University Lowbrow Astronomers

Three Rising Suns

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections:  February, 1999 (in part) and May, 2000 (in part).

I once heard an architect give a presentation, without using any visual aids, about a building he designed.  He said he would paint a “word picture” of his design and proceeded to develop an image in the minds of his listeners that was every bit as effective as if he had used the best high-tech visual aids.  In this article I would like to paint a word picture, but I will use the image in this article to illustrate my word picture.  You have to fill in the rest of the image, so read on and lets see where this takes us.

I am always on the lookout for solar, lunar, and planetary happenings in the sky on my long drive to and from work.  On a routine drive to work recently, I noticed the beginnings of a nice solar pillar poking out through some faint clouds.  It was really quite picturesque; a smart little solar pillar above an inverted crescent shaped solar disk cropped by the clouds and morning haze.  Solar pillars are caused by sunlight reflecting off ice crystals floating in the atmosphere. They exhibit a shaft of light usually above the rising or setting Sun but sometimes below it as well.  The pillars are often colored golden orange by the rising or setting Sun.

Ten minutes later I arrived at my destination and just before turning into the parking deck I witness an extremely bright sundog off to one side of the General Motors building in the New Center area of Detroit.  Sundogs are sometimes referred to as mock suns or parhelia and can occur on either side of the Sun.  Sundogs are an atmosphere phenomena caused by sunlight refracting off the sides of hexagonal shaped ice crystals and appearing 22 degrees either side of the Sun.  Because the sunlight is refracted it spreads the light out into different hues; but because the light is smeared to colors are not as separated as we see in a rainbow.  I typically see orange, closest to the Sun, to yellow, with white farthest from the Sun.  On this occasion the sundog was extremely bright.  It was so bright I thought it was the Sun itself.  Upon inspection I noticed a dog “tail” or streamer extending horizontally from the sundog and away for the Sun.  Also noticed as the start of an arc or halo forming above the sundog and arcing around the Sun.

Having seen a similar solar event about five years ago I decided I would have to record this event and started to make a mental image in my mind.  Well, I thought this looks like the start of something interesting but a large building blocked my view.  The General Motors building, when constructed back in our parent’s time, was the largest office building in the world at 1.3 million square feet in size.  With this structure blocking the Sun and the growing halo I needed to see the other side of the Sun to confirm the companion sundog and complete the halo.  So I ran to work, climbed up to the upper floor of our office building and confirmed the view you see in the sketch.  The complete solar halo was present although it was faint at the upper third of the halo.  Colors present were dark purple, to orange, to yellow, and white.  The two sundogs were as bright as the rising Sun.  I quickly made a pencil sketch of what I had just seen all the while not understanding why my fellow co-workers were not looking out their windows to admire the view.

Now complete my “word picture” and paint in some huge office buildings in front of this quarter sky view and you will see the image of three rising Suns as observed on an early January morning.

Solar Halo

Solar Halo.

Time:  January 5, 1999, 8:30-8:45 AM.

Location:  New Center, Detroit, Michigan.

Weather:  Cold, 0-5 degrees F, clear with haze at lower elevations.

Observer:  C. Sarnecki.


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