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ASTROBLOG: Winter (Solstice) is Coming

by Matthew Whithouse, Boeing Observatory Manager

The holiday season is now in full swing, bringing with it short days and long nights. The sun sets early this time of year, giving us plenty of darkness to enjoy all of the holiday lights. We’re well on our way to the winter solstice on December 21 – the shortest day, and longest night – of the year. Here in Columbia, we have less than 10 hours of daylight on the winter solstice, leaving us with almost 14 hours of darkness.

One common misconception about the winter solstice is that it also corresponds to the earliest sunset of the year. This actually isn’t the case! Here in Columbia, our earliest sunset – 5:15pm – occurs on December 4. By the time we reach the solstice on the 21st, sunset has already moved to 5:19pm: four minutes later. But our sunrise times are also getting later, and they continue to get later until mid-January. So even though the winter solstice doesn’t correspond to the earliest sunset, it’s still the longest night of the year.

It turns out that in the northern hemisphere, the further north you are from the equator, the closer your earliest sunset to the actual winter solstice. If you’re interested, you can find a a great explanation of the details here.

We hope you’ll join us at the museum on the Dec. 21st for special solar viewing. Larry Metcalf from the Midlands Astronomy Club will have his awesome (and safe) solar observing equipment set up at the front entrance from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (weather permitting). In addition, you can check out a live image of the Sun in the Boeing observatory from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (also weather permitting).

Since we’re all looking forward to the “return” of the Sun, I thought I’d leave you with this beautiful solar image taken as part of our Boeing Observatory’s distance learning program. Brooke Mendenhall’s 4th grade students at Michael C. Riley Elementary School in Bluffton took this image back in October.

Have a look at the nice sunspots to the left of center!