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South Americans look to skies as total solar eclipse nears

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La Higuera (Chile) (AFP)

Tens of thousands of tourists braced Tuesday for a rare total solar eclipse that was expected to turn day into night along a large swath of Latin America's southern cone, including much of Chile and Argentina.

Total solar eclipses are rare, but what is even rarer about Tuesday's event is that it is occurring directly over an area of the Earth most prepared to witness and study the heavenly bodies.

Chile's Coquimbo region near the Atacama desert -- festooned with some of the planet's most powerful telescopes -- is situated directly on the 100-mile-wide "path of totality" of the eclipse.

"Very seldom has it happened that the whole of an eclipse is seen over an observatory, the last time this happened was in '91," said Matias Jones, an astronomer at the landmark La Silla Observatory operated by the European Southern Observatory.

"I don't believe there's a better place in the world to see an eclipse than La Silla, because it is very dry, so it is almost certain that the sun will be visible," said Australian tourist Betsy Clark.

Clark and her family were among thousands who flocked to the peaks around the observatory on Tuesday.

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera headed to the nearby town of La Higuera to witness the eclipse with thousands of people who have headed there.

"Today is a very important day and one we have waited for so long," said Pinera.

Pinera said Chile was "the capital of the world in terms of astronomy, we are the eyes and the senses of humanity, being able to look, observe and study the stars and the Universe."

- Streaming the Eclipse -

The observatory and its fleet of powerful telescopes will livestream the event on the internet and has also opened to the public, hosting school tours along with talks and workshops

An estimated 300,000 tourists have flocked to the region where dryness, crystal-clear air and low light pollution have created a stargazers' paradise

"It's very good to see so many people here. It's very important to communicate that what we do is not so complicated, which would not be possible if we didn't have this connection with the public," said Armenian-Iranian astronomer Elyar Sedaghati, who was about to see his first total solar eclipse.

La Silla was one of the first international observatories to be installed in northern Chile, which, because of especially clear skies, has today almost half the world's astronomical observation capacity.

Scientists and astronomers will use the eclipse to verify some theories and carry out a series of experiments.

"Eclipses are a chance to study the outer part of the atmosphere, which is the corona, since the moon is covering the entire central part of the Sun," said Jones.

Further south, the capital Santiago will experience a near-total eclipse.

Solar eclipses happen when the Sun, the Moon and Earth line up, allowing the Moon to cast its shadow on Earth.

The next total eclipse will be visible in southern Chile on December 14, 2020.

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