Solstice Sun and Milky Way
Composite Image Credit & Copyright: Stefan Seip (TWAN)

December 21, 2017 – Welcome to December’s solstice, first day of winter in the north and summer for the southern hemisphere. Astronomical markers of the seasons, solstice and equinox dates are based on the Sun’s place in its annual journey along the ecliptic, through planet Earth’s sky.

At this solstice, the Sun reaches its maximum southern declination of -23.5 degrees today at 16:28 UTC (8:28 PST), while its right ascension coordinate on the celestial sphere is 18 hours. That puts the Sun in the constellation Sagittarius in a direction near the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

In fact, if you could see today’s Solstice Sun against faint background stars and nebulae (that’s really hard to do, especially in the daytime …) your view might look something like this composited panorama. To make it, images of our fair galaxy were taken under dark Namibian night skies, then stitched together in a panoramic view. From a snapshot made on December 21, 2015, the Sun was digitally overlayed as a brilliant star at today’s northern winter solstice position, close to the center of the Milky Way.

Astronomy has been important to people for thousands of years. The ancient construction known as Stonehenge in England may have been designed, among other purposes, to pay special honor to the solstices and equinoxes. These are the times and locations during Earth’s journey around the Sun that we humans have long used to mark our seasons.

But what is the solstice exactly?

It has to do with some imaginary lines on our planet. These lines are important, because they help people navigate and measure time.

The equator is an imaginary line drawn right around Earth’s middle, like a belt. It divides Earth into the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.

Another imaginary line drawn straight through Earth connecting the North Pole to the South Pole is Earth’s axis of rotation. This line is tilted 23.5° from Earth’s orbital path around the Sun. This tilt is the cause of Earth’s seasons.

Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted 23.5°. That makes the latitudes of +23.5° and −23.5° special. But how?Other useful, but imaginary, lines around Earth that are parallel to the Equator are called lines of latitude. They are numbered from 0° to 90°. The one at 0° is the equator itself. The higher the number, the farther north (if it’s a + number) or south (if it’s a − number).

You may have noticed two special lines of latitude on a globe of the world: One in the Northern Hemisphere called the Tropic of Cancer at +23.5° latitude and one in the Southern Hemisphere called the Tropic of Capricorn at − 23.5° latitude.

These are the latitudes where the Sun is directly overhead at noon once a year. In the Northern hemisphere, on the Tropic of Cancer, that is the Summer Solstice, usually June 21. In the Southern Hemisphere, on the Tropic of Capricorn, that is the Winter Solstice, usually December 21. These solstice days are the days with the most (for Summer) or fewest (for Winter) hours of sunlight during the whole year.

The Sun is directly overhead at “high-noon” on Summer Solstice at the latitude called the Tropic of Cancer.

The Sun is directly overhead at “high-noon” on Winter Solstice at the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn.

The Sun is directly overhead at “high-noon” on the equator twice per year, at the two equinoxes. Spring (or Vernal) Equinox is usually March 20, and Fall (or Autumnal) equinox is usually September 22. Except at the equator, the equinoxes are the only dates with equal daylight and dark. At the equator, all days of the year have the same number of hours of light and dark.

Between the two tropics zones, which includes the equator, the Sun is directly overhead twice per year. Outside the tropic zones, whether to the south or north, the Sun is never directly overhead.

Two other significant lines of latitude are the Arctic Circle (around the North Pole) and the Antarctic Circle (around the South Pole). These circles are as far from the poles as the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn are from the equator. On the Arctic Circle, the Sun does not set at all on the Summer Solstice. On that one day, the Sun traces a complete circle just above the horizon as the Earth rotates. On the Antarctic Circle, the Sun does not set at all on the Winter Solstice.

As you go closer to the poles, you have more and more days when the Sun does not set (or rise), until, at the poles, the Sun remains above or below the horizon for six months at a time.

A webcam at the North Pole captured this picture on June 21, 2010.

A webcam at the South Pole captured this picture on June 18, 2010, at high noon.

More than “imaginary” to GOES . . .

The equator is a very important “imaginary line” for the GOES and GOES-R series weather satellites. They orbit exactly above the equator, at a very great distance (22,300 miles), which allows them to make just one orbit per day.

They “hover” over one point on Earth’s equator. That way, they have a full view of almost one-half of Earth and can keep a continual watch on developing weather. Find out more about satellite orbits.