Spring Forward


There is an expression that says, “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day”. I was reminded of that last weekend when adjusting all of the timepieces in my house to represent the current Daylight Saving Time. The concept of which can be the topic of a future blog, but now with the approach of the first day of spring, it will have to wait. Before taking the reins of the Beazley Planetarium in the spring of 2002, I was a public school teacher working for Portsmouth Public Schools for 23 years. I taught sixth grade as well as various secondary science courses but primarily taught Earth Science. One of the many strands addressed in Earth Science deals with the causes of day and night as well as the causes of Earth’s seasons. Students readily understood the concept that Earth’s rotation is the cause for day and night but had some trouble with the concepts of our seasons. Many of the students hung on the misconception that Earth’s seasons were caused by a change in the distance from our Sun. While the Earth’s orbit is NOT circular, but rather slightly elliptical, we are in fact closer to the Sun in January than we are in July by several million miles. Teachers can utilize various apps, and simulators to demonstrate that the seasons are in fact caused by the revolution of Earth around the Sun and the tilt of the Earth on its axis. When the part of the Earth is tilted towards the Sun, the Sun’s energy is concentrated and that part experiences summer. When it is tilted away, it experiences winter.

We can duplicate the sky for any location on Earth in the Beazley Planetarium. We can also see where the Sun is at different times of the year. The path of the Sun as it travels across the planetarium dome drives home the concept of seasons. On March 20, 2019, we will experience the first day of spring also known as the Vernal (or spring) Equinox. “Equinox” means “equal night”. On that day, people will experience twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night time.

Looking back at my instruction in my science class I am a bit regretful that I may have, in order to simplify instruction, perpetuated some science misconceptions. I taught my students that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Generally, that is true, but like a broken clock, technically right only two days of the year. One of them is upon us, March 20, 2019; the Vernal Equinox. The other time that is correct is the Autumnal Equinox in September. For expediency I used the terms “East” and “West” to designate where the Sun rises and sets but easterly or westerly would be more appropriate. As you can see in the images for March 20, 2019, the Sun rises at 7:00 AM DST (6:00 AM standard time) and sets at 7:00 PM DST (6:00 PM standard time).

Observers witness this phenomenon all over the world, whether north or south of the equator.  Ancient peoples observed this and constructed a solar observatory to signal the equinox. They used a stone to mark the East and West locations. Locations from Stonehenge in the UK to Medicine Wheel in the state of Wyoming were laid out as a calendar to mark the changing seasons. The Sunrise would align with particular stones during each equinox and solstice.  Can you make your own solar calendar? Observe the location of the Sunrise and Sunset. Make note of the tree, shrub, pole or other feature that aligns with the Sun. Ta Da! You have made your first Stonehenge.

Super Moon

The Moon will be in full on March 21, 2019.  This will be the third “Super Moon” of 2019. That is kind of rare.  A Super Moon occurs when the Full Moon phase takes place when the Moon is at the closest point of its orbit (perigee). The Super Moon appears to be a bit bigger and brighter than a regular Full Moon.

Each month’s full moon is given a special name.  March’s full moon is known as the Full Worm Moon as this is the time of year when the ground thaws and worms appear. It is also known as the Full Crow Moon (due to gathering flocks of loud crows), the Full Sap Moon and the Lenten Moon.  The later signals the last Full Moon of winter and as you may know, the timing of the Easter holiday is timed to coincide with lunar phases. Easter Sunday occurs on the first Sunday after the Full Moon occurring on or after the equinox.

NASA Launch

An Antares launch vehicle (Flight NG 11) is scheduled to take off from the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore April 17, 2019 at 4:46 PM.  The Antares rocket carries a robotic Cygnus cargo capsule and is being used to re-supply the International Space Station. The Wallops Flight Facility lies approximately 100 miles North East of the museum and Hampton Roads.  

We are close enough to see the rocket’s flight. The smoke trail from the launch is visible during the day but a nighttime launch is stunning. The photo was taken with an iPad from Portsmouth’s Seawall.  Of course, many factors may affect the actual launch window. You can get the latest information from Wallops Flight Facility via this link: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/home

There is so much we can learn when we take the time to observe the world around us. Whether the cyclic patterns of our sun, and moon or mankind’s great technological advances, the sky is always full of wonder, a celestial show! Never stop asking: “What’s up?”

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