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Sonoma County Gazette
Guide to the Night Sky

Guide to the Night Sky

Nov 24, 2017
by Tre Gibbs


By Tre Gibbs, L.A.A.S.

The major astronomical event this month occurs on December 21st at 8:16 am, when Earth’s Northern Hemisphere will be tilted away from the sun at it’s greatest angle – known as The Winter Solstice. Typically this is also the shortest day of the year and conversely the longest night of the year.

If you happen to follow the sunsets and/or sunrises along Earth’s horizons, you may notice that on this day the sun rises and sets at the most southern point. Just a few months ago – on September 22 – the sun rose and set due west, signaling the Autumn Equinox (Equinox is a Latin term meaning “Equal Night”). Since then, the sun – and it’s path in the sky – have been inching further south, shortening the amount of daylight and increasing the amount of night. As the sun gets closer to it’s most southern point on the horizon, it appears to slow down, then “stand still” on the 21st, then changes direction, and slowly begins to head back north, which then causes our days to get longer while the amount of night shortens.

EquinoxThe word Solstice is also a Latin term meaning “stand still”, since the sun appears to “stand still” for a brief period of time as it changes direction. Ancient cultures would get really freaked out by this, worried that the sun may not stop, turn around and head back north. Luckily, the sun always stopped it’s southerly course and changed direction. Over time, ancient cultures celebrated this time of year with traditions that we carry through to this day, such as bringing evergreens into the house, decorating with lights to counteract the darkness, sumptuous feasts, etc. So enjoy it! After the 21st, when the sun changes direction, the days will slowly begin to get longer and darkness will wane, noticeably so by mid to late January.

On December 3rd, we will be treated to The Full Cold Moon, since this is the time of year when Winter begins to tighten its cold grip. Again, technically the moon is only full for a moment (7:48 am) as it continues its easterly journey around our planet, but the movement appears so slow that the moon will actually look full the day before, as well as the day after.

Early risers will be treated to a couple of mid-month conjunctions! In the predawn skies of December 13th, look to the ESE just prior to morning twilight to see the crescent moon above and to the left of dim Mars which will be above - and to the right of – bright Jupiter. On the very next morning, December 14th, notice that while Mars and Jupiter are pretty much in their same places in the predawn sky, the crescent moon has left Mars’ side, drifted closer to the eastern horizon and is now above and to the left of mighty Jupiter, though all three will quickly be rendered invisible by the sun’s approaching glare…

Until 2018, have a safe, joyous and happy holiday season - and as always, Keep Lookin’ Up!

Corrections:In the November issue, the word “your” was used instead of the word “you’re” - a huge pet peeve of mine. In the October issue, the full moon was labeled as “The Hunter’s Moon” but it was actually “The Harvest Moon”. The Harvest Moon, which is typically September’s full moon, is the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox, which made October 3rd’s full moon The Harvest Moon and September’s full moon “The Corn Moon”. Keepin’ it real…


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