Shortest day, longest night

ASTRONOMICAL:  Astronomy enthusiasts flocked to the Johannesburg Planetarium to make the most of the limited hours of this very short day. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

ASTRONOMICAL: Astronomy enthusiasts flocked to the Johannesburg Planetarium to make the most of the limited hours of this very short day. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

June 21, marked the Winter solstice, also known as the shortest day and the longest night of the year.  The day was about 10 hours long.

The Winter solstice is the point in time where the Earth will be at its most tilted point, relative to the Sun, according to Claire Flanagan, the director of the Johannesburg Planetarium at Wits University.

The solstice in Winter is marked by the stars that we see at the time of the year

This is the day the Sun will reach its lowest point in the sky, she explained.  Due to the tilt of the Earth, the Southern Hemisphere will be at its furthest distance from the Sun.  “This has a whole bunch of effects, one of them is that the day is shortest and the night is longest, the Sun will rise and set at its furthest, northern-most part,” she said.

SPACE AGENTS;  Young visitors to the Johannesburg Planetarium admire the chart with the phases of the moon.  Photo: Lameez Omarjee

SPACE AGENTS; Young visitors to the Johannesburg Planetarium admire the chart with the phases of the moon. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

From this point onward, the Sun’s rising and setting point will move more towards the South, making the days longer. “Because the Earth is not going around the Sun in a perfect circle, the Sun will start setting later… The days are starting a bit later and ending a bit later.”

Days will also grow warmer, “the Sun is what drives the weather,” she explained.  The sunlight heating the atmosphere will lead to two effects.  There will be more time for the Sun to warm up the Southern part of the atmosphere.  Also, because of the position of the Sun, the heating will be more effective because it will shine directly upon the Southern Hemisphere.

As for rituals and traditions attached to the Winter solstice, Flanagan said, “People mark the passing of the seasons by looking at which stars are there(sic).  As the Earth goes around the Sun, our view of the stars change. The solstice in Winter is marked by the stars that we see at the time of the year.”

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