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Sunwheel in Winter



The Sunwheel gatherings are being canceled this March to avoid the possibility of spreading Covid-19.

I encourage you to look for the planetary alignments that are described below on your own. The grouping of Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and the crescent moon should be beautiful before dawn from March 17-19. Venus will remain high and bright in the evening sky through April, and it will become visibly more crescent-shaped through binoculars or a small telescope. Look for Venus and the crescent Moon close to each other March 27 & 28 and on April 26.

And see if you can get a good fix on where the equinox sunrise or sunset is located from wherever you live. Then watch in the following days as the Sun's position on the horizon shifts steadily northward. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we can hope for improving health as we get more sunshine each day and move into warmer weather.   

---Steve Schneider

Thursday, March 19, 2020

  • 6:45 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. (EDT)
  • Telescopic viewing at 6:00 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

Come join us to celebrate the beginning of spring and to view several celestial sights at the UMass Amherst Sunwheel on Thursday, March 19. In addition to the traditional talks at 6:45 a.m. and 6 p.m. at sunrise and sunset among the standing stones of the Sunwheel, UMass Amherst astronomers will offer telescope views of the moon and planets beginning at about 6 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., weather permitting.

At the hour-long presentations for sunrise and sunset, UMass Amherst astronomer Stephen Schneider will explain the seasonal positions of the sun, moon, and Earth, why the Gregorian calendar system we use results in changing dates for the equinox, and answer other questions about astronomy.

On the day of the March equinox, the sun crosses the celestial equator, passing from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere. Schneider says that this year, the crossing occurs just before midnight, at 11:49 p.m. in the eastern time zone on March 19—making this the first time in 124 years that the date of the equinox has been so early here. The earlier date this year reflects the accumulation of small differences between the length of the year and the 365-and-one-quarter days that the Leap-year system is based upon.

On the equinox the length of day and night are nearly equal, which gives us the term equi-nox or equal-night. Also, the sun rises due east and sets due west. The March equinox marks the astronomical start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and fall in the Southern Hemisphere.

Schneider says if the sky is clear, there will be an opportunity before dawn to see a pretty grouping of the waning crescent moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars low in the eastern sky. Jupiter and Mars will be very near each other, close to astronomical conjunction.

Then about one half hour after the sunset presentation, the sky will be dark enough to view Venus, which will be close to half full, and near its largest angular separation from the sun – known as its “greatest elongation.” He says, “We can also take a look at the star Betelgeuse, which has been behaving strangely over the past few months.” Before sunset, during the evening presentation, a solar telescope will also be set up to safely observe the surface of the sun. 

Visitors to the Sunwheel should be prepared for wet footing. Rain or blizzard conditions cancel the events. Check for cancellation announcements on the main Sunwheel web page.

Location: The UMass Sunwheel is located south of McGuirk Alumni Stadium, just off Rocky Hill Road. The Sunwheel can easily be reached from the center of Amherst, following Amity St. to the west, on the right hand side of the road about 1/4 mile after crossing University Drive.

More Information: For more information on the UMass Sunwheel, click here. For more information on the Moon's 18.6-year cycle, click here.


For directions from out of town, click here.

For a map showing the Sunwheel on the UMass Amherst campus, click here.


For the dates and times of Sunwheel gatherings, click here.

  A project conceived by Dr. Judith S. Young
 Professor of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
 e-mail: Steve Schneider

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