By Mike Lynch
This past Wednesday morning we all collectively experienced the vernal equinox, when all of the latitudes on Earth received the same amount of light and energy from the sun.
From now until June 20 the sun will get higher and higher in the Northwest skies and our days will get longer, which makes it tough on stargazers.
It’s the spring of the year, but if George Washington or Ben Franklin somehow magically passed you on the street this week they might just wish you a Happy New Year.
Back in the day of our nation’s forefounders, New Year’s Day coincided with the first day of spring, celebrated on March 25. That’s actually how it was in both England and the American colonies up until 1752.
England and the colonies were still operating under an old calendar with roots that dated back to Babylonian times. Most of the Western world, especially the Roman Catholic countries, switched over to the Gregorian calendar in the late 1500s.
That calendar had Jan. 1 as the first day of the year.
England finally decided in 1752 that it was time to be in sync with the rest of the Western world and adopted the Gregorian calendar.
Having New Year’s Day on the first day of spring makes sense. New life, a fresh start, and the promise of many nice days to come.
By the way, since you were a child you were taught that the vernal equinox is the day that we have equal daytime and nighttime, 12 hours each. But on that day in the Northwest there were 11 more minutes of daytime than nighttime because of astronomical refraction.
Whenever any celestial object is seen near the horizon, like a rising or setting sun, its light is traveling through a lot more of our atmosphere than when it’s higher up in the sky.
The thicker atmosphere near the horizon bends light so severely that objects seem higher in the sky than they actually are. The sun may actually be physically just below the horizon, but because of the bending of its light it will appear above the horizon.
The bottom line here is that days are already longer than nights by the time of the vernal equinox. The actual even split of day takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe the sun does shine on the Irish.
Despite the fact that we’ve turned the astronomical page to spring there are still a lot of great constellations like Orion and others to enjoy. We have a full moon this week that will spoil hardcore stargazing, but the moon will help you find the planet Saturn later in the week.
Early Friday morning, in the premorning twilight, the waning ovalish full moon will be lighting up the southwestern sky. Just to the upper left of the moon, less than the width of a fist held at arm’s length, will be a moderately bright star.
That’s Saturn, and you can prove it to yourself with a small telescope or even a really good pair of binoculars. You should be able to least resolve the oval ring system, and if your scope is large enough you should be able to see the gap between the actual planet and the ring system.
On Saturday morning, in the pretwilight, the moon will have shifted eastward among the backdrop of stars so that Saturn will be just a little to the right of the moon.
Right now Saturn is 829 million miles from Earth. By the way, Saturn’s ring system is so large that its 136,000-mile-wide diameter is more than half of the distance between Earth and the moon.
Contemplate that as you view the moon and Saturn in their celestial hug.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.