December solstice occurs precisely at 12:30 a.m. EST on  Dec. 22. This is when the passage of our tilted Earth brings the sun’s noon-time height at its lowest point in the southern sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. At noon it shines directly overhead as seen from the Tropic of Capricorn, below the equator. The North Pole leans back the farthest in respect to the sun, giving us the shortest day of the year.

December solstice occurs precisely at 12:30 a.m. EST on  Dec. 22. This is when the passage of our tilted Earth brings the sun’s noon-time height at its lowest point in the southern sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. At noon it shines directly overhead as seen from the Tropic of Capricorn, below the equator. The North Pole leans back the farthest in respect to the sun, giving us the shortest day of the year.


Santa has it made. From his northern polar address, he has six full months of stars. When the sky is clear above the polar cap, he and the polar bears can marvel at the parade of constellations circling around the sky, none of them ever setting. Packing the sleigh, his elves could look straight up at Polaris, the North Star, almost exactly at the overhead point (the North Celestial Pole) around which the whole visible sky spins.


Off center to this is the marvelous Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, like a ring of fire of the most amazing hues, forms and motions. Pity it is so rare to see these lights far to the south, over the United States. The ring of aurora encircles a point called the North Magnetic Pole, which doesn’t coincide with the North Celestial Pole. This is seen overhead not from the polar cap but over far northern Canada.


It seems strange not more people move to the polar cap, what with all those stars to see! Of course, you would only see half the sky. You never see the other half. From the polar cap, the stars around the flat horizon are along what is the Celestial Equator. These stars reach the point overhead (known as the zenith) at midnight, as seen from the equator, in the tropics.


From mid-northern latitudes such as where Pennsylvania is found, the Big Dipper just misses the north horizon, as well as the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, on the opposite side from the North Star. We call these constellations “circumpolar” in that they never set. Others are the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor the Little Bear); Draco the Dragon; Cepheus the King and Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. From the North Pole, the ENTIRE VISIBLE SKY is circumpolar!


Our beloved “winter” constellation Orion is right on the Celestial Equator; in fact this imaginary line on the sky cuts Orion in half, right through the famous trio of stars, the “Belt of Orion.” From the North Polar Cap, only the top (north) half of Orion is ever visible, moving right around the horizon during the 24-hour night. You would see fiery red-orange Betelgeuse, but you would not see the brilliant blue-white star Rigel, in the lower half of Orion. Also missing is the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, which is to the lower left of Orion.


Those of us in the mid-northern latitudes are at a great advantage, as far as what stars are visible. At 40 degrees North Latitude, for example, Polaris stands about 40 degrees above the north horizon. Due south, the Celestial Equator reaches 50 degrees high, just over halfway up. We see all of Orion, Sirius and a great deal more.


From the equator with Polaris barely seen at the northern horizon, the entire sky north to south is visible, as the year progresses.


Meanwhile, enjoy the winter stars. There are ways to manage the cold and stay out a little while longer.


If you use a reflector telescope which has an open front end, set it outside a hour or more beforehand. This way you can let the warm air currents escape, which degrade telescopic views.


Dress in layers; try hunter’s heat packets or vests. Don’t forget a good hat; cover up as much as you can (but not your eyes)! Let your eyes adjust inside in a darkened room for a few minutes to get the most out of the starry night when you step out. A nice hot chocolate and Christmas cookie can do wonders, too.


Last-quarter moon is on Dec. 17.


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Keep looking up!