Feature: National Geographic offers youngsters chance to join eclipse-viewing tour above the clouds

Source: Xinhua| 2019-07-01 15:14:16|Editor: Wu Qin
Video PlayerClose

SANTIAGO, June 30 (Xinhua) -- Fifteen-year-old Paloma Reyes, who wants to be an astronomer when she grows up, said "she never would have imagined" that one day she could fly above the clouds to watch a solar eclipse. But her dream is about to come true.

On July 2, two planes, each carrying 70 passengers, will take off from the Santiago Airport at 3:35 p.m. local time (1935 GMT), about half an hour before the moon completely blocks the sun.

The planes are set to ascend to 39,000 feet (11,887 meters) over the Pacific Ocean and position themselves perpendicular to the sun, offering front-row seats to the dramatic event.

Reyes was among those schoolchildren and adolescents who got the chance to join the eclipse-watching tour after winning a contest launched by the National Geographic television channel.

"It's important for people to get hooked on science, to develop an interest in it. That's why it's so important to promote these unique opportunities," Reyes said of the contest, which aimed to bring young Chileans closer to science.

While the 140 passengers will fly above the sky to see the eclipse that will plunge the region into darkness for two minutes and 36 seconds, more tourists will gather on land to watch the astronomical phenomenon.

Northern Chile's Atacama Desert has long been famous as an ideal stargazing region, and is home to many international astronomical observatories.

What's more, the totality of the eclipse will be visible from a large swath of the country, such as the Coquimbo and Atacama regions, both north of the capital Santiago.

According to the country's National Chamber of Commerce, one million tourists are expected to gather in northern Chile to watch the solar eclipse.

Still, the unrivaled views of the eclipse will be a privilege reserved for those above the clouds.

"High up the air is cleaner and clearer. I have been able to see and take beautiful photos from the sky," said Klaus von Storch, a 40-year-old Chilean aerospace engineer who will fly one of the two planes selected for this one-of-a-kind mission.

"In this case, the idea is to have a broad visual field, not just at the moment of the eclipse, but also in the moments prior," said the veteran pilot for Chile's Sky Airline, which has been collaborating with National Geographic on the tour for a year.

According to Von Storch, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) took a keen interest in the tour and helped map out the most adequate flight route and altitude possible.

"The challenge is to reach the precise point at the exact moment," he told Xinhua.

"If you fly too low, you run the risk of cloudiness," he said.

The weather forecast for Tuesday calls for some clouds over the region of Atacama and less so over Coquimbo, with skies gradually clearing up in the afternoon, said Arnaldo Zuniga from Chile's Meteorological Service.

However, "if you fly above the layer of clouds, you'll have a privileged view," said Zuniga.

"Up there you have less pollution and humidity, and the air is more transparent. The landscape is spectacular," Zuniga added.