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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Winter Solstice: A New Cycle Begins

The wonderful aspect of anything cyclic is that at the end, we always return to the starting point. For Earth’s solar year, many consider that starting point to be Sun’s nadir in the Northern Hemisphere, the paradoxical darkest night that is also the symbolic birthday of the Sun.

For space and astronomy, it has been a tremendous year. New Horizons finished sending back all data taken during the Pluto flyby, and the studying of that data has only just begun. Pluto appears to be one of the solar system’s many water worlds—planets and spherical moons with subsurface liquid oceans that could potentially harbor life.

The abundance of these water worlds in our solar system has been an ongoing theme of discovery this year.

We’ve learned about Ceres, Enceladus, Europa, Titan, and Mars; we’ve discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, one of three stars that comprise the nearest star system to our own, and we’ve continued to find more strange and unusual exoplanets in places many thought they could not exist.

But in the broader world, it has been a difficult year. Much attention has been given to those things that divide us even as our own planet has passed dangerous climate thresholds that should be uniting us in an effort to preserve its habitability for humanity and for its many other species.

Winter Solstice is a time for transcending divisions, a time that naturally brings us together because we all experience the cold and dark. It reminds us that our lives and our fates are intertwined with that of our home planet, that whatever we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.

And just as we all experience the cold and the dark, we all long for the warmth and the light. For thousands of years, this has been considered a time of miracles because collectively, we experience the greatest miracle of all, the renewal of our source of life—the Sun—from its weakest point.

Just as the Moon appears to grow from nothing to crescent to half to gibbous to full, then wane back through those phases to the point of disappearance, so the Sun appears to go through a cycle of waxing to its prime, then waning back to near disappearance. In that moment of transition from dark to new, a new cycle, whether month (lunar) or year (solar) begins.

Many astronauts who have had the good fortune to observe the Earth from space emphasize the powerful, profound experience that is. Out there, no national or ethnic boundaries are visible, just one beautiful blue, fragile marble floating in the darkness.

Until most of us get the chance to venture to space, the closest we can come to this experience are beautiful pictures and videos and experiences like the seasonal markers to bring us together, to remind us that we are all one planet.

Here is hoping that this new year that starts as the Sun begins waxing again is one in which we genuinely experience, appreciate, and value that awareness.

Happy Solstice!