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Thursday, 31 December 2009

Sunspot Surge and a Blue Moon Eclipse

Space Weather News for Dec. 31, 2009

SUNSPOT SURGE:  2009 is ending with a flurry of sunspots.  The month of December has had more "spotted days" than any previous month of the year by a significant margin, and all of the month's sunspot groups have been members of new Solar Cycle 24. Could this herald an end to the deepest solar minimum in nearly a century? That remains to be seen. Sunspot counts and trends are shown on today's edition of

SOMETHING NEW:  Turn your iPhone or iPod Touch into a field-tested satellite tracker! presents the Satellite Flybys app:

BLUE MOON ECLIPSE:  For the first time in almost 20 years, there's going to be a "Blue Moon" on New Year's Eve.  In Europe, sky watchers will witness an even rarer event--an eclipse of a Blue Moon on New Year's Eve.  What are the odds? Probabilities and observing tips may be found at
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Monday, 28 December 2009

Glittering Metropolis

Like a whirl of shiny flakes sparkling in a snow globe, Hubble caught this glimpse of many hundreds of thousands of stars moving about in the globular cluster M13, one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky. This glittering metropolis of stars is easily found in the winter sky in the constellation Hercules and can even be glimpsed with the unaided eye under dark skies.M13 is home to over 100,000 stars and located at a distance of 25,000 light-years. These stars are packed so closely together in a ball, approximately 150 light-years across, that they will spend their entire lives whirling around in the cluster.Near the core of this cluster, the density of stars is about a hundred times greater than the density in the neighborhood of our sun. These stars are so crowded that they can, at times, slam into each other and even form a new star, called a "blue straggler."The brightest reddish stars in the cluster are ancient red giants. These aging stars have expanded to many times their original diameters and cooled. The blue-white stars are the hottest in the cluster.Globular clusters can be found spread largely in a vast halo around our galaxy. M13 is one of nearly 150 known globular clusters surrounding our Milky Way galaxy.Globular clusters have some of the oldest stars in the universe. They likely formed before the disk of our Milky Way, so they are older than nearly all other stars in our galaxy. Studying globular clusters therefore tells us about the history of our galaxy.This image is a composite of archival Hubble data taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)Acknowledgment: C. Bailyn (Yale University), W. Lewin (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), A. Sarajedini (University of Florida), and W. van Altena (Yale University)

Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cassini Holiday Movies Showcase Dance of Saturn's Moons

Video advisory: 2009-204                        December 23, 2009

Cassini Holiday Movies Showcase Dance of Saturn's Moons

The full version of this story with accompanying images is at:

Like sugar plum fairies in "The Nutcracker," the moons of Saturn performed a celestial
ballet before the eyes of NASA's Cassini spacecraft. New movies frame the moons' silent
dance against the majestic sweep of the planet's rings and show as many as four moons
gliding around one another.

The new video can be found at ,
and .

To celebrate the holidays, the Cassini imaging team has created a video collection of
"mutual events," which occur when one moon passes in front of another, as seen from the
spacecraft. Imaging scientists use mutual event observations to refine their understanding
of the dynamics of Saturn's moons. Digital image processing has enabled scientists to turn
these routine observations into breathtaking displays of celestial motion. The original
images were captured between Aug. 27 and Nov. 8, 2009.

In one scene that synthesizes 12 images taken over the span of 19 minutes, Rhea skates in
front of Janus, as Mimas and Pandora slide across the screen in the opposite direction.
While the dance appears leisurely on screen, Rhea actually orbits Saturn at a speed of
about 8 kilometers per second (18,000 mph). The other moons are hurtling around the
planet even faster. Mimas averages about 14 kilometers per second (31,000 mph), and
Janus and Pandora travel at about 16 kilometers per second (36,000 mph).

"As yet another year in Saturn orbit draws to a close, these wondrous movies of an alien
place clear across the solar system remind us how fortunate we are to be engaged in this
magnificent exploratory expedition," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at
the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space
Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science
Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were
designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space
Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.


Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Terra Turns Ten: Snow, Clouds and Sunlight

NASA flies three large, multi-sensor satellites that monitor Earth’s land, atmosphere, oceans and energy balance. Because the instruments on each satellite take measurements at the same time from the same vantage point, scientists are able to compare observations and tease out connections between different parts of the Earth system. The first of the three satellites, Terra, launched ten years ago on Dec. 18, 1999. In the decade since Terra launched, scientists have gained insight into the intricate connections that shape our planet's climate. The relationship between snow, clouds, and sunlight is a good example.In November, the chill and snow of a Northern Hemisphere winter is on the horizon. Snow covers the far north and high elevations, as shown in the map of percent snow cover in November 2009. White areas show where snow covers the ground completely, while blue points to areas with partial snow cover. At the peak of the northern winter, more than 40 percent of the Earth’s land will be covered in snow. In addition to being an important, life-sustaining source of water, the snow also reflects sunlight, limiting the amount of heat the Earth absorbs from the sun.

Image Credit: NASA
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

SPA ENB No. 278

                 The SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY
         Electronic News Bulletin No. 278   2009 December 20

Here is the latest round-up of news from the Society for Popular
Astronomy.  The SPA is Britain's liveliest astronomical society, with
members all over the world.  We accept subscription payments online
at our secure site and can take credit and debit cards.  You can join
or renew via a secure server or just see how much we have to offer by

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

Early details reaching the Section from the Geminid maximum, due
around 05h UT on December 14 (see ENB 276,,
have demonstrated the shower produced another excellent return this
year on that night, but perhaps a little earlier than anticipated. The very
preliminary International Meteor Organization (IMO) results on their "live"
Geminids webpage (at: ) have suggested
Zenithal Hourly Rates (ZHRs) were around 100-120 as early as 16h-19h
UT on December 14, and that they continued at only a slightly reduced
level, ZHRs ~90-110, from about 20h to midnight before peaking again
at roughly 120 near 01h. By 05h, they seemed to have fallen back to
about 85, though some reports were still suggesting ZHRs of 70 or so
as late as 15h UT that day. This pattern is liable to continue changing
as fresh results arrive, and the shorter-interval IMO results, while
showing still greater volatility so far (as expected, because of the
smaller amounts of data per analyzed interval), have hinted that peak
ZHRs may have been a little higher than this, maybe around 130-150.
Hopefully, the pattern should gradually become clearer over the next
week or so, as more data come through. Some of the early USA results
(kindly provided to us almost immediately by North American Meteor
Network leader Mark Davis - see ) have
indicated ZHRs may still have been 90-100+ by 09h-11h UT on
December 14, for instance, which could suggest rather better rates then
than the initial IMO data found.

Reports of how some observers in Britain and nearby fared, can be
found on the Observing Forum's Geminids topic, at  (including a photographed Geminid trail by
Robin Scagell, and a radio-meteor graph from David Entwistle), and on
the UK Weather World's Space Weather Forum Geminids topic, at .  Combining those with other information arriving
directly at the Section, it seems December 12-13 was the better night
across the UK for those who got any clearer weather at all (and sadly,
not everyone was fortunate), particularly for parts of southwest Scotland,
Northern Ireland, central Wales, western and central to southwestern
England. December 13-14 saw fewer people active generally, mostly
concentrated in parts of southern England, north only as far as mid
Wales in what data has arrived thus far. Overseas colleagues seem to
have struggled with the weather as well, often the case in mid
December across the northern hemisphere, of course, with several
people from the eastern USA and the far southwest of Canada already
having reported-in negatively; clouds and endless, cold rain were not
just affecting the UK, it appears!

Anyone who managed some Geminid observing this year, on whatever
night (including those away from the expected peak) is welcome to
provide a copy of their data to the SPA as soon as possible please,
hopefully allowing a fuller review of the shower next time. There is advice
on what information to send and where to via the Section's homepage,
at: .

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

Eleven definite sightings of a fireball around magnitude -9 or perhaps
brighter have been received from locations in Somerset, Gloucestershire,
Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, West Sussex and West London so far,
all timed to within five minutes of 20:00 UT on December 3. Some
early details, with links to a few of the initial sightings, can be found on
the Observing Forum here: . Information derived
from these observations is a little sketchy, but has suggested the
fireball's start was around 90-100 km altitude, somewhere above a
rough area bounded to the east and west by the western Isle of Wight
and the Bournemouth area of Dorset respectively, or a point up to ~15
km north or south of this approximate line. The end could not be firmly-
established, but may have lain within about 40 km of a point roughly
midway between Bridport and Dorchester in Dorset, perhaps around
50 to 60 km altitude. If correct, this would suggest a crude flight direction
aligned somewhere between east-west to southeast-northwest.
Estimates for the visible duration averaged ~4 seconds, but this could
have been longer, maybe up to six or seven seconds, as not all
witnesses saw the entire track. Six reports of some fragmentation during
the object's flight were received, with colours varying from green or
green-white (five reports), to blue-white or orange-yellow (two reports
each), or yellow (one sighting). One observer suggested orange was
present in its tail, while a group elsewhere indicated it was likely the
fragments that were orange, and a short-lived train may have persisted
afterwards (two sightings).

It is possible there were two other UK-visible fireballs that evening, one
around 19:20 UT, the other perhaps near 20:30, plus a fourth event
within half an hour of 22:30, a shadow-castingly bright event seen from
Dorset, but by a witness who unluckily missed the ~20:00 meteor.
Details on the ~19:20 and ~20:30 events await confirmation, however.

All additional sightings of these events, or any other fireballs (meteors of
magnitude -3 or brighter), made from the British Isles and nearby,
would be welcomed by the Section. The minimum details required are:

1) Exactly where you were (give the name of the nearest town or large
village and county if in Britain, or your geographic latitude and longitude
if elsewhere in the world);

2) The date and timing of the event; and

3) Where the fireball started and ended in the sky, as accurately as
possible, or where the first and last points you could see of the trail were
if you did not see the whole flight.

More advice and a fuller set of details to send (including an e-mail
report form) are given on the "Making and Reporting Fireball
Observations" page of the SPA website, at: .

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

The established visual details for this year's Leonids remain much as
given in the previous ENB, but the arrival of Radio Meteor Observation
Bulletin 196, for November 2009 (RMOB; see ),
has allowed an appraisal of what the radio observers detected. The list
of contributors active at some stage during the Leonid epoch from this
RMOB were as follows:

Enric Algeciras (Spain), Orlando Benitez (Canary Islands), Michael
Boschat (Nova Scotia, Canada), Jeff Brower (British Columbia,
Canada), Willy Camps (Belgium), Johan Coussens (Belgium), Gaspard
De Wilde (Belgium), David Entwistle (England), Karl-Heinz Gansel
(Germany), Mike Otte (Illinois, USA), Steve Roush (Arizona, USA),
Wayne Sanders (British Columbia, Canada), Andy Smith (England),
Chris Steyaert (Belgium), Dave Swan (England), Istvan Tepliczky
(Hungary), Dirk Van Hessche (Belgium), Felix Verbelen (Belgium), John
Wardle (England).

Unhappily, significant numbers of observers ran into problems during
November, either with adverse weather conditions (storms and aerial-
wrecking gales), computer or electrical faults and loss of transmitter
signals as the apparently inevitable 'digital revolution' continues, aside
from a few minor, normal, interference effects. This, plus the fact the
stronger visual activity from the Leonids happened during the worst
possible observing interval for both Europe and much of North America,
has made interpreting what the radio results showed even more difficult
than usual. However, the relatively few surviving datasets gave evidence
for quite healthy meteor activity from about midnight to 10h, and again
around 12h UT on November 17, and from roughly 01h to 09h UT on
November 18. The closest to a definable peak in all this fell around
03h-05h UT on November 18, but as it was found exclusively in the
European data, and this interval coincided with one of the better daily
periods for radio-Leonid-detection over this region, it cannot be
regarded as especially significant.

Overall, this pattern seemed to have been more determined by the
radiant geometry at the various receiver sites, than any real differences
in the shower's activity. The radio rates near 03h-05h UT on the 18th
being somewhat stronger than in the same interval on the 17th, did
partly fit to the sustained, if modestly-enhanced, visual "tail" to the main
maxima on November 17, which persisted through till roughly 05h UT
on the 18th. Perhaps the oddest feature was how poorly the radio
Leonids were recorded at all this year, even by those systems which
apparently endured fewer observing difficulties, something for which
there is no good explanation (beyond the typical vagaries of radio-
meteor work!).

Despite these trying radio circumstances, and the fact most of our
contributing observers by all methods were not lucky in catching the
very best from the shower this time, my most grateful thanks go again
to everyone who provided results to us.

National Geographic News

A new study proposes that the gases that make up Earth's atmosphere
came from a swarm of comets, not from volcanoes as has been thought.
The new theory came about after scientists discovered that pristine
samples of the elements krypton and xenon, recently collected from
deep within the Earth, have the same chemical make-up as ancient

Most of the gases in the air we breathe originated in the solar
nebula, the cloud of gas and dust that formed the Sun and planets.
The gases became gravitationally bound to the young Earth and were
then transported into the Earth's interior -- leaking out over the
aeons through vulcanism and cracks in the Earth's crust.  It is true
that volcanoes emitted some gases, but now it is being suggested that
that contribution was insignificant.  Scientists studied krypton and
xenon because they are 'noble' gases, so called because they do not
associate chemically with most other elements.  As a result, most of
the Earth's krypton has remained unchanged since its arrival on our
planet.  The team claims that our atmosphere formed when gas- and
water-rich comets bombarded the Earth shortly after its formation.

Southwest Research Institute

Analysis and modelling of Cassini imaging and heat-mapping data have
confirmed and extended previous ideas that migrating ice, triggered by
infalling reddish dust that darkens and warms the surface, may explain
the two-toned appearance of Saturn's moon Iapetus.  Shortly after he
discovered Iapetus in 1671, the French-Italian astronomer Giovanni
Domenico Cassini noticed that the surface is much darker on its
leading side than on the opposite trailing hemisphere.  Images from
Voyager and Cassini have shown that the dark material on the leading
side extends onto the trailing side near the equator.  The bright
material on the trailing side, which consists mostly of water ice and
is 10 times brighter than the dark material, extends across the north
and south poles onto the leading side.

Findings made by Cassini's cameras during the spacecraft's close
fly-by of Iapetus on 2007 September 10 and on previous encounters show
that both the bright and dark materials on Iapetus' leading side are
redder than similar material on the trailing side, suggesting that the
leading side is coloured (and slightly darkened) by reddish dust that
Iapetus has swept up in its orbit around Saturn.  This observation
confirms an old idea that Iapetus' leading side has been darkened
somewhat by infalling dark dust from an external source, perhaps from
one or more of Saturn's outer moons.  The dust may be related to the
giant ring around Saturn recently discovered by the Spitzer space
telescope.  However, the new images show that infalling dust cannot be
the sole cause of the extreme global brightness dichotomy.  It is
impossible that the very complicated and sharp boundaries between the
dark and the bright regions are formed by simple infall of material.
Close-up images provide a clue, showing evidence for thermal
segregation in which water ice has migrated locally from sunward-
facing (warmer) areas to nearby poleward-facing (colder) areas,
darkening and warming the former and brightening and cooling the

Cassini's infrared observations in 2005 and 2007 found that the dark
regions reach temperatures high enough (-144C) to evaporate many
metres of ice over billions of years.  Iapetus' long rotation period,
79 days, contributes to such 'warm' temperatures by giving the Sun
more time to warm the surface each day than on faster-rotating moons.
The infalling dust darkens the leading side of Iapetus, which
therefore absorbs more sunlight and heats up enough to trigger
evaporation of the ice near the equator.  The evaporating ice
recondenses on the colder and brighter poles and on the trailing
hemisphere. The loss of ice leaves dark material behind, causing
further darkening, warming, and ice evaporation on the leading side
and near the equator.  Simultaneously, the trailing side and poles
continue to brighten and cool owing to ice condensation until Iapetus
ends up with extreme contrasts in surface brightness in the pattern
seen today.

Science Daily

Until light pollution got so bad in recent years, it was obvious even
to the layman that one of the principal stars in the Plough is, in
fact, two stars quite close together.  The bright one is Mizar; its
companion Alcor is now invisible to the naked eye from many locations
owing to its relative faintness.  Mizar is itself now recognized as a
pair of binaries -- what was once thought of as a single star is
actually two pairs of stars orbiting one another.  Alcor has sometimes
been considered a fifth member of the system, orbiting far away from
the Mizar quadruplet.

Now, astronomers have discovered that Alcor is also actually two
stars, and is apparently gravitationally bound to the Mizar system,
making the whole group a sextuplet.  The researchers were actually
looking for planets when they found a faint M-type dwarf star almost
hidden in the glare of Alcor.  Not only did the project reveal the
image of the star, but its presence was able to explain slight
deviations in movement that scientists had noticed in Alcor.  In
addition, it explains the unexpectedly high levels of X-rays coming
from Alcor -- dwarf stars naturally radiate high levels of X-rays.
Some astronomers have questioned whether Alcor is truly a part of the
system made up of the Mizar group of stars, because Alcor's motion is
not identical with that of the Mizar group.  However, the team says
that indeed Alcor is part of the same system, and that the influence
of the newly discovered companion is partly responsible for Alcor's
unexpected motion.


A proposed planet near a star some 6 parsecs away may not exist
after all.  The finding is also a strike against a planet-seeking
strategy called astrometry, which measures the side-to-side motion of
a star on the sky to see whether any unseen bodies might be orbiting
it.  Ground-based astrometry has been used for more than a century,
but none of the extrasolar planets it has detected has been verified
in subsequent studies.  In May, astronomers at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in California, using a telescope at the Palomar
Observatory, raised fresh hopes for the technique when they announced
an exoplanet, six times more massive than Jupiter, orbiting VB10, a
star about one-thirteenth the mass of the Sun,.  However, astronomers
from the Georg-August University in Gottingen, Germany, who used the
radial-velocity technique, which has found most of the extrasolar
planets detected so far, at the VLT, found nothing.  Radial-velocity
measurements are typically made in the visible part of the
electromagnetic spectrum, but as VB10 gives most of its light as
infrared radiation, the VLT observers operated in the infrared.
The astronomers would definitely have seen significant variation in
the data if the planet were there.  In a rearguard action, the JPL
astronomers claim that the radial-velocity technique only rules out
the presence of any planet that is at least three times more massive
than Jupiter, adding that the method "limits certain orbits for
possible planets".

But Alan Boss, an exoplanet enthusiast at the Carnegie Institution,
points to the notorious episode in 1963, when Dutch astrometrist Piet
van de Kamp claimed that two planets were orbiting Barnard's Star -- a
finding disproved a decade later.  The dispute over the VB10 planet,
says Boss, "is another example of how hard it is to detect extra-solar
planets by astrometry from the ground".  Astronomers expect astrometry
to work much better above the distorting effects of the atmosphere.
Two space missions in preparation -- ESA's GAIA, due to be launched in
2012, and NASA's Space Interferometry Mission, of indeterminate launch
date -- will use the technique to search for planets as small as the
Earth around Sun-like stars.  More significantly, astrometry can yield
the mass of a planet, whereas radial velocity can put only a lower
limit on it.


The enigmatic binary-star system known as Cygnus X-3 has fascinated
astronomers for decades.  It is thought to be either a small black
hole or a neutron star and an ordinary, albeit massive, star orbiting
one another.  Now, a team of researchers has detected high-energy
gamma-rays from the system.  The findings may provide a new window on
how Cygnus X-3 accelerates charged particles to enormous energies.
The gamma-rays, the most powerful type of electromagnetic radiation,
were detected by the Italian gamma-ray satellite AGILE (Astro-
rivelatore Gamma ad Immagini Leggero).  From those observations a
clockwork pattern of the gamma-ray emission was noted, which always
seems to occur just before the onset of the powerful radio jets.
Cygnus X-3 is a strange case indeed, being one of the brightest radio
sources in the Galaxy except when it descends into a radio-quenched
state.  Now the extremely energetic gamma-rays have been observed
during the low state.  That may be indicating the preparation of the
major radio flare, which follows just days after, when the source
shoots up energetic radio jets from the core of the compact object.
The new gamma-ray findings might also shed light on how distant
quasars, powered by supermassive black holes, pump even greater
amounts of energy into space.  Micro-quasars such as Cygnus X-3 permit
studies of jet phenomena such as dominate the most luminous quasars'
emission.  Because the emissions from micro-quasars vary on time-
scales of days to weeks rather than the decades of quasar emissions,
they present opportunities to learn about quasar activity -- always on
the assumption that the two types of object are worked by analogous

The very complex behaviour of Cygnus X-3 requires monitoring
throughout the electromagnetic spectrum from radio to X-rays and
now including also gamma-ray emission.  Micro-quasars have strong
magnetic fields which can store enormous amount of energy.  During
gamma-ray flares the stored energy can accelerate charged particles to
very high energies, which prompts them to emit gamma-rays.  Then
radio-emitting blobs are pushed out of the system, producing the major
radio flares.


Using the recently updated Hubble telescope (HST), two teams of UK
astronomers have identified galaxies which are likely to be the most
distant yet seen.  The UK teams analysed infrared images from the new
'Wide Field Camera 3' instrument installed on HST during the 2009
servicing mission.  The expansion of the Universe causes the light
from very distant galaxies to appear redder, so having a new camera
which is very sensitive in the infrared allows us to identify
galaxies at greater distances than was previously possible.  The
new images include the region of sky known as the Hubble Ultra-Deep
Field, which astronomers analysed 5 years ago from visible-light
images.  Astronomers can now look even further back in time,
identifying galaxies when the Universe was only 5% of its current age
-- within 1 billion years of the Big Bang.

As well as identifying potentially the most distant objects yet, the
new HST observations present a puzzle.  Astronomers know that the gas
between galaxies in the Universe was ionized early in the history of
the cosmos, but the total light from the newly observed galaxies does
not seem to be sufficient to achieve that.  The researchers are
looking forward to seeing these objects more clearly in the years
ahead. The new observations from HST are likely to be the best Hubble
will ever take, but the very distant galaxies they have now discovered
will be studied in detail by Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space
Telescope, supposed to be launched in 2014.


Swansea Astronomical Society has occupied the Marina Towers
Observatory site on the Swansea foreshore for 16 years.  It has
reluctantly decided that it cannot renew its lease for the site with
the City and County of Swansea owing to the increased costs and
charges proposed by the Council.  The Society has hitherto received
financial support from the Council; however, with the proposed
withdrawal of that support, the Society, as a registered charity, is
unable to finance a service for the community of Swansea in the form
of regular public and educational events at the site.  During the past
year the Society opened the Observatory and its Exhibition Room on 44
occasions to the public and schools from Swansea and surrounding
districts.  Anyone wishing to sign a petition to keep Swansea
Observatory open may do so by clicking on the Number 10 petition
regarding the Marina Towers (as featured in the December edition of
Astronomy Now). The web address is:  The
deadline for signing up is January 23.

Bulletin compiled by Clive Down

(c) 2009 the Society for Popular Astronomy

Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Expedition 22 Lifts Off

The Soyuz TMA-17 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:52 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 20, carrying Expedition 22 NASA Flight Engineer Timothy J. Creamer of the U.S., Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia and Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of Japan to the International Space Station.

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Monday, 21 December 2009

[BAA 00458] Conjunction between Jupiter and Neptune

BAA electronic bulletin No. 00458  

The last of this year's three conjunctions between Jupiter and
Neptune occurs tonight, Sunday, 2009 December 20. Neptune will be 0.6
degrees N of Jupiter, and thus in the same low-power telescopic field.

A series of three conjunctions between planets is known as a "triple
conjunction" and is quite unusual. The last occurred between Uranus
and Neptune in 1993. There will be a series between Jupiter and
Uranus in 2010/11 (2010 June 8 and September 19 and 2011 January 04),
but then no more until 2037/38 when the pairing will again be Jupiter
and Uranus. They only occur for superior planets. The nearer planet
passes the more distant in the sky, retrogrades and passes it again,
then passes for the third time in direct motion.

The conjunction tonight will be best seen just after dark or in
twilight. At 17:00 UT the planets will be about 25 degrees high just
west of south. The occasion offers an excellent opportunity to easily
identify Neptune. From east to west the Jupiter system will be seen
as Io-Europa-Jupiter-Ganymede. (Callisto will be transit across the
face of Jupiter and therefore possibly invisible). Neptune will be
found approximately five times that system's width to the north of

It will also be worthwhile to look at the configuration a day later
on December 21 when the crescent Moon will be 4 degrees to the north
of Jupiter, so all three bodies might be fitted in the same binocular
field. These alignments will provide good subjects for DSLRs and
other cameras used with telephoto lenses or small telescopes.

Happy Christmas from me and the Council of the BAA.

David Arditti

BAA electronic bulletins service.      E-mail:
Bulletin transmitted on  Sun Dec 20 13:41:08 GMT 2009
(c) 2009 British Astronomical Association
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)


BAA electronic bulletin No. 00459  


Reports are coming in of a daylight fireball, visible between about 12.40
and 12.45 pm on Saturday, 19th December 2009. Sightings have so far been
received from observers in South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, but it
is likely that the event would have been visible across most of the East
Midlands and Eastern England.

Such sightings are rare since few fireballs are bright enough to be visible
in broad daylight, although the Sun is rather low in the sky at local noon
at this time of the year.  Many areas of the country enjoyed clear blue
cloudless skies early on the Saturday afternoon in question.

Any BAA members who saw this event, or who may have been contacted by non
astronomers who witnessed it, are asked to collect as much information about
the sighting as possible and send it to the BAA Meteor Section's Fireball
Co-ordinator Len Entwisle at <>

Useful information will include the precise time of the event, the altitude
and azimuth of the start and end points of the visible track, the position
of the observed track relative to the Sun in the sky (if seen towards the
south), and a description of the fireball's appearance together with any
unusual features.

Dr John W. Mason
Acting Director
BAA Meteor Section

BAA electronic bulletins service.      E-mail:
Bulletin transmitted on  Mon Dec 21 19:13:13 GMT 2009
(c) 2009 British Astronomical Association
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

[BAA 00460] NOVA AQUILAE 2009

BAA electronic bulletin No. 00460  


The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams announces in Electronic
Telegram (CBET) No. 2075 (Daniel W. E. Green, ed.) that Koichi
Kurume, Fukuoka-ken, Japan, and Fujio Kabashima, Miyaki-cho, Saga-ken,
Japan, report their discovery of a possible nova in Aquila at
10.9 on two 40-second unfiltered CCD frames taken on Dec. 14.398 and
UT. Confirming unfiltered CCD frames taken around Dec. 14.408 show the
object at magnitude 10.9.

Coordinates: 19:14:09.73 +15:16:34.7 (equinox 2000.0)

Nothing is visible at this position on their frames taken on Dec.
6.417 down
to magnitude 13.7 and 7.412 down to 13.6.

The AAVSO advise that finder charts may be plotted by entering
'Nova Aql 2009' at the URL:

By calling a smaller field, say of 30 arc minutes with limiting
magnitude of 13 should ensure some comparison star values are suited
the current brightness of the nova.

After peaking around magnitude 10 the nova is fading and is now just
below mag 11.

An image may be found on the BAA home page courtesy of Maurice Gavin.

This nova discovered on Nov. 25 almost reached mag 8 but has quickly
faded and is now around mag 10.  However, is does have a lower
declination but may be found at R.A. = 04:47:54.21  Decl.
= -10:10:43.1 (equinox 2000.0).  A chart can be plotted as above but
by entering KT Eri.

Please submit any observations of either or both object to both TA
( and the VSS Director.

This e-bulletin has been prepared using the TA E-Circular 2604 and
AAVSO Special Notice #184.

Roger Pickard, Director VSS

BAA electronic bulletins service.      E-mail:
Bulletin transmitted on  Mon Dec 21 21:37:43 GMT 2009
(c) 2009 British Astronomical Association
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

"This Week In Space" debuts / Soyuz launches new crew

    NEWSALERT: Monday, December 21, 2009 @ 2100 GMT
        The latest news from Spaceflight Now

Looking for a job out of this world?
The top jobs and the best talents in
the space industry are on Space Careers.

Space Careers, a one-stop reference source
for employment in the space industry.

Welcome to the premiere of "This Week In Space With Miles O'Brien," a new
show dedicated to keeping space lovers up to speed on the stories and
issues making news off the planet. This week: an in-depth look at the
future of human spaceflight as the Obama Administration prepares new
marching orders for NASA, an interview with astronaut Nicole Stott,
recently home from three months on the International Space Station, plus a
news roundup.

A Russian doctor, an American helicopter pilot and a Japanese engineer
launched into orbit Sunday inside a Soyuz capsule bound for a six-month
mission aboard the International Space Station. Liftoff from the Baikonur
Cosmodrome occurred on schedule at 4:52 p.m. EST (2152 GMT).

A NASA probe circling the moon has found an unexpected lunar radiation
source and detected the coldest known location in the solar system,
scientists announced last week.

France successfully launched a new spy satellite on Friday during a midday
launch from French Guiana, using Europe's trusted Ariane 5 rocket to send
the nearly $1 billion payload to orbit.

White House officials say President Obama has not yet made a decision on
the fate of NASA's moon program, two days after an Oval Office meeting
with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured the first flash of sunlight
reflected off a lake on Saturn's moon Titan, confirming the presence of
liquid on the part of the moon dotted with many large, lake-shaped basins.
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

December 21 is a Solstice Day in 2009

December 21 is a Solstice Day in 2009

The December solstice will occur at 17:47 (or 5.47pm) Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on December 21, 2009. It is also known as the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere due to the seasonal differences. Its date varies from December 20 to December 23 depending on the year in the Gregorian calendar.

To find the December solstice date in other time zones or other years, please use the Seasons Calculator.

The December Solstice Explained

The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.

The sun is directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere during the December solstice. It also marks the longest day of the year in terms of daylight hours for those living south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Those living or travelling south from the Antarctic Circle towards the South Pole will see the midnight sun during this time of the year.

On the contrary, for an observer in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight for those living north of the Tropic of Cancer. Those living or traveling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole will not be able to see the sun during this time of the year.

Solstice in December
Illustration is not to scale

The December solstice in the calendar

December 20 and December 23 solstices occur less frequently than December 21 or December 22 solstices in the Gregorian calendar. The last December 23 solstice occurred in 1903 and will not occur again until the year 2303. A December 20 solstice has occurred very rarely, with the next one occurring in the year 2080.

As with the June solstice, the December solstice's varying dates are mainly due to the calendar system. The Gregorian calendar, which is used in most western countries, has 365 days in a year and 366 days in a leap year. However, the tropical year, which is the length of time the sun takes to return to the same position in the seasons cycle (as seen from earth), is different to the calendar year. The tropical year is approximately 365.242199 days but varies from year to year because of the influence of other planets. The exact orbital and daily rotational motion of the earth, such as the "wobble" in the earth's axis (precession), also contributes to the changing solstice dates.

Over the course of history, many different schemes have been devised to determine the start of the year. Some are astronomical, beginning at the September or March equinox, or at the June or December solstice. Solstices are more readily observable either by observing when the midday shadow of a gnomon is longest (winter solstice in the northern hemisphere) or shortest (summer solstice in the northern hemisphere). The solstices can also be observed by noting the point of time when the sun rises or sets as far south as it does during the course of the year (winter in the northern hemisphere) or maximally north (summer in the northern hemisphere).

December solstice in relation to seasons

It is important to note that earth does not move at a constant speed in its elliptical orbit. Therefore the seasons are not of equal length: the times taken for the sun to move from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice, to the autumnal equinox, to the winter solstice, and back to the vernal equinox are roughly 92.8, 93.6, 89.8 and 89.0 days respectively. The consolation in the northern hemisphere is that spring and summer last longer than autumn and winter (when the December solstice occurs).

The relative position of the earth's axis to the sun changes during the cycle of seasons. This phenomenon is the reason why the sun's height above the horizon changes throughout the year. It is also responsible for the seasons through controlling the intensity and duration of sunlight received at various locations around the planet.

Useful Tools

To calculate the approximate time and date (according to Coordinated Universal Time) of the March equinox, as well as the June and December solstices and the September equinox, click on the Seasons Calculator. These dates mark the beginning of the four seasons of the year, which are spring, summer, autumn (or fall) and winter. It is important to note that the seasons in the northern hemisphere are opposite to those in the southern hemisphere. Find out more about the Seasons Calculator and links to useful tools, such as the Day and Night World Map, Moon Calculator, Moon Phase Calculator, and Sunrise Calculator.

The World Clock can also be used to find sunrise and sunset times, as well as the current position of the sun in major cities around the world. Simply select any location that is available from the World Clock and the calculator will adjust the local time in that particular city.

Solstice's influence on cultures

The December solstice has played an important role the lives of many people in ancient times. To this day, the world is still influenced by various traditions linked to the observance of the December solstice.


Astronomy calculators

More information

Calendar tools

Related time zone tools

Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

Celebrating The Ringing In Of The Winter Solstice

Celebrating Winter Solstice
by Selena Fox

The Winter Solstice 2009
Winter Solstice has been celebrated in cultures the world over for thousands of years. This start of the solar year is a celebration of Light and the rebirth of the Sun. In old Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel.

Today, many people in Western-based cultures refer to this holiday as "Christmas." Yet a look into its origins of Christmas reveals its Pagan roots. Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the "Invincible Sun" in the third century as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations. Shortly thereafter, in 273, the Christian church selected this day to represent the birthday of Jesus, and by 336, this Roman solar feast day was Christianized. January 6, celebrated as Epiphany in Christendom and linked with the visit of the Magi, was originally an Egyptian date for the Winter Solstice.

Most of the customs, lore, symbols, and rituals associated with "Christmas" actually are linked to Winter Solstice celebrations of ancient Pagan cultures. While Christian mythology is interwoven with contemporary observances of this holiday time, its Pagan nature is still strong and apparent. Pagans today can readily re-Paganize Christmastime and the secular New Year by giving a Pagan spiritual focus to existing holiday customs and by creating new traditions that draw on ancient ways. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Celebrate Yule with a series of rituals, feasts, and other activities. In most ancient cultures, the celebration lasted more than a day. The ancient Roman Saturnalia festival sometimes went on for a week. Have Winter Solstice Eve and Day be the central focus for your household, and conceptualize other holiday festivities, including New Year's office parties and Christmas visits with Christian relatives, as part of your Solstice celebration. By adopting this perspective, Pagan parents can help their children develop an understanding of the multicultural and interfaith aspects of this holiday time and view "Christmas" as just another form of Solstice. Have gift exchanges and feasts over the course of several days and nights as was done of old. Party hearty on New Year's Eve not just to welcome in the new calendar year, but also to welcome the new solar year.
  • Adorn the home with sacred herbs and colors. Decorate your home in Druidic holiday colors red, green, and white. Place holly, ivy, evergreen boughs, and pine cones around your home, especially in areas where socializing takes place. Hang a sprig of mistletoe above a major threshold and leave it there until next Yule as a charm for good luck throughout the year. Have family/household members join together to make or purchase an evergreen wreath. Include holiday herbs in it and then place it on your front door to symbolize the continuity of life and the wheel of the year. If you choose to have a living or a harvested evergreen tree as part of your holiday decorations, call it a Solstice tree and decorate it with Pagan symbols.
  • Convey love to family, friends, and associates. At the heart of Saturnalia was the custom of family and friends feasting together and exchanging presents. Continue this custom by visiting, entertaining, giving gifts, and sending greetings by mail and/or phone. Consider those who are and/or have been important in your life and share appreciation.
  • Reclaim Santa Claus as a Pagan Godform. Today's Santa is a folk figure with multicultural roots. He embodies characteristics of Saturn (Roman agricultural god), Cronos (Greek god, also known as Father Time), the Holly King (Celtic god of the dying year), Father Ice/Grandfather Frost (Russian winter god), Thor (Norse sky god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by goats), Odin/Wotan (Scandinavian/Teutonic All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse), Frey (Norse fertility god), and the Tomte (a Norse Land Spirit known for giving gifts to children at this time of year). Santa's reindeer can be viewed as forms of Herne, the Celtic Horned God. Decorate your home with Santa images that reflect His Pagan heritage.
  • Honor the Goddess as Great Mother. Place Pagan Mother Goddess images around your home. You may also want to include one with a Sun child, such as Isis with Horus. Pagan Goddess forms traditionally linked with this time of year include Tonantzin (Native Mexican corn mother), Holda (Teutonic earth goddess of good fortune), Bona Dea (Roman women's goddess of abundance and prophecy), Ops (Roman goddess of plenty), Au Set/Isis (Egyptian/multicultural All Goddess whose worship continued in Christian times under the name Mary), Lucina/St. Lucy (Roman/Swedish goddess/saint of light), and Befana (Italian Witch who gives gifts to children at this season)
  • Honor the new solar year with light. Do a Solstice Eve ritual in which you meditate in darkness and then welcome the birth of the sun by lighting candles and singing chants and Pagan carols. If you have a indoor fireplace or an outdoor fire circle, burn an oak log as a Yule log and save a bit to start next year's fire. Decorate the inside and/or outside of your home with electric colored lights. Because of the popularity of five pointed stars as holiday symbols, this is a good time to display a pentagram of blue or white lights. 
  • Contribute to the manifestation of more wellness on Planet Earth. Donate food and clothing to poor in your area. Volunteer time at a social service agency. Put up bird feeders and keep them filled throughout the winter to supplement the diets of wild birds. Donate funds and items to non-profit groups, such as Pagan/Wiccan churches and environmental organizations. Meditate for world peace. Work magic for a healthier planet. Make a pledge to do some form of good works in the new solar year.
    Sacred Plants of Winter Solstice
    by Selena Fox

  • symbolizing: Continuity of Life, Protection, Prosperity
  • types: Pine, Fir, Cedar, Juniper, other evergreens
  • forms: boughs, wreaths, garlands, trees
  • divinities: Green Goddesses & Gods; Hertha; Cybele, Attis, Dionysius (Pine); Woodland Spirits traditions: Roman, Celtic, Teutonic, Christian

  • symbolizing: Old Solar Year; Waning Sun; Protection; Good Luck
  • forms: boughs over portals, wreaths
  • divinities: Holly King; Old Nick; Saturn; Bacchus; Wood Spirits; Holly Boys
  • traditions: Roman, Celtic, English, Christian

  • symbolizing: New Solar Year; Waxing Sun; Endurance, Strength, Triumph, Protection, Good Luck
  • forms: Yule log, acorns, wood for sacred fires
  • divinities: Oak King; Oak Spirit; Sky Gods including Thor, Jupiter, Zeus
  • traditions: Teutonic, Celtic, Christian

  • symbolizing: Peace, Prosperity, Healing, Wellness, Fertility, Rest, Protection
  • forms: boughs, amulet sprigs above doorways, kissing balls
  • divinities: Oak Spirit; Frigga and Balder
  • traditions: Celtic, Teutonic

  • symbolizing: Fidelity, Protection, Healing, Marriage, Victory, Honor, Good Luck
  • forms: crowns, wreaths, garlands
  • divinities: Dionysius; Bacchus; Great Goddess; Ivy Girls
  • traditions: Greek, Roman, English, Christian

  • symbolizing: Sun, Purification, Consecration, Protection, Spiritual Illumination
  • forms: incense, oils
  • divinities: Sun Gods, Ra at Dawn, Bel
  • traditions: Babalyonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Christian

  • symbolizing: Healing, Death and Afterlife, Purification, Inner Peace
  • forms: incense, oils
  • divinities: Isis, Ra at Midday
  • traditions: Egyptian, Jewish, Christian

  • symbolizing: Sustenance, Abundance, Fertility, Good Luck
  • forms: grain, straw figures and symbols, cookies, cakes, breads
  • divinities: Earth Goddesses; Saturn & Ops; Goat Spirit; Fairy Folk
  • traditions: Roman, Celtic, Scots, Teutonic, Sweedish, Christian

    Celtic Tree Calendar's Sacred Trees of Winter Solstice
  • Yew: Last Day of Solar Year; Death. 
  • Silver Fir: Winter Solstice Day; Birth. 
  • Birch: Month following Winter Solstice; Beginnings.
    Pagan Yuletide Greenery

  • from Evergreen "Yule" Trees - Pines, Fir, Spruce, others
  • from other Trees - Holly, Oak, Birch, Silver Fir, Yew, Juniper, Cedar, Fruit trees, others
  • from Herbs - Mistletoe, Ivy, Bayberry, Bay, Rosemary, Sage, others
  • from other Plants - Poinsettia, others

  • living
  • cut & kept fresh
  • cut & dried
  • representational

  • Used for Winter Solstice time celebrations since antiquity -- Roman, Teutonic, English, Egyptian, others
  • Use continued as part of Christmas traditions, but banned some eras & places due to their Pagan associations
  • Part of spiritual & secular December holiday celebrations in contemporary America & elsewhere

    Sacred Uses:
  • Wreath - symbolizing the wheel of the year; placed on doorways, walls, altars, other places
    Rituals of selection, creation, placement, removal, burning at Imbolc, Summer Solstice, or other times
  • Yule Tree - symbolizing eternal life force & World Tree; decorated with lights, sun symbols, other symbols
    Rituals of growing, selection, honoring tree spirit, placement, decoration, removal, offering or burning
  • Sprigs, Boughs, & Garlands - symbolizing the continuity of life; used to adorn homes, altars, other places
    Rituals of cutting, arranging, removal, burning or mulching
  • Mistletoe Amulet - symbolizing peace, friendship, affection; hung above door ways to protect home
    Rituals of harvest, placement, home blessing, kissing under it for peace making, fun, good luck Mistletoe is often an ingredient in multi-herbal kissing ball used in similar ways
  • Yule Log Adornment - with Holly to symbolize old year passing & with other greens for continuity of life
    Rituals of selection & placement on the Log, burning with the Log to welcome new solar year, good luck
  • Greenery Circle Making - symbolizing the Circle of Life & Yule season; outline ritual circle with greens
    Rituals of harvest, placement, later removal & use in sacred fires
  • Evergreen Sprig Wand - symbolizing the Yuletide season, renewal, well-being
    Rituals of harvest, uses for circle casting, purification, healing, energy directing, home blessing
  • Sacred Fires - dried greenery symbolizing the season & specified intention such as release or attraction
    Rituals of fire starting, fire feeding, magic making
  • Crowns - of Holly leaves symbolizing Holly King, Holly Boy, & Goddess; of Oak Leaves for the Oak King, of Ivy for Goddess, God, Ivy Girl; of a mixture of greens symbolizing Yuletide
    Rituals of creating, crowning, invoking, offering, aspecting, thanksgiving, celebration
  • Gifts - of living plants, herb teas, greens scented candles, motifs decorating cards, foods, music, art
    Rituals of creating, selection, gifting, thanksgiving, friendship renewal & love

  • Greenery Meditation - using actual or visualized greenery symbolizing renewal of the Yuletide season
    Rituals of healing, guidance, seasonal celebration
  • Winter Solstice Celebrations for Families and Households
    by Selena Fox

    Focus of Celebration: consider first your purpose(s) for the celebration, such as:
  • Strengthen family bonding with each other
  • Expand upon existing patterns of family celebrations
  • Attune family to Nature's cycles
  • Attune family to its membership in the community of all life on planet Earth
  • Connect with ancestors
  • Celebrate ethnic/cultural heritage(s)
  • Educate about ancient and contemporary folkways
  • Extend the celebration of Christmas, be an alternative, or expand upon it
  • Deepen understanding about spiritual renewal and love
  • Have fun

    Timing of Celebration: pick a time that fits form of celebration and family patterns, such as:

    On Solstice:
  • at moment of Solstice (check astrological/astronomical calendar)
  • at twilight
  • in evening before going to sleep
  • at sunrise
  • at noon or midday

    Near Solstice:
  • night before Solstice
  • weekend before Solstice

    Length of Celebration: structure with age and attention range of family members in mind
  • Very Short: under five minutes
  • Short: five to twenty minutes
  • Medium: twenty minutes to ninety minutes
  • Long: ninety minutes to three hours
  • Very Long: more than three hours, such as a twenty-four hour period

    Settings of Celebration: pick a suitable location; some options include:

    Indoors in Family Home:
  • at kitchen or dining table
  • by fireplace
  • by holiday tree
  • in living room or family room

  • back or front yard of family home
  • deck
  • nearby park
  • Nature preserve/wilderness area

    Components of Celebration: select one or more that fits focus, timing, length, and setting

    Yule Wreath
  • purchase a wreath or make a wreath from evergreens collected by family members.
  • have family members gather around the wreath and consider it as a symbol of cycles of Nature; mention Yule and Jul, names for Winter Solstice time (and Christmas) mean wheel.
  • have family members each share something they appreciate about Winter
  • put the wreath in a visible location, such as on the front door, on an inside wall, or in the center of the dining table.
  • On or after New Year's Day, wreath can be returned to Nature, or kept until Summer Solstice and then burned in a bonfire.

    Solstice Feast
  • Prepare favorite family foods and beverages.
  • Before beginning the dining experience, do a family prayer of thanksgiving.
  • End the feast with a cake or pie with a sun image on it.
  • Birthday candles can be put on this solar dessert. Each family member can light a candle and make a wish for the holiday season or the upcoming calendar year. Once all candles are lit, the family as a whole can blow them out to send wishes on their way. Then call out "Happy Solstice" or "Good Yule" in unison.

    Candlelight Circle
  • Can be done as part of a feast or separately.
  • Family gathers in a circle around a card table or dining table. There is an unlit new red taper candle in a candleholder for each family member, plus a larger new red taper or pillar candle in a candleholder to represent the family as a whole and the Solstice Sun. Candles are arranged evenly around the central larger candle.
  • Parent(s) begin the circle by sharing some background about Winter Solstice, such as how it has been celebrated across time and cultures, and how its celebration is reflected in contemporary secular and religious Christmas customs. Then parent(s) describe the focus for this candlelight circle, such as to attune the family members to each other, to the ways of ancestors, and/or to Nature.
  • Lights are extinguished. Family stands or sits in darkness for a few moments and contemplates the reduction of daylight at this time of year, the importance of the Sun to life on the planet, and the symbology of light as indicators of renewal.
  • Then, parent(s) light the central candle with a blessing of renewal for the family and the planet and guide a short meditation on light and renewal.
  • Next, parent(s) invite each member to light her/his personal candle and give a thanksgiving for something in past or present or a blessing for the year to come.
  • When all the candles are lit, the family joins hands and chants or sings. The song, "We wish you a Merry Christmas" can be adapted to "We wish you a Merry Solstice" and sung to end the circle.
  • Candles can be left burning if in a safe, attended location, throughout the rest of the Solstice celebration, if there are other component parts.
  • Candles can be extinguished by everyone doing it simultaneously after one of the family members states that the light of renewal remains in our hearts.

    Yule Log
  • An oak log, plus a fireplace or bonfire area is needed for this form of celebration. The oak log should be very dry so that it will blaze well. It can be decorated with burnable red ribbons of natural fiber and dried holly leaves. In the fireplace or bonfire area, dried kindling should be set to facilitate the burning of the log.
  • Begin by having parent(s) or some other family member describe the tradition of the Yule log. The tale of the Oak King and Holly King from Celtic mythology can be shared as a story, or can be summarized with a statement that the Oak represents the waxing solar year, Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice, and the Holly represents the waning solar year, Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice.
  • Lights are extinguished as much as possible. The family is quiet together in the darkness. Family members quietly contemplate the change in the solar year. Each in her/his own way contemplates the past calendar year, the challenges as well as the good times.
  • Then the Yule Log fire is lit. As it begins to burn, each family member throws in one or more dried holly sprigs and says farewell to the old calendar year. Farewells can take the form of thanksgiving and appreciation and/or a banishment of old habits or personal pains.
  • Once the Yule Log itself starts blazing, then the facilitator invites family members to contemplate the year ahead and the power of possibilities. Each member then throws in an oak twig or acorn into the fire to represent the year ahead, and calls out a resolution and/or a hope.
  • When this process is done, the family sings a song together. The traditional carol, "Deck the Halls," is good because it mentions the Solstice, the change in the solar year, and the Yule log.
  • Let the Yule Log burn down to a few chunks of charred wood and ashes. Following an ancient tradition, save remnants of the fire and use them to start the Yule Log fire the following year.

    Bell Ringing
  • This can take a simple form of the family ringing bells together at the moment of Solstice, or it can be a circle ceremony in and of itself. It also can be incorporated into other components of the celebration such as the Candlelight Circle or Yule Log Ceremony -- in these cases, bells can be rung after each blessing/sharing is stated.
  • Each family member chooses a bell to ring. Bells can be of varying sizes and types, but should blend well with each other when rung together. Brass bells and/or jingle bells are commonly available and have long time associations with the season.
  • For a bell ringing Solstice Circle, the family gathers together in a circle. Each has a bell in hand to ring. Parent(s) or some other family member serves as facilitator(s). She/he begins by saying a few words about the Solstice being the start of the new solar year and how the calendar year used today in many places around the world was structured on the solar year. The facilitator then describes how bells have been rung in connection with many types of celebrations. Bells have been rung at this time of year to ring out the old year and to ring in the new year. Then the facilitator invites the family to celebrate the Solstice with bells.
  • If the family is used to honoring the directions as part of spiritual practice (Wiccan, Native American, Buddhist, Hermetic, etc.), the family begins by facing each of the compass points (North, East, South, West) and ringing the bells in unison, honoring connections with each sacred direction. Then the family rings bells in the three directions connected with the center: upward, the place of the cosmos; downward, the place of the planet; and center; Divine unity.
  • In place of or in addition to individual direction honoring, the family rings all their bells together to celebrate their connection with each other as a family; then they ring them in unison again to celebrate their connection with the cycles of Nature; and then they ring them a third time in unison to celebrate their connection with life on planet Earth and all of Nature.
  • Then from the oldest to the youngest, each family member speaks a vision or wish for the planet for the coming year. After each one speaks, all ring bells together to affirm that vision/wish. After all have shared, the ceremony ends as the family calls out "Happy Solstice" or "Good Yule" three times and rings bells.

    Yule Tree
  • Decorate an evergreen tree as a Yule tree. The tree can be a living tree growing in the yard of the home or in a container indoors to be planted outside in Spring. Or, the tree can be a harvested one purchased or cut yourself from a tree farm.
  • The Yule Tree can be decorated prior to or on Solstice for the entire holiday season. If decorated prior to Solstice, on Solstice day, family members can each add an ornament. Members may want to speak a blessing on the Solstice celebration as they add their ornaments. Ornaments can be of any type, but those that represent the Sun, such as sun figures or shinny red or golden balls, are very appropriate because of their symbolism. A star, sunburst, or light at the top of the tree is another traditional Solstice symbol.
  • Electric lights on the tree can also play into the Solstice celebration. They can be first turned on during the Solstice celebration. Or, if the family custom is to have a lit holiday tree for much of December, the lights can be turned off during a celebration as the family focuses on the year passing and the longest nights of the year and then turned on to represent renewal and the new Solar year.
  • After the holiday season is over, the Yule tree can be burned in a bonfire, chopped up and used as mulch, or placed in the wilds as additional habitat for wild creatures. A branch can be saved and stored away until next year and then burned with the Yule Log to represent the continuity of Nature's cycles.

    Winter Nature Communion
  • Grains and seeds, and the feeding of creatures have been associated with Yuletide holidays for hundred of years in Europe. To continue this tradition, gather some sunflower seeds in a large basket or bowl. Go outside next to the home or to a place frequented by wild birds and other wild creatures.
  • The family gathers around a bird feeder, a tree stump, a rock ledge, or other spot where the seeds are to be placed. Someone in the family serves as facilitator and guides the family in a Nature attunement meditation. First, the family silently focuses on the experience of being outdoors in the Winter at this Solstice time. Next, the family silently focuses on being part of the fabric of life of Nature. Then the family silently focuses on expressing appreciation for the beauty of Nature and the relationships with other lifeforms. Each family member then takes a handful of seeds and focuses on the seeds as symbols of life and as messengers of goodwill toward other parts of Nature.
  • Now, each family member in turn places the seeds in the feeder or on the stump, ledge, or other spot, and speaks an appreciation of Nature. After all the offerings have been made, the family joins hands and says together several times, "We are part of the Family of Nature!" The ceremony ends as the family in unison calls out "Happy Solstice!" or "Good Yule!"

    Solstice Stories
  • The family can share Solstice related stories with each other. Parents, grandparents, and/or other older relatives can share how they celebrated Yuletide (Solstice, Christmas, New Year's) when they were young. Parents and other relatives also can speak about their ethnic roots and share whatever they know of Yuletide folk customs of their ancestors.
  • If little or nothing is known within the living extended family itself about ancestral folk ways, prior to Solstice, one or more family members can do some research into customs connected with ancestral nationalities, ethnicities, spiritualities, and other cultural forms. Some places to check for information include bookstores and libraries, gifts shops with ethnic themes, cultural societies, folklore centers, museums, and multicultural centers at universities.
  • In addition to stories about folk customs connected with Yuletide, myths and legends connected with Winter, the Sun, and/or Renewal can be told.
  • To facilitate passing this family heritage on to future generations, the family may wish to tape record or videotape the story sharing.

    Gift Giving
  • Across many cultures for at least several thousand years, gifts have been exchanged among family and friends at Solstice time. Even if the family already has a tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas or Epiphany, some gifts can be exchanged on Solstice as well. Having gift giving occur over a period of time extends the holiday celebration and is a time honored tradition, as commemorated in the song "Twelve Days of Christmas."
  • The Solstice gift exchange can take a variety of forms. When all family holiday gifts are displayed under the Yule tree for several days, each family member can select one gift with their own name on it to open on Solstice night or morning. In cases in which family members give each other multiple gifts, each member can select a gift to give each other member. Another method of gift distribution is to have family members place their names in a hat or basket, and when this is done, to each draw a name, which indicates the person to whom they will give a Solstice gift.
  • Still another alternative is to have a gifting experience unique to Solstice. A group of similar, yet distinctive small gifts, individually wrapped can be placed in a large basket or cauldron. There should be one for each family member. At least one extra gift could be included and this could be kept for the family as a whole or later given to a family friend. Some examples of gift groups include an assortment of pieces of tumbled agate or quartz crystals, a collection of animal figurines or exotic sea shells, an array of candles or bells, or a variety of pieces of candy or other food treats. Gift picking can be according to age: oldest to youngest, youngest to oldest; according to birth date in the year; by first name in alphabetical order; by lot; or by some other method. The gift exchange, when involving Nature gifts, can have an educational component. For example, if bird images are the gift form, the family can talk about each type of bird after each figure is unwrapped.
  • A good way to bring closure to the gift exchange on Solstice night is for the family to join hands together in a circle and spend a few moments focusing together on the sharing of love, a on-going gift that transcends time and physical presents. Focusing on appreciating each other strengthens the family as well as imbues the gift giving and other Solstice celebration experiences with a spiritual context
    "Apparently Saturnalia was Celebrated more by the Romans especially when the Planet Saturn was high in the night sky around this time" C.W
    Winter Solstice in Pagan Rome
    by Selena Fox

    Timing of Saturnalia
  • varied during the course of Roman history.
  • began as feast days for Saturn (December 17) and Ops (December 19).
  • with Julian calendar, Saturnalia on December 17 & 18; Opalia on December 19 & 20.
  • during the empire, extended to a week (December 17-23); longer with other holidays.

    Associated holiday festivals
  • Consualia, end of sowing season festival (December 15).
  • Dies Juvenalis, Coming of Age for Young Men (mid-December).
  • Feast of Sol Invicta, the Unconquered Sun, set in 274 A. D. (December 25).
  • Brumalia, Winter Solstice on pre-Julian calendar (December 25).
  • Christmas (December 25), Christians move Christ's birthday to this date in 336 A.D.
  • Janus Day and Beginning of Calendar Year (January 1), set in 153 B.C.; again in 45 B.C.
  • Compitalia, blessing of the fields rural festival (January 3-5).

    Deities honored around Winter Solsticetime
  • Saturn - God of Agriculture; merged with the Greek Cronos.
  • Ops - Goddes of Plenty; Mother Earth; partner to Saturn and Consus.
  • Sol Invicta - Sun God; connected with the Persian Mithra, honored by Roman soldiers.
  • Consus - God of Storebin of Harvested Grain.
  • Juventas - Goddess of Young Manhood; related to Greek Hebe of Youthful Beauty.
  • Janus - God of Beginnings and Gates; Solar God of Daybreak; Creator God.

    Celebrations included
  • merry-making
  • rest and relaxation
  • connections with family and friends
  • celebrating beginning of Solar year
  • prayers for protection of Winter crops
  • honoring Deities

    Legacies of Saturnalia in contemporary holiday celebrations
  • Religious Rituals -- joining in spiritual community to honor the Divine.
  • Honored Figures -- Santa and Father Time -- Saturn; Holy Mother -- Ops.
  • Sacred Flames -- candles lit and new fires kindled to represent new Solar year.
  • Greens -- Holly given with gifts, homes decorated with wreaths and garlands.
  • Time Off from Work -- government, schools, businesses closed; multiple days off.
  • Peace -- dispensing of punishments suspended and courts closed; wars ceased.
  • Relaxing with Family and Friends -- renewing bonds, sharing celebration.
  • Gift Giving -- dolls to children, candles to friends; fruit symbols representing increase.
  • Feasting -- sharing food with family and friends; on-going eating and drinking.
  • Helping Less Fortunate -- class distinctions suspended; food for all; masters waiting on servants.
  • Exhuberant Play -- masquerades, gaming, gambling, mock king, jokes, partying, letting loose.
  • Paper Hats -- soft hats (pilei) worn at Saturnalia banquets to signify informality.
  • Dancing in the New Solar Year -- music and dancing.
    Herbcraft: Wintertime Wassail
    by Selena Fox

    Wassail is a centuries old English ceremonial cider used as an apple tree spirit offering during the Yuletide season to bless orchards and increase their yields. The word Wassail is from the Saxon for "Good Health" and a traditional toast is to hold high a cup of Wassail while exclaiming "Waes Heal!" Making and serving Wassail has been one of my favorite Winter holiday traditions. Here is my recipe:

    Pour a gallon of fresh or refrigerated cider into a cauldron or electric crockpot. Add three cinnamon sticks. Cover and cook over high heat for at least fifteen minutes until the cider becomes hot. Uncover and add one teaspoon each of powdered cinnamon, cloves, and all spice. With a wooden spoon, stir the spices into the cider until they dissolve. Then reduce the heat to medium and cook at least another fifteen minutes. Wash, quarter, and remove the stem and seeds of an apple. Add the apple quarters to the cider and stir. Serve, or reduce the heat to warm and cover until ready to serve.

    Wassail is a great beverage for parties. For large gatherings, I use a three gallon electric crockpot and start off making two gallons of cider with triple the amount of powdered spices. Each time a quarter of the Wassail in the pot has been consumed, I stir in more cider and increase the heat for a few minutes. In order that party-goers of all ages can partake, I do not add alcohol to the Wassail I make. However, I have a selection of liquor available for adults to add who want this option. At party's end, any Wassail left over can be cooled and refrigerated. It will keep for several days and can be consumed cold or hot.

    December Solstice Traditions and Customs

    The December solstice has influenced the lives of many people over the centuries, particularly through art, literature, mythology and religion. The December solstice is also known as the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere.

    In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice occurs during the coldest season of the year. Although winter was regarded as the season of dormancy, darkness and cold, the coming of lighter days after the winter solstice brought on a more festive mood. To many people, this return of the light was a reason to celebrate that nature's cycle was continuing.

    Solstice's influence on Christmas

    In modern times Christian all over the world celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas, which falls on December 25. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the "true light of the world" was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.

    Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may have derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the "Lesser Sabbats" of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.

    December Solstice Customs
    Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the "Lesser Sabbats" of the Wiccan year. © Neish

    The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.

    A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year's log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

    French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.

    Saturnalia in Ancient Rome

    In Ancient Rome the winter (December) solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.

    It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

    Other Cultures and Modern Day Celebrations

    In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody. In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

    Many Christians celebrate St Thomas' Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or "flying pole dance". Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer. Some churches celebrate St Thomas' Day on other days in the year.

    The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.


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    Good Clear Skies
    Colin James Watling
    Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)