How can we be so lucky? For the second year in a row, a early snowstorm blew through the region and slapped a heavy coat of snow on the fir and spruce trees. Bitter cold followed and ensured that the snow stayed frozen to the boughs. What a sight for sky watchers who live in rural areas or have access to them – snowy pinnacles reaching to the stars! Last night I drove north of town last night with a camera and tried to capture a few scenes before the winds shook the snowy finery to the ground.
I set up a telescope and poked around the sky as well. While I enjoyed seeing old friends like Comet Hartley 2 and the Orion Nebula, the most impressive thing about being out at night was the total silence. It’s odd, but we humans like listening to silence. Frankly, it’s unbelievable. We choose (or not) to surround ourselves with sound all day long, then when it’s gone, we’re stunned. True silence is a palpable thing – it makes us stop everything we’re doing, if only for a minute, to relish its clarity. I never think of anything when I gaze at the stars in deep quietude. Whatever might be going on inside my head shuts off. I need that.
This evening you can watch for a fresh moon to return to the sky. Look to the southwest about a half hour after sunset for a bright fingernail crescent. If you’re heading home from work around 5 p.m., that would be a great time to keep an eye. And if your horizon allows, slide your gaze below and to the right of the moon, and you might just see the planet Mercury. At magnitude -0.5, it’s brighter than Vega, but the twilight glow will rob the planet of some of its radiance. If you have any difficulty spotting it, take your binoculars along for insurance.
Yesterday, shortly before sunset,Â a pretty sun pillar stood straight up above the sun. I bet you’ve seen one of these before. They form when sunlight reflects off the surfaces of falling ice crystals. The crystals are shaped like hexagonal plates (imagine a pencil cut up into thin slices) with their faces horizontal or parallel to the ground. In consort, they act like tiny mirrors that reflect the sun’s light into a bright streak. Some pillars reach high in the sky if conditions are right. They also form above the rising or setting moon, car headlights and bright artificial lights at night.
When you behold a pillar, you’re not seeing a sunbeam, but rather the reflections of billions of ice crystals either floating in the air nearby or in high, thin clouds.Â Because ice is often in the air during winter, this is the best season to watch for them.