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Sanibel Stargazing: Spring is here!

By Staff | Mar 18, 2010

Orion, the famous hunter of Greek mythology and dominant constellation in the southern sky of our northern hemisphere, is a harbinger of winter. Orion is now high up in the sky in the early evening while Leo the lion, with Regulus its bright heart star, is rising in the east telling us, just as it told ancient cultures, that Spring is coming.

Indeed on March 20 at 1:32 p.m. EDT, the Sun will cross directly over Earth’s celestial equator, marking the astronomical first day of Spring or the vernal equinox for us here in the northern hemisphere.

We have all been taught that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Actually there are only two days in the year that the sun rises due east and sets due west and these are the vernal equinox and the autumnal equinox. On the equinox, which means “equal night” the length of day is very close to the length of night.

After the vernal equinox, the sun will rise a little further north each day until we reach the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Of course, it is actually Earth that is orbiting the Sun and at the same time spinning on its axis. Earth’s axis is actually tilted at about 23 degrees and it is this tilt of our axis that is responsible for our seasons. Here in the northern hemisphere, winter occurs when we are tilted away from the sun and summer when we are tilted towards the sun.

In the Mexican state of Yucatan, there is a Mayan site called the Temple of the Seven Dolls, it is constructed so that as the sun rises on the vernal equinox its rays will shine directly through one window in the temple and out another. Ancient Egyptians constructed their great Sphinx in just the right way so that it points directly towards the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox. These ancient sites demonstrate that ancient cultures had tremendous knowledge of the sky and they used this knowledge within their everyday lives, telling them the time of year, when to plant and perhaps when to move on if they were nomadic.

Certainly there were festivals and big celebrations marking the vernal equinox among cultures thousands of years ago. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. Many cultures celebrate the New Year around the time of the vernal equinox. In many Arab countries, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the vernal equinox and the first Earth Day was celebrated on March 21, 1970.

Here is another opportunity to connect with ancient cultures. On the morning of March 20, you can mark due east, west, north and south from where you live by observing where the sun rises and sets. We can take a moment to wonder, to enjoy the delights that the longer days give us and to be in awe of the magic around us as we travel around our closest star.

(Richard Finkel is an Environmental Educator with Captiva Cruises and conducts educational programs including the Sailing Under The Stars Cruise. Comments or questions can be addressed to Richard at captivacruises@info.com.)