Time to Shift our Gaze Skyward

I noticed the season’s first juncos hopping in my yard a few short weeks ago – an event I look forward to every year because I know their arrival here in New England means winter is on its way. And by “winter,” I mean, specifically, winter solstice – the longest night of the year, the end of six months during which the sun sets earlier and earlier every day. Like people of many cultures around the world, I celebrate the first day of winter because it marks the time when we reclaim our daylight, minute by minute, as we march towards warmer days of spring.

Sunrise on the winter solstice. Photo Credit: Eric Jones (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The change is imperceptible at first – the days between solstice and the start of the New Year remain some of the darkest, with many hours between dusk and dawn.  But these hours of darkness also give us more time to shift our gaze skyward, to all of the kinds of light in the night sky. Early sunsets offer many more hours of stargazing before I tuck my young daughters in to bed, hours we don’t have in the height of summer. The constellation Orion is by far our favorite to watch—it’s easy to spot, it rises in the east early in the evening, and it inches higher and higher across the sky all night long, for the entire winter.

Orion also plays an important role as a barometer of light pollution around the world: it’s one of several constellations included in GLOBE at Night, a global citizen science project that asks volunteers to identify how many of a given constellation’s stars are visible from their location. Specifically, observers document the faintest stars they can see with the naked eye; this information provides insight into the amount of light pollution that exists in different locations. Light pollution—a brightening of the night sky caused by excessive or misdirected outdoor lighting—makes it difficult to see all but the brightest stars and other celestial objects in the night sky. GLOBE at Night makes this data freely available to the public as a way to increase public awareness about light pollution, and as a way to track nighttime lighting patterns around the world over time.

The constellation Orion dominates the winter sky. Credit: Till Credner, allthesky.com (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If it’s cloudy or just too cold to comfortably spend any time outside at night, you can still carry out plenty of meaningful stargazing with a number of projects that depend on volunteers to scan telescope images of stars and other objects in the night sky. NASA’s Disk Detectives project, for example, aims to identify disks of gas, rock, and dust swirling around stars, objects that may be associated with the earliest stages of planetary formation. And don’t forget, our sun is a star, too. Megamovie Maestros I is looking for folks to help them classify images taken during the total solar eclipse of 2017 as part of a related citizen science project, the Eclipse Megamovie.

While I do love the night sky, I love the return of daylight even more. Which brings me back to those juncos. I don’t look forward to their arrival only because they usher in the winter. They’re also just darn cute (or, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them, “flashy little sparrows”). Participants in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count are sure to see plenty of them over the next few weeks.  As for me, I’ll enjoy watching them and sharing my own observations with Project Feeder Watch from a warm and cozy spot in my living room.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Astronomy & Space, Birds, Citizen Science

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About the Author

Jenny Cutraro

Jenny Cutraro

Every report card Jenny brought home from elementary school included the comment "Is too talkative during class," a comment she translates as "enjoys communicating with her classmates." Today, she’s channeled that love of talking, combined with a lifelong love of science, into a career as a science communication and engagement professional. As an Editorial Project Director at WGBH in Boston, Jenny created resources for the Emmy-nominated PBS KIDS ecosystem science program Plum Landing. She also led numerous workshops and presentations on integrating digital resources into informal and outdoor learning settings. She is an active member of the National Association of Science Writers and former director of their internship program at the AAAS annual meeting, as well as member of theCOPUS (Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science) Advisory Council.