Image: Easter Islande statues
Terry Hunt / University of Hawaii
Easter Island's famous stone Moai statues.
updated 7/9/2010 11:05:22 AM ET 2010-07-09T15:05:22

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.

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 A.D., 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 west of continental Chile and 1,289 miles east of the Pitcairn Islands (Sala y Gómez 257 miles 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 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.

Uncertain weather
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, 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 of rain falls in July with a 1 in 6 chance of rain falling at eclipse time.

Sunday'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, N.Y.

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Photos: Best eclipse images

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  1. Fun in the '50s

    Two women share a safety filter to watch a solar eclipse on June 30, 1954, from London's Fleet Street. (Evening Standard / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eyes on the sky

    Members of the British Astronomers Association set up their telescopes and cameras in preparation for the August 1999 total solar eclipse. Observers should never look directly at a partial solar eclipse through telescopes or binoculars without protective measures. (Ian Waldie / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Totality in the '20s

    Londoners peer at a solar eclipse through smoked glass on June 29, 1927. Today, experts say the best way to see a partial solar eclipse is by using special filters or an indirect viewing system such as a pinhole camera. The total phase of the eclipse can be seen safely by the naked eye, but if even a bit of the sun's disk is showing, gazing at the eclipse too long could damage the eyes. (H. F. Davis / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ga-ga over glasses

    Children attending the Helston School Eclipse Science Camp in England try out their protective glasses on the day before the total solar eclipse of Aug. 11, 1999. The school organized a project to send science activity packs and safety information to other schools throughout Britain. (Russell Boyce / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Shadow watching

    Chinese viewers watch the sun being blocked by the moon in Gaotai, Gansu province, during a solar eclipse on Aug. 1, 2008. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ring of fire

    A series of photographs shows the moon passing between the sun and Earth during the annular solar eclipse of Jan. 26, 2009, as seen from Bandar Lampung in Indonesia. The photographs were taken with a solar filter on the lens. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sun-watching sunbathers

    A couple looks at October 2005's annular eclipse with special glasses on a beach in Gandia in eastern Spain. (Fernando Bustamante / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cloud cover

    The sun is seen during a partial solar eclipse in Chennai (Madras), India, on Oct. 3, 2005. (M. Lakshman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Holy sight

    A multiple-exposure photo captures the moon's movement across the disk of the sun on Aug. 11, 1999, as seen from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. This was the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century. (Ali Kabas / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Solar streams

    The sun's corona is a tenuous outer atmosphere composed of streams of energetic charged particles, but it is seen easily from Earth only during a total solar eclipse. This 1991 image of totality from atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, provides a fleeting glimpse of the corona's intricate structures and streams. (High Altitude Observatory, Ncar) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Eclipses everywhere

    An employee at a department store in Hamburg, Germany, watches an array of televisions during broadcast coverage of the total solar eclipse of August 1999. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Boxed in

    Wendy Shifrin of South Lee, Mass., uses a box fitted with welders' glass to view a partial solar eclipse from New York's Central Park on Dec. 25, 2000. People in the Northeast saw the moon blot out as much as 60 percent of the sun around midday. The next partial Christmas eclipse, according to astronomers, will be in 2307. (Tina Fineberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Red sky at morning

    The new moon covers up part of the sun during an eclipse seen from a fishing spot on the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 21, 2001. (Miguel Mendez / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A bitten sun in Bulgaria

    Bulgarian children look at a partial solar eclipse through a telescope in the Black Sea port of Varna on Oct. 3, 2005. (Str / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lord of the ring

    A sequence of three pictures, taken from the Portuguese city of Arguzelo, shows the progress of the annular eclipse on Oct. 3, 2005. In an annular eclipse, a thin ring of the sun's disk remains visible around the dark disk of the moon. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Skywatching shepherd

    Portuguese villager Jose Preto, 78, watches the progress of the October 2005 annular solar eclipse through radiation-blocking glasses while tending a flock of sheep at Rio de Onor. (Paulo Duarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sliver of sun

    A man looks through a filter at an annular solar eclipse from La Linea in southern Spain on Oct. 3, 2005. In an annular eclipse, the moon moves between the sun and Earth but does not completely cover the solar disk, due to the orbital mechanics involved. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A taste of the sun

    A partial solar eclipse is projected onto at a girl's tongue as she looks into the sky over the Jordanian capital Amman on Oct. 3, 2005. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Do-it-yourself astronomy

    A man looks at the annular eclipse of October 2005 through a homemade cardboard tube with a filter taped over it, outside a planetarium in Pamplona, Spain. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Diamond ring

    An annular solar eclipse produces a "diamond ring" effect on May 30, 1984, as seen from Picayune, Miss. (Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Flower power

    In Amman, Jordan, the sun is reflected on a flower as the moon partially blocks it, forming a crescent during the solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Desert spectacle

    Libyan youths watch the total solar eclipse in the desert tourist camp in Galo on March 29, 2006, where thousands of astronomers and thrill-seekers gathered to view the sight. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Protecting the flock

    A young Lebanese shepherd carries a goat as he watches a partial solar eclipse in the village of Bqosta, near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, on March 29. Both the shepherd and the goat are wearing protective eyewear. (Mohammed Zaatari / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. View from space

    Astronauts aboard the international space station snapped this picture from 230 miles above Earth as the shadow of the moon fell on the planet during a total solar eclipse on March 29, 2006. Visible near the shadow are portions of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of Turkey. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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