Have you noticed that the days are getting shorter? If not, look outside. It gets dark at 5 o’clock in the afternoon! The earth in its orbit around the sun is careening towards the Winter Solstice, sometimes known as the Hibernal Solstice.
This year we will arrive there on Dec. 21, and the northern hemisphere will be tilted as far as it gets away from the sun. At this point the sun appears to “stall out” in the sky, thus the name solstice: “sol” meaning sun, and the Latin word “sistere” meaning to stand still.
Almost two weeks later, on Jan. 3, we will arrive at the point on our orbit known as perihelion, our closest approach to the sun for the year. Wait a minute. Why is it so cold if we are close to the sun? Our seasons are caused by the tilt of our little planet, not our distance from the sun. Coincidentally on Jan. 3, we will be going at our fastest velocity of the year, cruising along at the hold-onto-your-hat speed of 67,752 miles per hour. Now that is fast!
With our changing position in our orbit, we get an ever-changing view of the universe beyond us. The stars of summer are slipping into the west and different ones are rising in the east.
Look not too far above the eastern horizon just after it gets dark. Delicately hanging there in the darkness is one of the gems of the night sky, the Pleiades star cluster. If you do not have a pair of binoculars, buy, borrow or steal them. This little beauty really shines when viewed with just a little magnification, like glittering diamonds strewn on black velvet.
In mythology these stars represent the drop-dead-gorgeous seven sisters of ancient Greece. They were the would be girlfriends of Orion, the great hunter. He chased them around ancient Greece for seven years, but they spurned his amorous advances. Pleading for relief from Zeus, the king of the gods, they were placed as stars up in the sky.
How many can you see? If you can see six on a clear moonless night with your naked eye, you probably do not need a new prescription for your eye glasses. The Greeks could only see six also. What happened to the seventh? Ancient people had legends to explain the discrepancy. One suggested that sister Merope married a mere mortal man, an act so embarrassing that she hid her face in shame and abandoned her sisters in the sky.
Legends about the lost sister have been traced through numerous cultures and date back to as much as 100,000 years ago, possibly making it one of the oldest stories told on earth. Astronomers measuring the slow movements of individual stars within the cluster believe two of the stars have moved so close together in the last tens of thousands of years that they can no longer be distinguished as separate stars with the naked eye. So perhaps this is the real reason for the lost sister of the Pleiades.
Just below the Pleiades you might spy a reddish-looking star. That is Aldebaran, the follower. Who does he follow? The beautiful Pleiades, of course. Wondering what our sun might look like in a few billion years? Check out Aldebaran, a red giant star literally running out of gas. When our sun looks like this, it is good bye earth! We will be burned to a cinder at that point.
Can you spot a “V” of dimmer stars near Aldebaran? Those are the Hyades star cluster, the half-sisters of the Pleiades. Known as the weeping or even the rainy sisters, their claim to fame was nursing the infant god Dionysus, the god of wine and partying. To reward them for that task, they too were placed in the sky by the sometimes benevolent gods.
Those two star clusters are known as the Gate of the Ecliptic. I bet you have never heard of that one. Me either! The path that the planets, and most of the time the moon, take across the sky passes right between the Pleiades and the Hyades sisters.
Three planets grace our evening skies in the west. Venus, Saturn and Jupiter are all in a row slipping down into the sunset glow. If you have not seen them, be sure to check it out. They will not be around forever.