In this season when many of us, myself included, attempt to channel the spirit of Clark Griswold in order to created the greatest seasonal-exterior-illumination in the neighborhood, this final blog entry of 2011 is a reminder, or better yet an invitation, to look up to the night sky and enjoy its natural splendor as our ancestors have for millennia. Many casual stargazers comment that the stars of the winter sky seem brighter than stars during the other three seasons. This is often thought to be an optical illusion due to the long, crisp winter nights. Actually, there are by chance, more bright stars in our winter sky compared to the other seasons. In the early evenings this winter, these bright stars are joined by the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter. So, this Christmas Eve, shortly after sunset, we will see a moonless sky bejeweled with bright stars and planets.
Most brilliant, the planet Venus is visible soon after sunset just above the western horizon. Venus, named for the mythological goddess of love, is the brightest object in the sky besides the Sun and the Moon. Often mistaken for a plane if you just give a passing glance, Venus is surprisingly bright and reminiscent of classic depictions of the Star of Bethlehem. If you have a relatively clear view of the western horizon, look for Venus in the evenings from December through the Spring of next year. Because Venus orbits the Sun inside Earth’s orbit, Venus never wanders far from the Sun in the sky. Thus we see it only a few hours before sunrise or after sunset. On Christmas Eve (and the days shortly before and after), Venus will set before 7pm, so make sure to look soon after sunset.
The planet Jupiter, named for the ruler of all the mythological gods, has been the bright point of light in the eastern evening sky for the entire fall season. Now almost directly overhead at sunset, Jupiter will be second only to Venus in brightness on Christmas Eve. The largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter orbits the Sun at about five times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This means that unlike Venus, Jupiter can be seen any time of the night. On Christmas Eve, if you venture out to midnight services, Jupiter will be high in the western part of the night sky.
After eight o’clock, the great constellation Orion will be rising in the eastern sky. A large rectangle of four bright stars with another three bright stars in the center of the rectangle almost in a straight line, Orion is an impressive, easily recognizable constellation. Ancient storytellers saw Orion as a hunter with the four stars of the rectangle marking his shoulders and knees. Those three co-linear stars are known as Orion’s belt. The line these three stars make points south and east (in the direction of the eastern horizon) to the brightest star in the night sky – Sirius. Sirius, also called the Dog Star, shines in a white light almost as bright as Jupiter.
As you look up at the night sky over the course of the Christmas season take some time to reflect that the celestial objects you see also shined over Bethlehem two thousand years ago. They shined from the heavens on that holiest of nights, the night our Savior was born. My hope is that the Christmas season brings joy and glad tiding to you and those you love and that in addition to all the excitement and exterior illumination of the holiday season, you are able to take some time for quiet reflection, under the night sky.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Dr. John Smetanka,
Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.