September always marks the start of autumn for us in the northern hemisphere. This year that will happen at exactly 4:02 p.m. Sept. 22. The sun on the ecliptic will be crossing downward over the celestial equator at this moment.

This is called the autumnal equinox and is one of only two days each year that the sun will rise due east and set due west for everyone on Earth except at the poles. Within a few days of this day, the days will also be 12 hours long for everyone except at the poles.

I hope some of you had planned to travel a little to see the great American total solar eclipse that happened on Aug. 21. The weather was quite good almost everywhere along the centerline which is very narrow. I was in eastern Idaho in the Grand Teton Valley to witness this incredible event that could be once-in-a-lifetime for some people, but most people immediately plan for the next one once they see their first one. It is well worth every effort and then goes far beyond your expectations.

The experience of having our moon’s shadow engulf you and then staying in it for two and a half minutes was far more powerful than I had even imagined. I had seen all the partial phases before and had even witnessed an annular solar eclipse in Maine back in 1994. A total solar eclipse blows everything out of the water and each one is unique, so you should see as many as you can.

The last second of light created a diamond ring of the sun. You could sense the moons shadow engulfing everyone around you, racing in from the west at over 1,800 mph at this site. A few cheers arose right when this happened and then everyone was quiet and respectful as the true beauty of our sun blazed forth as its intricate corona became visible. Everyone was plunged into instant darkness near high noon to experience a few moments of exquisite celestial silence.

Several planets including Venus and Jupiter immediately became visible and a couple stars including Regulus in Leo also stood out. 360-degree twilight happened all around both horizons, even though it was perfectly clear all day and there was not a cloud in the sky for several days where we were at 7,000 feet above sea level. I could sense the entire atmosphere of the earth for the first time ever as it all turned an eerie pale orange color.


Complete polar opposites became unified in a unique way during that time. The brilliant and continuous light of our sun was suddenly taken over by the moon. The sun would always win out and soon start coming back, but I can see why ancient people had so much fear at this moment when their sun was suddenly taken away and it became dark. For me, the darkness we were all pitched into only engendered a greater sense of mystery and awe of the unknown, but no fear like it did for the ancients.

Almost none of us will ever go to the moon and only 12 humans have ever walked on the moon in our 200,000 history of modern humans, but a total solar eclipse is your chance to let the moon come to you! It may only be its shadow, but you do get a visceral sense of the moon itself that causes that shadow as it races over you at nearly three times the speed of sound, engulfing everything and everyone in sight.

For those brief 150 seconds, time itself became immaterial as the present moment of this all-encompassing experience completely took over everyone’s attention. No matter what you hear or read about it or even how many movies you may watch of it, you have to experience it for yourself because it is far better than anything you can ever imagine.

Time and space became suspended for that moment and you could sense some of the great forces always at work in our solar system without even knowing the math behind them. The past, present, and future all became wrapped into one for that moment.

The earth we are all always on only became the platform from which to witness this precise and tremendous alignment of three mighty celestial bodies with your own insignificant human body.

I was completely transported off our familiar earth into a world where forces are unified and you get a very brief glimpse into the inner workings of our solar system and even our place in space that humans can’t ordinarily do, at least not without knowing the math behind it and being able to visualize it all in three dimensions.


Three large groups of sunspots were also visible throughout the event and then three small red prominences rose above the solar limb during the totality, enhancing our sense of the suns rotation.

A little of the true beauty of our consistent sun began to reveal itself as its corona or atmosphere blazed forth in all of its glory for that moment. Ironically, its luminous beauty can only really be seen and appreciated when the normal disk of the sun gets covered by the moon.

Since we are near a minimum now in our sunspot cycle, the coronal streamers spread farther out into space than usual and some of their intricate and ethereal structure was revealed.

I strongly felt all of us are part of something far greater and more powerful than our ordinary everyday awareness would allow us to experience. It was all over far too quickly as an even more brilliant diamond ring blazed forth out of the darkened sun for a second or two after the moon’s umbra left the sun once again. It would still take another hour for the sun to get back to normal, but all of the anticipation was gone because we had just seen all those partial phases of the sun.

I was fortunate to get excellent pictures of the entire event as a reminder and to share with others. I am already planning to be at the right place and right time for the next two total solar eclipses. It is well worth every effort and you could gain practical insights into life that are priceless.

Back on Earth, we are losing Jupiter now since it will be setting about 2 hours after sunset. Notice that the King of the Planets will pass just 3 degrees above Spica in Virgo by the middle of the month.


Saturn will be up several hours longer. Be aware that the Cassini spacecraft will plunge into the ringed planet on Sept. 15, just one day after Saturn reaches eastern quadrature, 90 degrees east of the sun.

Most of the action takes place in the morning sky now. Venus rises at 4 a.m. near Regulus in Leo and then look for Mercury and Mars a few degrees below and to the left by the end of the first week of this month. Mercury will make its best morning apparition for the year on Sept. 12. Our first planet will be less than half a degree above Mars on the morning of Sept. 16.

September highlights

Sept. 3: On this day in 1976, Viking 2 landed on Mars.

Sept. 6: Venus, Mars, and Mercury are close in the morning sky. Full moon is at 3:02 a.m. This is the famous Harvest moon.

Sept. 10: Spica is 3 degrees to the lower left of Jupiter.


Sept. 12: The waning gibbous moon will occult Aldebaran in Taurus this morning, but the sun will already be up for most of the United States when this happens.

Sept. 13: Last quarter moon is at 2:25 a.m.

Sept. 16: Regulus will be less than 5 degrees below Venus this morning.

Sept. 18: Venus, Regulus, the thin waning crescent moon, Mars, and Mercury will form a nearly vertical 12-degree-long line low in the eastern morning sky this morning. Bring binoculars to see all of them better.

Sept. 20: Venus is one degree above Regulus this morning. New moon is at 1:30 a.m.

Sept. 22: Autumn begins at 4:02 p.m.


Sept. 23: On this day in 1846 J. Galle discovered Neptune.

Sept. 26: The moon will be 5 degrees above Saturn 1 hour after sunset tonight.

Sept. 28: First quarter moon is at 10:53 p.m.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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