The public is invited to witness sunrise and sunset associated with the spring equinox among the standing stones of the UMass Amherst Sunwheel on Wednesday, March 20 at 6:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. These Sunwheel events mark the astronomical change of seasons when days and nights are nearly equal in length in the Northern Hemisphere.
At the gatherings, which have attracted more than 10,000 visitors over the past 15 years, UMass Amherst astronomers Judith Young and Stephen Schneider will discuss the astronomical cause of the sun’s changing position during the hour-long gatherings. They will also explain the seasonal positions of Earth, the sun and moon, phases of the moon, building the Sunwheel and answer questions about astronomy.
The exact time of the vernal equinox this year is 7:02 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. This ushers in the beginning of spring and is also the day the sun rises into the sky to be visible for six months as seen from the North Pole, and the day it sets for six months as seen from the South Pole.
On the equinox, an observer located on the Earth’s equator will see the sun pass directly overhead at local noon, and that person will cast no shadow at noon. On any day other than the equinox, either the Earth’s Northern or Southern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun.
For observers, except those at the North and South Poles, the sun on the equinox (for equi, “equal” and nox, “night”) rises due east and sets due west and stays up for 12 hours and down for 12 hours. From the Sunwheel in Amherst, observers see “a very lovely sight” as the sun rises and sets through the stone portals in the east and west directions, Schneider notes.
The UMass Amherst Sunwheel is located south of McGuirk Alumni Stadium, just off Rocky Hill Road (Amity St.) about ¼ mile south of University Drive. Visitors to the Sunwheel should be prepared for especially wet footing this year. Rain or blizzard conditions cancel the events. Donations are welcomed and will be used to help with the cost of additional site work at the Sunwheel and future events.