Winter Solstice Means Happy Nights For Skywatchers

A creek near Isabella, Minn. is caught in the process of freezing over Wednesday afternoon this week. Today is the first day of winter, also known as the winter solstice. Bring on the snow! Bob King

As I write, the winter solstice is just minutes away. It happens at 10:28 a.m. (Central Time) and marks the moment the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky. It’s been heading southward ever since the summer solstice on June 21st. You don’t notice at first, but it sneaks up on you so that by August, the days are noticeably shorter and the nights longer. On September 22nd, the fall equinox, the sun stood exactly midway between its highest and lowest points in the sky and day and night were equals.

That’s all changed now. Night weighs heavily in the balance with the sun setting around 4:30 p.m. and not poking up again till around 7:30 a.m. That makes for something like 15 hours of night and 9 of daylight. Indeed, the longest night of the year occurs on the winter solstice, which is also the first day of winter. What to do with all those extra night hours has never been a problem for anyone who loves the night sky. Although the cold can be challenging, well-dressed skywatchers can spend an easy hour outside to take in the sights. And there are many.

Face southeast on this long solstice night around 8 and you’ll get a face full of bright stars: Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades make a beautiful winter tableaux. Stellarium

For starters, ’tis the season of Orion the Hunter, which is only the best constellation in the sky. OK, it’s my favorite, but if you have a different one, please share it with us in the comments link below. Orion rises at 6-6:30 p.m. but climbs up into good view by 8 o’clock local time. What a magnificent bunch of stars he is. No constellation in the sky is easier to find thanks to the three stars in his Belt, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the three dots on a die.

Below the Belt you’ll see several stars that outline a Sword, but it’s on the small side, more like a dagger. Bright, red Betelgeuse marks his right shoulder and scintillating Rigel his left knee. This is the usual outline of Orion most of us see, but if you want to break boundaries, try spotting a small triangle of stars to the upper right of Betelgeuse (his head) and an arc of stars nearly a fist to the right of the figure (his shield).

Taurus the Bull soars above Orion with its bright, red-orange star Aldebaran and the V-shaped Hyades star cluster. If we look a little higher yet, we’ll arrive at the finest naked eye star cluster in the sky, the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. All of this begs your attention on the longest night of the year.

If you’re up around 6:30 a.m., take a look to the southeast toward the sunrise direction. Jupiter and Mars are out and form an arc with first magnitude Spica in Virgo. Jupiter is currently very close to the star Zubenelgenubi in Libra. Watch in the next 2 weeks as Mars rapidly approaches Jupiter for a wonderful conjunction in early January. Stellarium

Another benefit of long nights are late sunrises. For many of us there’s still some night left when we get up in the morning, allowing us the chance to squeeze in some dawn constellation and planet viewing. I had that chance yesterday morning, when at 6:30 I spotted Jupiter and Mars well up in the southeastern sky. I even dragged out the scope for a view at Jupiter to see how the weather’s been out there since I last saw the planet in fall.

Jupiter, Mars and Spica on Dec. 20 at dawn. Bob King

Wishing you the happiest of solstices, the longest of nights and the starriest of skies.