It’s the time of year that finds daytime slipping into the night, which stargazers love but most people have a hard time getting used to: the end of Daylight Saving Time is Sunday, November 5th, and it’s dark at 6 pm!
Gone is the 7 pm golf tee time for a quick round of nine; forget about the outdoor tennis court after work; gardening season is done, and that patio furniture is stacked and covered. Admit it, you’ve been yawning during supper!
It’s a rare human who is not affected by darkness. The cycle of day and night is a rhythm that is in our DNA—it gets dark and you begin to shut down for the day. The night used to be filled with stars and those twinkling lights were the center of attention and a form of entertainment for many thousands of years.
We’ve lost that sense of connection to the night as the 20th Century bought about the amazing invention of harnessing electricity and illuminating the home, streets and as an innocent mistake, the night. That nemesis to stargazing today is called light pollution. And its ugly forms of mis-direction and inefficient illuminating of our night has shielded most of us from seeing many stars from the backyard.
The result is a disconnection from generations of people who enjoyed and even worshipped the night. Up until the 1960s, every suburban backyard was a stairway to the stars. Not so much today. A true example of the naivety of Joe and Jane America about the starry sky that happened after Hurricane Irma swiped up the interior of Florida, shutting electricity off to millions. The night after was beautifully clear skies, and there were some emergency calls to 911 reporting fire on the horizon. It was the Milky Way!
That’s another example that we’ve lost to night to urban sprawl. People looking at the moonless sky after Irma had never seen a starry sky before…it’s not their fault. That’s why the U.S. Parks Service does a great job providing access to the wonders of nature. And from time to time there are public stargazing events, so be sure to contact any park near you to see if they have night star programs.
That is another rhythm of the sky and humans, again dealing with the light and day of the seasons. In the Summer it doesn’t get dark until after 9 pm, and we stay up late to stargaze an hour or so. And in the Winter when it does get dark early, it is usually cold and keeping warm is on your mind, secondary to stargazing.
Spring and Autumn are when darkness descends between 7 and 8 pm, and the temperatures are usually moderate. And that is the time when most science centers have their stargazing programs. The skies are in beautiful transition during these seasons, the Milky Way being replaced by the mighty Orion and vice versa.
Because so few people can’t see the night sky from their homes, what is lost are the benchmarks that the constellations provide by a casual glance. Many an amateur astronomer knows the seasons just by looking up. Maybe it’s in late August when putting the telescope away for the evening that I look up in the after-midnight sky and see in the northeast the Great Square of Pegasus clearing the horizon, and I know the end of Summer is near. Seeing bright star Vega on the western horizon at twilight means Winter’s grip is close at hand.
Understanding celestial motion isn’t a formula to be memorized; it is the position of certain constellations in the sky that can tell time. I like using a racetrack as an example, the Earth rolling along a 600-million-mile oval (though our orbit is only slightly elliptical) The fans in the stands are the constellations with the Sun in the middle. At the start/finish line, it’s Summer and the stands are the stars of the Milky Way that wrap around from Turn 4 to Turn 1. As the Earth races between Turns 1 and 2, you are in the midst of Autumn. Heading down the backstretch you see the stars of Winter in the grandstands. The Sun, in the middle, outshines the stars of the daytime, the Summer ones across the front stretch. As you round Turns 3 and 4, it is the Spring constellations in the grandstands, and the bright Sun hides the Autumn stars in the daytime (in Turns 1 and 2). Stepping on the gas for the Finish Line, there is the Milky Way again across the grandstands and heading for Summer.
Yet this concept eluded the greatest stargazers for thousands of years, everyone believing what they saw was everything going around the Earth. It took Copernicus, Galileo and 400 years of changing that dogma to reach our understanding of our Universe today. A concept that during the dark days of Winter, you can sleep on.