, which amplifies the possibility that the aurora australis, or southern lights, may be visible simultaneously.

Unfortunately for sky watchers, getting to Antarctica isn’t an easy task. Only the most affluent and intrepid will be able to experience Saturday’s eclipse, and even the lucky few that can are facing major travel complications involving the novel coronavirus and its newly detected omicron variant.

Sky and Telescope Magazine had chartered a flight into totality that was to leave from Chile, but travel uncertainty forced its cancellation.

Direct Travel, which operates the website, advertised a cruise to the Southern Ocean to rendezvous with the moon’s shadow. Weather may be a challenge in the notoriously tempestuous region, but the cruise, which departs from Argentina, also features other sights, including a meeting with penguins on Antarctica’s Palmer Peninsula. Prices range between $13,000 and $33,000 per person.

The last total solar eclipse in the United States dazzled sky watchers from Oregon to South Carolina in 2017. The next U.S. total solar eclipse will take a path from Texas to Maine on April 8, 2024.

Missed the solar eclipse? You won’t have to wait too long for the next one.