Disorientingly Dark Skies!

Hey, sky fans! Last week was International Dark Skies week, which is meant to bring attention to the disappearance of truly dark skies around the world thanks to pollution from bright city lights, street lights, and even unnecessary porch lights. Light pollution is everywhere. This might not sound like a serious problem but it limits astronomical exploration, learning, and inspiration. It also interferes with the plant growth, and the life cycles of nocturnal animals. Imagine living in a place where street lights pointed downward and porch lights were on timers and motion detectors, where skies are dark enough to see the Milky Way or even the Andromeda Galaxy. Very few people these days are so fortunate. Maybe with enough pressure, people will make changes. For now, if you have a chance, go outside and look up. It’s always worth it.

Speaking of dark skies, the weather here in the my mothy and muddy corner of the northeast U.S. has been nothing short of… maybe comical and a little scary are the words. Temps in the 70s last week, swinging all over, and thundersnow this week have left us with some great skies. The other night, on the way back in from one exciting adventure down at Sky Watch HQ or another, I stopped for a look out to the west. There was Orion, standing over the hills across the river. His posture, as always, impeccable. This is the time of year, that whole area of the sky starts to ride off into the sunset and make way for Boötes (Arc to Arcturus!), Virgo (Spike to Spica!) , and the other springtime attractions over toward the east.


Once I found my way to the Pleiades, I was lost. Nearby, there were weird hook-shaped groups of stars, some of them bright, some not. It made no sense. It was really an unsettling feeling looking up at something that familiar, but with no idea what I was looking at. It was like being lost in my hometown — another exciting experience you should try some time.

So, Orion helped me out again. I found my way to Betelgeuse, and then to Sirius and was able to find my way. That bright star in the hook-shaped group was Capella, the sixth brightest in the sky, in the constellation Auriga.

What I was looking at was the Winter Circle. We talked about this giant asterism back toward the beginning of the year, when it was riding along way up high overhead in the southeast. Over the couple of months since, as the Earth has made its way around — it’s a quarter of the way now (Can you believe it? We’re a quarter of the way back around to start 2017) — Things that were in the high south in the early evening, are low in the west at the same time now. They’re rising earlier, which gives them more time to move all the way around to the west, and their angle relative to our view changes as they begin to set. If you look at the screens below (from Stellarium), you’ll see the skies over my house when we talked back in January, and earlier this week.

winter circle january
The Winter Circle in early January
winter circle march
The Winter Circle in late March





It was gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, the sight of the Pleiades, always outdoing itself, hanging low in the sky just above the last of the growing days’ twilight yellows and oranges is one for the ages.

This is another one of those things in astronomy that grabs me every time. Just by taking a minute to stand in the darkness, look, and be lost for a minute, there were the subtle things that change little by little over time, as they have been for countless years, happening right before your eyes. It gives a real sense of place. If you have a chance, go have a look. It’s a great time. Clear skies, everyone!


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