Solar eclipse plunges Chile into darkness

A person observes a solar eclipse at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of tourists scattered across the north Chilean desert on Tuesday to experience a rare, and irresistible combination for astronomy buffs: a total eclipse of the sun viewed from beneath the world’s clearest skies.

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse is observed at Coquimbo, Chile, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, plunging the planet into darkness. It happens only rarely in any given spot across the globe.

The best views this time were from Chile’s sprawling Atacama desert north of the coastal city of La Serena, where a lack of humidity and city lights combine to create the world’s clearest skies.

The region had not seen an eclipse since 1592, according to the Chilean Astronomy Society. The next one is expected in 2165.

Eclipse-watchers in Chile were not disappointed on Tuesday. The 95-mile (150-kilometer) band of total darkness moved eastward across the open Pacific Ocean late in the afternoon, making landfall in Chile at 4:38 p.m. EDT (2038 GMT).

Clear skies dominated from the South American country’s northern border with Peru south to the capital of Santiago, where office workers poured from buildings to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon.

Earlier in the day, a run on special “eclipse-viewing” glasses downtown had led to a shortage in many stores, with street vendors charging as much as $10 for a pair of the disposable, cardboard-framed lenses.

“This is something rare that we may never see again,” said Marcos Sanchez, a 53-year-old pensioner from Santiago who had purchased 16 of the lenses from an informal vendor downtown for himself and his family.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Five planets visible in pre-dawn sky for first time in 11 years

Early-morning stargazers will have the rare opportunity to observe five planets at the same time during the next few weeks, according to a recent post on astronomy website

EarthSky says it’s the first time in more than 11 years that the five brightest planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — will simultaneously appear in the sky above Earth.

People had their first chance to catch the five planets before sunrise this morning, according to EarthSky, and the rare sight can be witnessed just before dawn every day through February 20.

The planets can be seen without a telescope or binoculars from anywhere on Earth, the EarthSky post says. Unclear skies could prevent some people from observing the spectacle on certain days.

NASA creates new office to lead asteroid defense efforts

A new office will lead NASA’s efforts to protect Earth from potential strikes from asteroids and comets, along with overseeing the agency’s efforts to discover and study the celestial objects.

NASA announced the formation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) in a news release last Thursday, saying the new creation is an improvement on the agency’s existing endeavors to detect any potential hazards to Earth and defend the planet against impacts.

NASA said the new office will supervise the agency’s research into so-called near-Earth objects — asteroids and comets that will come close to the planet — and communicate with federal agencies and foreign governments to develop an action plan if there is any chance of a strike.

The agency said none of the 13,500 known near-Earth objects pose any threat of impacting Earth, but about 1,500 new objects are discovered every year. A space rock that came within 300,000 miles of Earth last Halloween went undiscovered until three weeks before its arrival.

NASA officials mentioned that event and a meteor that entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2013 and created a massive fireball above Chelyabinsk, Russia, when announcing the PDCO. Those events “remind us of why we need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes to the sky,” John Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

According to NASA, research and discovery of near-Earth objects has surged in recent years thanks to an influx of funding. The federal budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $50 million for planetary defense and asteroid and comet research, compared to just $4 million in 2010.

NASA said it believes it has discovered 90 percent of near-Earth objects that are bigger than 3,000 feet, and it’s currently focusing on discovering smaller rocks that are a little bit larger than a football field. The agency estimates it has only located about 25 percent of those mid-sized asteroids and comets, though it had been asked in 2005 to find 90 percent of them before 2021.

The agency is also developing some strategies to potentially stop problematic asteroids.

NASA is currently trying to robotically redirect an asteroid into an orbit around Earth’s moon. The agency’s success there could ultimately determine if scientists can steer an Earth-bound asteroid clear of the planet, though NASA says it will likely be the 2020s before it has its answer.

If it’s not possible to prevent an impact, the new office will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate a response. The PDCO will also issue warnings about space rocks that will pass close to Earth and any potential impacts of their close presence.

“The formal establishment of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office makes it evident that the agency is committed to perform a leadership role in national and international efforts for detection of these natural impact hazards, and to be engaged in planning if there is a need for planetary defense,” Lindley Johnson, the PDCO’s Planetary Defense Officer, said in a statement.

Full Moon to Rise on Christmas for 1st Time Since 1977

Astronomy enthusiasts will receive an added gift this Christmas.

For the first time in 38 years, a full moon will be visible on Christmas morning.

According to NASA, the full moon will peak at 6:31 a.m. EST on Christmas Day. That means people getting up to head to an early mass or open presents will see a historic sight in the sky.

The last Christmas full moon occurred in 1977, NASA reports. To put that in perspective, other notable things to happen that year include the incorporation of Apple Computer, Jimmy Carter becoming president, the release of the original Star Wars movie and the death of Elvis Presley.

NASA says another full moon won’t be visible on Dec. 25 until 2034.