July 22, 2009 -- Hundreds of millions of people across parts of the world's most populated nations, China and India, witnessed today what's expected to be the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century.
The eclipse became visible at sunrise today 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 Hindu holy city on the Ganges River, clear skies allowed the curious to get a perfect view of the event, but there were heavy clouds over much of the region, disappointing millions who had hoped to see the eclipse.
That may have included 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.
In Asia, Eclipses Seen as Mixed Blessing
In Varanasi, many people gathered to get a glimpse of the eclipse, to pray to the Hindu sun god and to take a dip in the Ganges river, regarded as holy by many Hindus. Bhailal Sharma, a villager from central India, told Reuters that, "We have come here because our elders told us this is the best time to improve our afterlife."
But the event turned tragic for one 65-year-old woman, who died in a stampede amid the crowds at the banks of the Ganges, police spokesman Surendra Srivastava told The Associated Press today.
In Nepal, where the majority of the population are Hindu, the government declared a public holiday and thousands there gathered at the holy Bagmati river. "Taking a dip in holy rivers before and after the eclipse salvages and protects us from disasters and calamities," 86-year-old Sundar Shrestha told Reuters.
In China, large crowds assembled along the dykes of the industrial city of Wuhan, waving as the last rays of the sun disappeared. But cloud cover and rain prevented many in the rest of country from enjoying the sight.
Some Chinese who wanted to see the eclipse avoided heavily-polluted, industrialized areas. "The majority of people decided to go to Tongning, in Anhui, because they're worried about the serious air pollution from industrial areas in Shanghai," Bill Yeung, the president of the Hong Kong Astronomical Society, told Reuters.
In Japan, scientists and residents gathered across the country to both study the sun and to witness the eclipse. As the sky darkened, confused cattle raced to their troughs, thinking that it was time for dinner.
In Tokyo's famously crowded Shibuya crossing, onlookers squinted up at the sun and took pictures with their cell phones. High school student Ohtani Yoko told ABC News that the experience "was better than I thought it would be. I'm very happy to have seen it, it was beautiful."
Eclipses are regarded as a mixed blessing by many in China and India. According to ancient Chinese culture, eclipses are tied either to natural disasters or to deaths in the imperial family. In the run-up to today's eclipse, state media and public officials assured people that all services would function normally.
In India, astrologers said that the eclipse could bring bad luck to people. Reuters reported that expectant mothers requested doctors to advance or delay births to avoid complications and dispel misfortune.
Buddhist monks in Thailand led followers in mass prayers until the eclipse ended, to ward off any ill effects.
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 Tuesday, adding that 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 Tuesday 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.
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.
According to local reports, the event gave 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 allowed 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 Tuesday interest is mitigated by the fact that some eclipses happen in hard-to-reach areas or places with poor weather conditions.
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."
Meanwhile, Americans will have to wait until 2017 for their next total solar eclipse. It will run from Oregon across the United States to the Carolinas, for about two and a half minutes of total darkness.
But the wait for another solar eclipse as long as today's will be until 2132.
Margaret Conley contributed to the reporting of this story from Tokyo, as did Clarissa Ward from Beijing. The Associated Press and Reuters also contributed.