The one thing about fall that I really don’t like is the days getting noticeably shorter. After the summer solstice they shorten but are still long enough that it does not seem to change life much but in the fall the length of day is so brief it alters how and when we do things. I do enjoy the low angle light and the ease of capturing the sunset since it comes so early. Thankfully, having reached the winter solstice, this trend now reverses itself and the days grow longer. It will take a while for this to manifest but psychologically, the relief has come.
The idea occurred to me to head out and capture the sunrise and sunset of the shortest day of the year. After the last three days lenticular activity it seemed like I might be able to catch something interesting. I was up early as usual for the sunrise but there wasn’t a cloud anywhere near Mount Shasta. I still set up just outside of town and watched the flecks of color show up on the crags of ridges of the mountain. On the western side of Mount Shasta, the first light only lights up those point protruding out far enough that the east face does not block all the light.
It wasn’t the greatest scene for my solstice effort but it would have to do. It almost seemed as if the weather was simply exhausted after its efforts over the last three days. Interesting, wavy clouds sailed through all day but by the time it was sunset, the sky had cleared out once again and it was empty over Mount Shasta. I went back to the same spot duplicated the perspective. At least if there was symmetry in the sky, there might as well be symmetry in images of the mountain.
The day may have been over but the real spectacle had not yet come. Like many others, my family and I went out to view the “Christmas star”, the grand conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Their orbits, as well as earth’s position brought the two giant planets into extreme proximity in the western sky. Some have argued that this may have been the star seen by the Magi since the conjunction tends to occur around Christmas. This is incorrect both astronomically (rewinding the planets mathematically shows the conjunction would not have been that close during the reign of Augustus) and theologically. Nonetheless, it is a pretty awesome event to witness.
I set up my camera up on the slopes of Mount Shasta and, to my surprise, was able to see the four Galilean moons of Jupiter through my telephoto lens!
Saturn is on the right, Jupiter the left. The Galilean moons, Europa, Io, Callista and Ganymede are the dots on an oblique plane. Europa is hardest to see and lowest in relation to Jupiter.
My wife and I enjoyed the view for quite a while though my kids’ interest faded quickly and they played in the snow, in the dark, in the cold. As we looked both through the view finder and the naked eye, I noticed that my camera was able to peak up distant peaks in the Trinity Alps despite the light being almost completely faded. Sawtooth Peak and Mount Hilton both show up in the images I was taking! In the end, we finally packed up and headed home for eggnog and cookies. That interested the kids even more.
Jupiter and Saturn seen over the Trinity Divide. The high peaks of the Trinity Alps are visible on the horizon directly below the planets.
Though not the “Christmas star”, it was an awe-inspiring celestial vision and makes me ponder what it may have been like for the Magi following the star to Bethlehem. The wonder of seeing a unique phenomena in the heavens and questing after it was at least hinted at tonight, if only lightly. It’s not even Christmas yet and it has already been a great Christmas this year!