July 21, 2009 -- The longest solar eclipse expected to occur in the 21st century became visible at sunrise Wednesday local time in Taregna, a village in eastern India, and moved across a 155-mile-wide ribbon of Asia including areas of Nepal, Bangladesh, China and part of the Pacific Ocean,.
The total eclipse started when the moon completely blocked out the sun in the village, which scientists said was the best place to view the spectacular event, at 6:24 a.m. local time.
In Varanasi, India, a town on the Ganges River, clear skies allowed the curious to get a perfect view of the event, but over much of the region there were heavy clouds, disappointing millions who hoped to see the eclipse.
That could include eclipse enthusiasts from around the world who descended on the region to view the event by land, sea and air to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon, which lasted six minutes and 39 seconds in some areas.
Awed by the rare experience of watching the moon block the light of the sun, "eclipse chasers" go to the ends of the Earth, often paying thousands of dollars for the perfect view and the maximum duration of darkness.
"Most people who go on these tours, they've seen one or more eclipses. They become hooked on it," said Paul D. Maley, a NASA contractor leading an eclipse tour in Shanghai, China, for Houston-based Ring of Fire Expeditions, an astronomical tour organization.
Eclipse Exposes Sun's Corona
A solar eclipse takes place when the moon passes between Earth and the sun. If the moon's inner shadow falls on Earth's surface at that moment, the sun's light is blocked by the moon. A total solar eclipse only happens about once every 18 months and is only visible from the path of the moon's inner shadow.
On a clear day, it also exposes the sun's corona (or halo-like outer atmosphere) that is usually invisible in daylight.
A week ago, Maley arrived in China with 40 armchair astronomers and, after days traveling from Shanghai to Tibet and back, the group planned to venture to a nearby city early Wednesday morning to watch the main event. From their viewing site, they expected to see five minutes and 26 seconds of totality, starting at 9:35 a.m. local time (9:35 p.m. ET tonight).
Maley has led eclipse tours since 1970 (across more than 22 countries) but said he has watched the numbers of eclipse chasers climb in recent years.
Interest in Eclipse Tourism Grows
"Interest has been slowly getting larger, year by year," he said, adding the upswing started most clearly in the 1980s and 1990s as Americans and Europeans starting having more disposable income with which to travel.
In addition to his own group in Shanghai, he said his organization is leading two other similarly sized groups in the city and another one in the Gilbert Islands. While many of the participants are also scientists, he said, they span all kinds of occupations and all ages.
Jim Pritchett, a travel agent with Bartlesville, Okla.-based Spears Travel, said about half of the 39 people on his company's eclipse tour in China are veteran chasers. The average participant has been on seven or eight of its tours, he estimated.
Spears tours are especially attractive as they are led by Fred Espenak, a recently retired leading NASA scientist, widely known as "Mr. Eclipse."
Company Offers 41,000-Foot Views of Eclipse
"They're like family, basically," Pritchett said of the eclipse enthusiasts. "It's something that they're very much interested in. Once it gets in their blood, it's there."
For tours with Ring of Fire or Spears, participants pay about $3,600 to $3,800 for a 10-day package (not including airfare). But other travel firms offer more focused experiences.
Cox and Kings, a travel company in India, was offering a three-hour flight on board a Boeing 727-700 aircraft that would follow the path of the eclipse at 41,000 feet. Passengers were to board a plane in New Delhi before dawn, then fly southeast to Gaya and back. Depending on where they are on the plane, seats cost from about $600 to $1,600.
Since the eclipse is taking place during the monsoon season, the travel company says this is a "virtual guarantee" of seeing an uninterrupted view of the eclipse.
Other companies offered views from the water. TravelQuest International of Prescott, Ariz., teamed with Sky & Telescope magazine for a two-week cruise in the South Pacific. Starting at $6,995 per room, the cruise promised about three minutes and 26 seconds of totality from the Northern Cook Islands.
Because of its location just east of the International Date Line, they would have seen the eclipse tonight at sunset local time.
According to local reports, the event is giving a boost to tourism in the area. Special eclipse breakfast deals sold out in Shanghai hotels, according to ChannelNewsAsia.com. And online vendors saw sales of special solar glasses climb. The glasses allow skywatchers not in the path of the moon's shadow to look directly at the sun.
An Experience Like No Other
Although there's a growing audience for solar eclipse tours, David Swanson, a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, said interest is mitigated by the fact that some eclipses happen in hard-to-reach areas or places with poor weather conditions.
This month's eclipse is easily accessible but cloud cover was expected to block some views of the corona, he said. But if the weather had cooperated, tens of millions of people across Asia could have witnessed the eclipse.
And, he said, the experience is unparalleled.
"I don't know anyone who has seen a successful eclipse and wasn't pretty much blown away and wanted to see another one," Swanson said.
He saw his first in Antigua in 1998 and has seen two more since then.
As the moment of totality approaches, he said the sky gradually darkens and starts to take on something similar to the light at twilight.
"All of a sudden, the color starts to drain away. ... The breeze stops. Birds stop chirping. It's a very unusual experience," he said. "It's like being transported to another planet for a few minutes."