Just a few hours ago, the sun reached its lowest point in the sky for the northern hemisphere at exactly 4:44 a.m. Central time (10:44 UT). The moment is known as the winter solstice and the official start of winter. It’s also the shortest day and longest night of the year. If night’s your thing, you’ll have plenty of it — about 15 hours worth. But if the dearth of daylight gets you down, today you can cheer up by celebrating the return of the light.
Since the first day of summer last June, daylight has been trickling away like sand in an hourglass. That’s changing now as the sun reverses direction; instead of sinking south our stellar star is climbing north again. North means up, up, up in the direction of the summer solstice. Starting tomorrow, daylight slowly starts to gain the upper hand. We won’t notice it right away, but sharp-eyed skywatchers will perceive an extra helping of light by the third week of January when the sun lingers for a good half hour longer in the west before setting.
For today, go out and celebrate the sun’s new attitude just as humans have done for at least the last 30,000 years. Ring in the light, but don’t forget the night. I like these long nights. There’s so much to see, and you don’t have to stay up late to enjoy the sight of Venus, the “Christmas Star,” in the western sky at dusk or catch the striking trio of stars in Orion’s Belt rising in the east. There’s also a possibility that skywatchers in the northern U.S. and southern Canada will get a visit from the northern lights tonight.
A high-speed wind of solar protons and electrons from a coronal hole in the sun’s atmosphere arrives late this afternoon and will stay the evening. With luck, it will provide the spark needed for a minor G1 geomagnetic storm. Watch for an auroral arc and possibly some occasional short rays and pillars in the lower half of the northern sky this evening through about 10 o’clock Central time.
Then, tomorrow morning, the thick crescent moon will line up atop Jupiter, which lines up above Virgo’s brightest star in a double conjunction! Nice thing is, because the night is so long, the sky will still be dark enough from many locations to see as late as 7 a.m. Winter may be overly generous with darkness, but we remember on this day that it also sows the seeds of summer sunshine. Wishing you a joyous solstice!