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What is an Equinox?

Today is the long-awaited spring, or vernal, equinox for folks in the northern hemisphere.  If you’re one of the 99.9% of people who are sick of winter then this is fantastic news.  In the Mid-Atlantic we’ve had one hell of a winter!  For three months it was just snowstorm after snowstorm and lots, I mean lots, of cloudy skies.  We also had the polar vortex swing by twice dropping temperatures into the single digits with sub-zero wind chills.  I think it’s fair to say that I am not alone in saying “Sayonara winter!”

The beginning of spring is officially today at 16:57 UTC or 12:57 EDT.  Why the exact time?  Well that’s because the changing of the seasons on Earth is indicated by the tilt of our planet.  As you might know the Earth orbits the Sun in a slightly elongated oval-shaped orbit.  Somewhat counter-intuitively it is not our position in our orbit that changes the seasons.  Did you know that Earth’s closest point to the sun actually occurs in early January?  Likewise Earth is furthest from the sun in the summer time.  It is actually how the Earth is angled with respect to the orbital plane that determines what season it is.  As the Earth orbits around the Sun it also spins causing day and night to come and go.  This rotation occurs around the Earth’s axis which is tilted about 23 degrees.  Throughout each year the Earth “wobbles” as it goes around the sun thanks to the inclination of the Earth’s axis.  When the Earth is tilted a certain way in respect to the Sun we call it an equinox.

The tilting of the Earth's axis throughout the year causing the seasons to change.

The tilting of the Earth’s axis throughout the year causing the seasons to change.

Equinox is a Latin term that means “equal night”.  During an equinox day and night are approximately the same length.  When an equinox occurs the plane of the Earth’s equator crosses the center of the Sun so that the Earth is neither tilted away or towards the Sun, causing an equal amount of sunlight to shine on both the southern and northern hemispheres.  As you can see from the incredible video below the day/night line (called a terminator) moves throughout the year if seen from space.  During an equinox the terminator is completely vertical.  In the case of the spring equinox the northern hemisphere has been angled away from the Sun for several months and thus has been receiving less direct sunlight and shorter days.  After the winter solstice during which the northern hemisphere experiences its shortest day the Earth begins to angle itself to point the northern hemisphere back towards the Sun resulting in longer days and more direct sunlight…summer!

This video is really hypnotizing.  What you’re seeing here is quite fantastic.  The video was taken using images from NASA’s Meteosat satellite.  Meteosat is a geosynchronous satellite which means it orbits around the Earth at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation so it always sees the same part of the planet.  As a result the planet never seems to move throughout the year.  In this video courtesy of Astronomy Picture of the Day and NASA, you see an entire Earth year in just twelve seconds!  You notice that the Earth’s terminator swings back and forth.  That is the seasons progressing as the Earth tilts on its axis.  The video begins on an autumnal equinox in September 2010 then the terminator swings over to the right giving the southern hemisphere lots of direct sunlight.  It reaches the solstice then swings back the other way towards the spring equinox when the terminator runs from north pole to south pole before swinging to the left and giving the northern hemisphere more light.  The video ends on the September equinox 2011 completing a full orbit around the Sun and an entire year for the people of Earth.

Because of our busy lives we tend to forget how dependent we are on the celestial mechanics of the solar system for life.  We owe our very existence to the fact that everything in the solar system, indeed the galaxy, moves in predictable orbits.  Thankfully for Earth our solar system is stable but that is not the case elsewhere in the galaxy.  In alien solar systems that we’ve only recently discovered there are planets that are drifting away from their stars and getting colder.  There are also planets that are being drawn inexorably towards their stars to eventually be consumed by them.  Other planets cross orbits too close to one another and are knocked off their orbits never to return to their home solar system.

We are lucky that our solar system has time to work out its kinks before life began on Earth.  If the solar system did not have orbital stability there’s a good chance life might not have arose here.  So be thankful we live on such a marvelous planet in a marvelous solar system!  On this spring equinox 2014 take a moment to think about the science that is behind the changing of the seasons and if the weather is clear tonight (fingers crossed!) go outside and take a look at the night sky and think that everything you see up there obeys the same laws that govern the seasons here on Earth.

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PANSTARRS’ Long Awaited Debut

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Comet PANSTARRS taken by Argentinian photographer Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

With the mid-Atlantic region being covered by winter storm ‘Saturn’ (not a fan of naming winter storms), comet C2011/L4 PANSTARRS is about to make its debut in the northern hemisphere.  Observers in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying PANSTARRS for about a month already and it finally brightened enough to be a naked-eye object in the last week or so.  While the usual naked-eye threshold is between magnitude +5 and +6 depending on your eyesight and sky conditions, comets aren’t point sources of light like stars and planets and their light is spread out over a larger surface are with respect to the entire sky so their brightness in magnitude can be a little deceiving.  Right now PANSTARRS is hovering right around magnitude +2 which puts it theoretically as bright as the brightest stars in Ursa Major, the Big Dipper.  For us in the northern hemisphere though, it likely won’t appear as brilliant as it is in the southern hemisphere because of it’s proximity to the sun.  The comet is expected to make its northern debut tomorrow, March 7th after sunset.  The problem for us is that it is approaching its perihelion, its closest distance to the sun, so it will only be visible during twilight.  Picking PANSTARRS out might be difficult and it might only appear to the naked-eye as a small fuzzy ball barely creeping over the western horizon.

That being said, binoculars will be a great aide to those looking to spot PANSTARRS early on.  The comet won’t get much higher than 10° above the western horizon.  Ten degrees is approximately the size of your clenched fist held at arms length.  In order to spot PANSTARRS in its first couple of days in the north you’ll have to find a viewing location that has an unobstructed view of the western horizon that is reasonably dark.  Getting away from street lights and house lights is key as they both create a glare that makes it difficult to see and limits your eyes’ ability to adapt to the growing darkness.  A rooftop that can be safely accessed might provide a good vantage point to spot the comet.

How to spot PANSTARRS in March.  A thin crescent moon will co-star with the comet on the night of March 12th.  Credit:  NASA.gov

How to spot PANSTARRS in March. A thin crescent moon will co-star with the comet on the night of March 12th. Credit: NASA.gov

In a simple pair of 10’x50′ binoculars you should be able to see the dust tail that stretches several degrees beyond the comet’s nucleus.  Whether or not an ion tail produced by the solar wind will be visible remains to be seen.  As March wears on the comet will steadily rise in the western sky each night as it moves further away from the sun.  Again it won’t get very high in the sky but at least towards mid-March you should be able to view it in reasonable darkness until about 7 pm.  I’ll be away on a retreat this weekend in a semi-dark region at the top of the Chesapeake Bay so I hope to be able to snap a few pictures of PANSTARRS.  I will certainly post anything that is decent.

For now, as winter storm ‘Saturn’ dumps mostly rain on me, I had to settle for this amazing timelapse video of comets Lemmon and PANSTARRS in the sky together.  This was taken by Australian astrophotographer and videographer Alex Cheney.  It is quite a rare sight to be able to see two comets in the same sky together!  I swear those southern hemisphere dwellers get to have all the fun!

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