Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - 45

Under the Stars by Fred Schaaf

A Long Night's Journey Into Day
The dark of winter offers plenty of time for skygazing and quiet contemplation.
Only that day dawns to which we are
awake. There is more day to dawn. The
sun is but a morning star.
- the concluding lines of Walden,
by Henry David Thoreau

A K IR A FUJII

T

his year has brought a deadly
pandemic along with social and
economic upheaval. The prevalence of
COVID-19 has kept most of us from
sharing telescopic views with the public
and each other. As we near the end of
2020, perhaps we can gain inspiration
from the words of Thoreau.
But first, let's bolster ourselves by
touring the longest nights of the year.
The long night's journey. For
observers at mid-northern latitudes, the
span from sunset to sunrise around the
winter solstice is more than 14 hours,
and astronomical darkness (when the
Sun is more than 18° below the horizon) persists for nearly 11½ hours. Few
of us have the endurance to take advantage of the entire night for a marathon,
non-stop observing session, but we can
sample this mighty span over the course
of several nights.
For a first starry sample, look in the
west as night falls. There you'll spot the
Summer Triangle, not yet gone, beckoning you to revive summer memories of
Vega and the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the
Cygnus Star Cloud, and more.
Meanwhile, Mars is near the meridian and so too are three marvelous
spiral galaxies: M31 in Andromeda,
M33 in Triangulum, and NGC 253 in
Sculptor. Lonely Fomalhaut is low in the
south-southwest, while the large Great
Square of Pegasus is high overhead. The
east blazes with Aldebaran, Capella,
Rigel, Betelgeuse, and Pollux (with its
pal Castor). Orion, on his side, has fully
risen. The Pleiades hang like fruit below
one high branch of Perseus, and bright
Cassiopeia's W is high in the north.

A few hours later, the dogs Canis
Major and Canis Minor rise, marked by
spectacular Sirius and Procyon, respectively. But leap ahead to about midnight,
and your sky sample includes Orion
upright on the meridian, with Taurus
and Auriga above him.
Around 3 a.m. Leo and Ursa Major
are nudging their noses near the meridian, while the giant Winter Hexagon
adorns the southwest. And to the east
you can follow the arc from the Big
Dipper's handle to Arcturus, and spike
on down to Spica.
By 5 a.m., Orion, Sirius, Aldebaran,
and the Pleiades begin to set as Vega
reappears, this time in the northeast.
Finally, as dawn approaches, blazing

Venus rises, heralding the night's end.
The Sun is but a morning star. As
Thoreau knew, when Venus is the Morning Star it rises in its brilliance and glory
ahead of the even brighter and more
glorious Sun. He wrote that the Sun
itself is "but a morning star." For Thoreau, the rising Sun was also a symbol
suggesting the greater brightness and
glory awaiting the human race when we
finally attain peaceful coexistence with
one another and an awareness of our
beautiful world and universe.
"Only that day dawns to which we
are awake." Time to wake up.
„ FRED SCHAAF welcomes your letters
and comments at fschaaf@aol.com.

WINTER'S HEXAGON
This enormous shape
spans roughly 50° and
includes the stars Sirius,
Procyon, Castor, Capella,
Aldebaran, and Rigel.
sk yandtelescope.org * DECEMBER 2 02 0

45


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Sky & Telescope - December 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - December 2020

Contents
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - Cover1
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - Cover2
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - 1
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - Contents
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - 3
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - 4
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