On Sunday, the moon will pass between the sun and the Earth and throw its dark shadow upon our planet's surface in one of nature's great spectacles: a total eclipse of the sun. It could be the ultimate cosmic photo op, but only if you're on the remote Easter Island.
The July 11 solar eclipse will mark the third summer in a row such a celestial event has occurred. But unlike last year, when literally tens of millions of people experienced the passage of the shadow as it swept across India and China, Sunday's eclipse will be experienced by at best, tens of thousands.
Still, there will be several thousand individuals who are hoping to get a view of the totally eclipsed sun from perhaps one of the most isolated and remote spots on the face of the Earth: the legendary and mystical Easter Island.
IN PICTURES: Solar eclipse
A record number of visitors are there now to witness Sunday's big sky show, many of whom hoping to get what likely will be the photo-op of the century: capturing an image of the solar corona with one or more of Easter Island's enormous statues, known as "moai," in the foreground!
Writes science journalist, Dan Falk: "I've been looking forward to this remarkable natural event for more than a decade. It's an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I intend to pull this off without any kind of digital manipulation.
"Obviously, with Photoshop, one could pretend to have witnessed a total eclipse over the Eiffel Tower, or from inside your local Starbucks for that matter. But where's the challenge in that? My goal is to capture a single, unique scene, just as it appeared to the unaided eye."
(This graphic shows the ground track depicting where this total eclipse of 2010 will be visible from and when.)
The largest concentration of eclipse watchers will likely congregate within the Patagonian town of El Calafate, which is at the very end of the eclipse path. But, as I recently mentioned in an interview on NPR's Science Friday, you could probably put the total number of people who are within the totality path of Sunday's eclipse inside Yankee Stadium, with plenty of room to spare.
The last time a total solar eclipse was visible from Easter Island was more than 13 centuries ago, on Sep. 24, 656 AD, and the next time islanders get to see one will be 314 years from now, on Feb. 25, 2324.
Here is an extra fact to dwell upon as eclipse day nears: since anthropologists believe the island was only settled no earlier than 700 A.D. means that until this coming Sunday, no human inhabitant has ever seen a total solar eclipse from the island.
Exotic eclipse locale
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua, is a special territory of Chile. It is a breathtaking open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site with much of the island protected within the Rapa Nui National Park.
Fortuitously, it is also positioned almost directly within the path of the moon's shadow on Sunday affording both natives and tourists the opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse. [Solar Eclipse Photos]
The name "Easter Island" was given by the island's first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered it on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, while searching for Davis or David's island. The island's official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, is Spanish for "Easter Island."
It is 2,236 miles (3,600 km) west of continental Chile and 1,289 miles (2,075 km) east of the Pitcairn Islands (Sala y Gómez 257 miles (415 km) to the east, is closer but uninhabited). It is directly due south of Salt Lake City and directly due east of Brisbane, Australia. Easter Island is also the easternmost and almost the southernmost island of the South Pacific.
Approximately 1,200 or 1,300 years ago a double-hulled canoe filled with seafarers from a distant culture landed at Easter Island. Over the centuries that followed a remarkable society developed in isolation on the island.
For reasons still unknown they began carving giant statues out of volcanic rock. These enormous "moai" monuments are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered.
At least 288 of these once stood upon massive stone platforms called ahu. There are some 250 of these ahu platforms spaced approximately one half mile apart and create an almost unbroken line around the perimeter of the island.
Another 600 moai statues, in various stages of completion, are scattered around the island, either in quarries or along ancient roads between the quarries and the coastal areas where the statues were most often erected. The average statue is 14 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 14 tons.
Depending upon the size of the statues, it has been estimated that between 50 and 150 people were needed to drag them across the countryside on sleds and rollers made from the island's trees.
A mere 4,000 people live on this 64 square miles (166 square km) patch of hills and volcanoes. And yet, despite being the most remote inhabited island on Earth, tourism has boomed, going from 22,000 tourists in 2003 to more than 50,000 in 2006. With the opening of Mataveri Airport in 1967, travel to Easter Island from Chile and Tahiti became easy. A Boeing 767 flies from Papeete (Tahiti) and Santiago to Easter Island twice a week.
What Easter Island eclipse hunters may see
From Easter Island, at 18:41 UT (12:41 p.m. local time), the moon will begin to interpose the edge of its disk between the sun and the Earth; within a few minutes a small scallop of darkness will appear on the sun's left edge. Slowly, the moon will glide across the face of the sun, gradually cutting it down to a crescent. Finally, the sun will be a mere curved thread of light bordering the upper right edge of the black mass of the moon.
At 20:08:30 UT (2:08:30 p.m. local time) the vast "wall of darkness" which belongs to the moon's approaching umbral shadow will rush in; the northwest sky will appear to darken dramatically as if some great storm was brewing.
As the crescent fades into to a thin filament of light, it will not go out like a snuffed candle, but might disintegrate either into irregular dots and points of light known as "Baily's Beads," or perhaps just a singular bead of silvery light set on a thin luminous ring — the inner corona — producing a beautiful "Diamond Ring" effect.
The rather clammy light of the waning sun will seem to rush out in a deathly silence, as if suddenly immersed in a vacuum.
The darkened sun will stand nearly halfway up in the sky above the north-northwest horizon during Easter Island's 4 min. 41 sec. of total eclipse. As the waning solar crescent is fading away, some of the brightest stars and planets will appear.
Several minutes before totality, brilliant Venus, the third brightest object in the sky next to the sun and moon will begin to become evident high in the northeast. The most spectacular view, however, is afforded by the corona, a marvelous fringe of pearly white light. It differs in size, in tints and patterns from eclipse to eclipse.
It is always faint and delicate, with a sheen like a pale aurora. It has a variable appearance. Sometimes it has a soft continuous look; at other times, long rays of it shoot out in three or four directions. It may stand out from the disk in stiff streamers or end in brushlike tips.
The biggest concern for viewers will of course be the local weather.
Located in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, south of the tropic of Capricorn, Easter Island features a sub-tropical climate influenced by winds and ocean currents causing considerable variations throughout the year. The island is exposed for most of the year to the trade winds blowing toward the northeast. The "high" season for visiting Easter Island is from December through March, when sky conditions are sunniest and the least amount of precipitation falls.
This is especially true in December and January, where monthly rainfall averages about 3 inches (75 mm), although showers are only sporadic and last a short time.
Unfortunately, the eclipse will occur during the wet winter season and occasionally, heavy rainfall and rainstorms strike the island. These occur mostly in the winter months (June-August) and the eclipse falls right in the middle of this time frame!
Average daytime cloudiness approaches 60 percent. The percent of possible sunshine is a little less than 50 percent. About nearly 4.2 inches (108 mm) of rain falls in July with a 1 in 6 chance of rain falling at eclipse time.
day's eclipse is the second solar eclipse of 2010, but the first and only one expected to be a total solar eclipse. A partial, or annular solar eclipse, occurred on Jan. 15.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.
IN PICTURES: Solar eclipse