Solar Science Teams Selected for 2019 Eclipse at CTIO

(22 October 2018)

National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile at Sunset. Credit:T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF

By Claire Raftery, NSO

July 2nd 2019 will be a very special day in South America. On that day a total eclipse will travel from west to east across the continent and, in a spectacular stroke of astronomical luck, will pass directly over the National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile – one of the most famous astronomy sites in the world. Cerro Tololo is a complex of astronomical telescopes and instruments located at an altitude of 7200 feet and part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

Science experiments conducted during a solar eclipse contribute rare and valuable data to our understanding of the Sun and its corona. Given the fortuitous passage of the eclipse path, AURA decided to open up the Cerro Tololo site to eclipse astronomers from around the world through a competition judged by solar physics experts from the National Solar Observatory. International teams of scientists applied for space on the mountain and now, five top-notch teams have been awarded access to this fantastic location to study the total eclipse. Each proposal was reviewed on its scientific originality, technical feasibility given the remote location and winter weather, and the impact the research will have locally or internationally.

The winning teams have been awarded accommodation at the summit, an observing pad on which to set up their experiment, internet connection and electricity. The high vantage point and reduced atmosphere will make for excellent conditions for viewing the tenuous solar corona.

In addition to their science objectives, each team has outlined an outreach plan that involves engaging Chilean and foreign students, amateur astronomers and the general public in the wonderous experience of eclipse chasing. A combination of English and Spanish speaking teams will be well positioned to get local youth excited about this, and future eclipses, as well as giving some of them the opportunity to actually participate in the eclipse observing.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is an international consortium of universities and non-profit institutions that operate world-class astronomy facilities including the National Solar Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Gemini Observatory, the Large Scale Synoptic Telescope, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. In Chile, AURA administers and operates the telescopes of Cerro Tololo, Gemini South, SOAR and the future LSST under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation of the United States.

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The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) is a complex of astronomical telescopes and instruments located at 30.169 S, 70.804 W, approximately 80 km to the East of La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 2200 meters.  CTIO headquarters are located in La Serena, Chile, about 300 miles north of Santiago.

The CTIO complex is part of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), along with the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Tucson, Arizona.  NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF).  CTIO, as part of the AURA Observatory in Chile, operates in Chile under Chilean law, through an Agreement with the University of Chile and with the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile.

The principal telescopes on site are the 4-m Victor M. Blanco Telescope and the 4.1-m Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope.  One of the two 8-m telescopes comprising the Gemini Observatory is co-located with CTIO on AURA property in Chile, together with more than 10 other telescopes and astronomical projects.