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Sunday, December 22, 2019

Rebirth: Winter Solstice 2019

For as far back as 10,000 years, Winter Solstice has been celebrated as a major turning point in the year. That profound moment—and season—when darkness reaches the limits of its power and gives way to light has always been one of the most powerful and universal symbols of hope for humanity.

This is a time of year when even people who don’t usually pay attention to astronomy give thought to the cycles of the life-giving Sun and the ever-changing Moon. The latter stabilizes Earth’s axial tilt, which is responsible for our seasons, without which those seasons would be far more unpredictable and erratic.

One year ago, we were getting ready for the furthest ever visit by a spacecraft to a celestial object—New Horizons’ flyby of Ultima Thule, now known as Arrokoth, in the early morning of New Year’s Day. That accomplishment stands as a triumph to human exploration and capability, in a year that too often showed us humanity’s darker side.

No New Year’s Eve will ever live up to the night of that flyby, which featured not one, but two countdowns, one to the New Year, and another, 33 minutes later, to New Horizons’ closest approach to Arrokoth, along with a live release of a tribute song to the mission by Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May.

Data from the Arrokoth flyby will continue to be returned to Earth through September 2020.

There is so much that is still wrong in this world—the advance of climate change, hate and violence against various communities, far too many mass shootings, government corruption, poverty and targeting of the poor by those in power. Too often, these overshadow the bright moments of the year like the New Horizons flyby.

Understanding the science of the seasons somehow does not in any way diminish this moment’s meaning as a triumph of hope. For ancient people, the return of the Sun marked salvation from darkness and death. For us today, what some describe as the “holiday spirit” is not so different from what it was to people millennia ago. There is something primal within us all that welcomes the reprieve from darkness and death that comes with the return of the light.

In this difficult time, when we face the existential threat of catastrophic climate change, we need hope. The Winter Solstice gives us that hope, if we genuinely pay attention to it. Just as night always yields to day, our efforts have the power to transform a world in peril to one of harmony, healing, and triumph.

So let’s raise a toast to a better year, a better decade, and a better world! Happy Solstice!

"The bright Child's awoken
with blessing for you.
The promise is spoken
that love is your due,
and here, for a token,
a symbol that's true...
The darkness is broken!
The Light comes anew!"
~from the song, "Bright Child, Magic" by Jessica Radcliffe

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Queen's BRIAN MAY discusses astrophysics, New Horizons & 3-D Photography

Blue Dot 167 Apple Podcast: What is a Planet? December 13, 2019

In this episode, inspired by our good friend Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator for the New Horizons Spacecraft, we examine a question that has vexed astronomers, planetary scientists and 5th graders, for decades: " What exactly is a Planet ?" And more importantly, why should we care about definitions like this in science.