Dawn Time

When first light is first light.

For the past 20 or years, I’ve lived in a place where I could see the horizon and watch the sun rise and set. This wasn’t the case when I lived in New Jersey or New York, in places surrounded by either tall trees or other buildings. It’s nice to see the horizon, to greet the sun when it makes its first appearance for the day, to see the way first light touches the landscape around me, to watch weather move through, to see last light and watch the sun dip below the horizon at the end of the day.

The sun, in a way, is my clock. Not having a scheduled life, I let it tell me when to get up in the morning and, during long summer days, often go to sleep not long after it sets.

I live at the base of some tall cliffs on a hillside overlooking the Wenatchee Valley and Columbia River. The cliffs are to the south of me — the view from my home is about 180°, basically from east to to north to west. To the east, the cliffs rise up from the east to their full height due south.

Pre-Dawn Horizon
The horizon, as shot from my front deck before dawn this morning. The E marks the point that is approximately due east.

During the winter, when the sun is low in the sky and rises more to the south — remember, I’m in Washington State at about 47° latitude — there’s a 6-week period when the sun doesn’t even clear the cliffs at my place (although it does shine down in the valley). I call that the Shadow Time and blogged about it here.

As the days get longer, the sun shifts north, eventually, at the spring equinox, rising due east. As long as it rises behind the cliffs, I don’t get direct sun until after it clears the tops of the cliffs. But this week, about 3 weeks after the first day of spring, the sun began rising far enough north that it appears at what I think of as the true horizon — the place where the horizon isn’t blocked by nearby hills or cliffs. From that point on, I see the sun when it makes its first appearance of the day — and will continue to see sunrise until about three weeks before the autumn equinox.

If all this is meaningless to you, you should explore some of the excellent articles on the web that explain the sun’s movement in the sky and seasons. Here are a few links to get started:

Astronomy is a lot more than stars and constellations. Just saying.

Since I have a name for the time when there’s no direct sun (Shadow Time), I thought I needed a name for the time when I can see the sun rise out of the far horizon. I’ve decided to call it Dawn Time.

If there’s a corresponding Sunset Time — the time I can watch the sun set into the far horizon — that would probably be a bit before the spring equinox. I can see due west from my home — the snow covered peaks of the Enchantment Range out beyond Leavenworth — and that’s where the sun’s setting these days.

Western Horizon
I shot this photo at first light from my side deck a few weeks ago. The sun touches the mountaintops to the west before it rises high enough to shine into the valley. This is probably my favorite part of sunrise.

But for some reason, I’m more interested in sunrise, the start of the day, than sunset. I’m a morning person, through and through and get my best work done before noon. By 5 or 6 PM, I’m pretty much spent. That’s when it’s nice to sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and watch the sun set — and the light show that often goes with it.

Sunrise/Sunset Times for Photographers

Phoenix times now updated.

SunI’ve just updated my calendar of sunrise and sunset times for the Phoenix area. I’ll be keeping this up-to-date as a published calendar. Subscribe at webcal://ical.me.com/mlanger/Sun.ics. I know you can subscribe with this link using iCal, but I think you can also subscribe with other calendar formats such as Google Calendar.

If you’d prefer to download and import the files, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 are currently available.

If you’re a photographer or pilot, you know how helpful it can be to have this exact information. Every year for the past ten years or so, I’ve been updating iCal with this information so it’s always available on my computers and other electronic devices (think BlackBerry, iPad, etc.).

The last time I offered to create these files for photographers, I had a lot of folks ask for them but no one seemed willing to cough up a little dough for the time it takes me to create the files.

So here’s the deal: If you want sunrise/sunset times for 2011-2015 — that’s FIVE YEARS WORTH — in ics format, you’ll need to use this Paypal link to send me some coffee money. Be sure to include either the GPS coordinates for the place you want sunrise/sunset times for OR the Zip code. I’ll try to get the resulting files to you in e-mail within 72 hours. (Keep in mind that the more coffee you buy me, the more motivated (or caffeinated) I’ll be to send those files quickly.)

And no, I won’t add you to any e-mail list. I have way better things to do with my time than bother strangers who were kind enough to buy me coffee.

Lunar Eclipse Photos

February 20, 2008

It was cloudy most of yesterday and the clouds kept thickening right through sunset. The lunar eclipse was supposed to start right around then in the Mountain Time zone we live in. It was getting good and dark outside when a thunderstorm with lots of bright lightning began rumbling to the north. Radar showed it moving west to east just north of our home.

But against all odds, the moon broke through the clouds around 7 PM. We saw it from the den, where we were watching the Colbert Report on DVR. I hurried downstairs to fetch my Nikon D80 camera, new Nikon 55-200 mm lens, and tripod and soon had them set up on our upstairs back patio.

Lunar EclipseThis first photo was taken not long after 7 PM. The exposure was tricky. If I exposed for the light part, the dark part would be too dark. If I exposed for the dark part, the light part would be too light and the shutter speed would be so slow that the moon would move while the photo was being taken. (I have lots of blurry photos of the moon, so I know from experience.) I fiddled around with bracketing. This shot was taken at f5.6 with a 1-second exposure.

Lunar EclipseThis second photo was taken at least a half hour later. The moon had disappeared behind the clouds and come out several times. Then it developed this reddish glow that was likely from the shadow of the earth’s atmosphere. (At least that’s how I remember these things working.) This shot was taken at f5.6 with a 1/4 second exposure. There’s pretty good detail on the face of the moon.

I closed up shop (so to speak) after this shot. It was just too darn windy and cold to keep at it. Besides, the clouds kept hiding and revealing the moon. Call me a fair-weather photographer and you wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

Next time I’m going to try to do one of those multiple exposure shots where you see the earth’s shadow creeping over the moon a bit more in each shot. For that, however, I’ll need a good, clear shot of the sky, reasonable weather, and a quicker lens.

Lights at Night

I don’t get it.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Wickenburg, where I live, is the dark night skies. But as time goes on, that darkness is getting ever lighter.


We live on the edge of town where the homes are spread out and there’s lots of space between them. There’s no real “road” to get to our home. Instead, there’s an easement that neither the county nor the town want to maintain for us. It’s a steep, dirt road that is best climbed at at least 15 mph or, if you’re in a pickup truck, with 4WD turned on. There are only three homes that use the road and, unfortunately, not all of the occupants or visitors understand how to get up the hill without spinning their wheels. As a result, the road is usually full of mounds and ditches and can be quite a challenge to negotiate with a low slung car, like my little Honda S2000. Periodically, one of my neighbors, who owns a Bobcat, grades the road to make it smooth again. This is a good thing because the vast majority of traffic goes to his house.

Anyway, because we live on the edge of town in a place that used to be outside of town limits, and because we don’t have a real road, we also don’t have streetlights. That’s a great thing. Streetlights are a huge waste of resources and a nuisance to dark-sky lovers. Although they might be appropriate in downtown areas or areas where houses are snugged in close together, there’s really no reason for them beyond that.

If you’re a city dweller reading this, you probably think I’m nuts. You look at streetlights as a way to cut down crime, to keep the streets safer at night. But in Wickenburg — at least so far — crime is not a serious problem and we don’t worry about muggers and rapists lurking in the dark. Besides, very few people walk the streets at night and, if they do, they usually carry a flashlight. Of course, Arizona is also an open carry state, so quite a few of us honest citizens might just be carrying guns for self-protection. (I have a concealed weapon permit and a gun that could easily fit in my purse or pocket, should I decide to carry it.)

Some of the newer neighborhoods in town have installed streetlights. That’s unfortunate because it just adds to the overall glow of the town against the night sky. One of the newer neighborhoods in town chose street level lighting instead of overhead lighting. That’s a pretty good compromise. The lights are installed behind glass blocks in consistently designed decorative boxes at the end of each driveway. The boxes include the house number and mailbox. The lights aren’t very bright, but they do offer an easy to follow pathway down the road for anyone who happens to be on foot after nightfall. They also make it easy to find a specific house in the day or night.

Business Lights, Park Lights

There was a huge outcry in town years ago when a new gas station on the main road installed bright lights over its pumps. The lighting was poorly designed and shined not only down, but up. It was like walking into a 7-11 (or Circle K, depending on where you live) at night — except all that brightness was outside. You could see the gas station from quite a distance away because of its glow. The complaints did some good because the lighting was redesigned and adjusted. It’s not as bad anymore, although it’s still pretty bright.

Another new gas station on the other side of town is painfully bright, but since I no longer read the local paper, I don’t know if people have been complaining about it.

Wickenburg has several parks, each of which has at least one ball field. The lights over the fields are high and bright. That’s a good thing, if there’s a night game going on. In most cases, the lights are only turned on when there’s a game going. I think they might be on a timer to turn off automatically after a certain amount of time, because I’ve never noticed them on very late at night. That’s a good thing, too. Lighting like that must cost a fortune to operate, and townspeople already piss away enough tax dollars on wasteful spending by our Mayor and Council. (Don’t get me started about the pink sidewalks or man-made tourist attractions.)

Airport Lights

The airport, of course, has night lighting. There are a bunch of overhead lights around the ramp and hangar area. They’re the old kind that shine down until you need them — then they apparently overheat and go out for a while, leaving you in shadows. When you’re done fumbling in the semidarkness, the nearest light goes back on. These lights are on a timer and, like most lights on timers, when there are power outages, the timers get screwed up and don’t work at the right time. When I ran the airport FBO, I discovered that the lights were going on about 3 hours later than they should have and staying on well past the time they should have been turned off. I whined to the town and eventually they sent someone to fix it. They’ve made some changes to the airport lighting since then and I hope they put them on a light sensor.

The airport also has a rotating beacon on a tower that has recently be adorned with cellular antennas. (I still wonder how they got that one past the FAA.) It has a green light on one side and a white light on on the other. It rotates, sending off a flash of white and a flash of green at a predetermined interval, which I probably should know but don’t. It’s triggered by a light sensor, so it automatically goes on at night and off in the morning. I love the way the rotating motor sounds in the predawn hours when I sometimes come to the airport to fly.

The runway lights are handled differently. It’s pilot controlled lighting (PCL) that works by pressing the mike button while tuned into Wickenburg Airport’s frequency. I think it’s supposed to be 3 clicks for low intensity, 5 clicks for medium, and 7 clicks for high. I’m not sure if it really works this way; it seems to me that 3 clicks is never enough to get them going and with 5 clicks, the taxiway lights don’t always come on. The airport’s runway lighting was improved when the runway was lengthened. They start out white on the approach end, then turn yellow about midway down the runway and are red near the end. It really helps pilots get a feel for the runway length. Very nice.

This photo by Jon Davison, is a cool night shot from the back seat of my helicopter as I landed, with Mike beside me, at Wickenburg Airport not long after sunset.

One of my favorite things to do when I fly at night is to approach the airport and get within 2 or 3 miles before turning on the lights. I love to watch the runway light up. I know airline pilots who play the same game on cross-country trips. Seven clicks on the right frequency must make a good show from 35,000 feet.

One annoying thing about the new runway lighting is the strobe lights on either end. Called Runway End Identifier Lights (REILs), they provide “positive identification of the approach end of a particular runway.” (I looked that up in the Aeronautical Information Manual; you can find it in section 2-1-3.) The trouble is, they’re designed for airplanes, which don’t have a particularly good view of the ground. A helicopter pilot, with a wide open view of everything in front of the helicopter, gets those flashes of light right in the eyes when landing at night. Good thing I don’t make as shallow an approach as airplane pilots do; I’d probably be blinded if I came in on the glide slope.

The people who buy homes at either end of the runway — where Wickenburg’s decision makers have stupidly allowed homes to be built — will have these flashing lights blinking in their bedrooms or kitchens or living rooms every time a plane lands or departs at night. To paraphrase Mr. T, “I pity the fool” who buys a home at the runway end.

House Lights

But the kind of lighting I really don’t understand is the outside lights many people have on their homes. Yes, it’s nice to have a light over your garage or front door for when you come in late at night. And it’s nice to have a light in your backyard, for when you barbeque or let the dog out. But come on, guys. Do you need all those damn lights turned on all night long?

One of my neighbors is an example. They live high on a hill and have three bright lights that I can see from my home. These lights are on all night long. How do I know? I’m sometimes up in the middle of the night and I can clearly see them from my front window: three spots of yellowish light, shining into the night. Why?

A closer neighbor also illuminates his house all night long, but at least there’s some sensibility to his setup. He’s got adjustable motion-sensitive lighting. When nothing’s moving, the lights are at a dim setting — just enough to see the house. When something moves by a light, it goes bright. While this makes more sense than keeping bright lights on all night long, my question is this: if there’s nothing moving outside, what’s the sense of having any lights on at all? And it does nothing to explain the bright light over his garage that’s also on all night.

Lights at Night
I took this shot last night, at about 8 PM. These are homes of my closest neighbors. In the original shot — not downsized for the Web — you could see the pinpoints of stars in the black sky.

A new house in the neighborhood that’s on an adjacent hill had a very bright light that pointed right at our house. It was on every night right after the electricity was turned on, even though no one yet lived in the house. It was so bright at our house that it cast shadows inside our house. I was on the verge of introducing myself and asking them to do something about it when they suddenly stopped using it. Now, there’s another new house between that one and ours, on the same hill. I wonder how they’ll like that bright light when it’s turned on. But they had their porch lights on all last night, illuminating the hill in a spray of light. I wonder how long that’ll last.

Our house is usually so dark at night that if you came down our easement road and didn’t know the house was here, you wouldn’t see it. We have two motion-controlled spotlights: one over the garage and one by the front door. They go on and off at night when it’s windy; I think the swaying saguaro cactus sets them off. They’ll also go on if an animal, like a coyote or javelina or mule deer, wanders into the yard. Oddly enough, they seem a bit sluggish when we walk outside at night. But eventually they go on to do their jobs, ensuring that no one can approach or depart without being illuminated. When nothing’s moving, they’re dark.

Think about Energy Use!

One of the things we all should be thinking about these days is energy use. Let’s face it: if you have a light on all night, it’s using energy all night. And do you really need to be throwing away energy (or energy dollars) when you’re not using the light?

So it’s not just the loss of dark night skies that concern me. It’s the excessive use of energy for no good reason.

How is your home or town illuminated at night? What lights can you turn off or replace with motion sensor lights? How much energy or money do you think you could save? What have you already done or observed? Your comments and insights are welcome. Use the Comments link or form for this post to share your thoughts.

There Are Billions of Stars

I know because I look at them.

Last night, after a busy day that included 2 hours of physical therapy for my shoulder and six hours in the office polishing off two chapters of my upcoming QuickBooks book revision, I came home and spent some quality time on the back patio, just hanging out.

Lately, when I get home, I retire to the room we call the Library. It’s second guest room, the one with the futon and the desk and a whole bunch of books. I sit at the desk and type what I like to think are words of wisdom into my PowerBook. Sometimes it’s the novel I’m working on. Other times, its a blog. Still other times, it’s e-mail to friends. And once in a while, when I have question, I’ll surf to find the answer online.

But last night I decided to celebrate my first full day without painkillers. You see, I did something to my shoulder/neck last week and things came to a head on Sunday. I was in so much pain, I went to the hospital emergency room. The doctor there told me I had a pinched nerve and gave me a few prescriptions. The prescriptions helped me sleep, which did more to make me feel better than anything else.

Of course, when you’re on painkillers, you can’t drink. Not if you want to keep your brain matter in decent condition. I’m not a big drinker, but I do enjoy a glass of red wine in the evening, with dinner.

Last night I opened a fresh bottle and had my first glass of wine in nearly a week. Ah. And what better place to sip it than on the back patio, watching the sun set?

And while I was at it, why not hook up my new iPod to the stereo speakers Mike put out there? And play some nice native American flute music? Some R. Carlos Nakai, perhaps?

So that’s what I did. Instead of cooping myself up in the library and not even noticing the day’s end and the evening’s start, I went outside to experience it firsthand, with a peaceful soundtrack of flutes and chanting and, later, crickets.

The sunset was not terribly impressive. It usually isn’t when there aren’t any clouds to illuminate from below. But the sky went through its usual ritual of changing colors. Venus was bright, high in the sky — the first star of the night. Then, as the light faded away, the stars came out, one by one. More stars than a city slicker could imagine. And beyond them, the glow of the Milky Way.

We see the Milky Way almost every night here. It isn’t a big deal. But I remember living in the suburbs near New York City. With all that ambient light, it was tough to see the stars at all. But here, out beyond the lighted streets, beyond the end of the pavement, tucked behind a hill that blocks the glow of Phoenix, we can see every star of the Milky Way. It’s a glowing band, a flowing path of densely packed stars.

We used to pull out our telescope once in a while and look into the Milky Way’s depths. If you’ve never seen it for yourself, you just can’t imagine. The entire lens filled with more stars than you can comprehend.

I watched a handful of airplanes, off in the distance, flashing their lights as they sped through the night sky. I remembered the night of September 11, 2001, when there weren’t any planes in the sky. We’d sat outside together that night, Mike and I, still shell-shocked by the events of the day. But it was the absence of airplanes at night that really put things into perspective for us. We — the American people — were afraid to let the planes fly.

I thought for a while last night about the people in homes around us. It was after 7 PM and many people had probably finished dinner. What were they doing? Watching the stars? Or watching their televisions? Did they know what they were missing?

I remembered when I was a kid, growing up in northern New Jersey. I remember summer nights at my grandparent’s house. I remember stretching out on their thick lawn watching the sky, trying not to think of the night-crawlers wriggling around in the moist earth beneath me. There were street lights, but I remember seeing the Milky Way. I remember my grandfather pointing it out. I remember him explaining that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. And knowing, even when I was very young, which direction was east and which was west.

Do kids sit out at night with their parents or grandparents just looking at the night sky? Do they get their first astronomy lesson at home? Do they even know that the Milky Way is something other than a candy bar?

Things are different now. But I’m not convinced that they’re better. People seem more concerned with what they see on television and what goes on in the lives of the rich and famous than their own lives and families. Mike sees this firsthand. He goes to work and he hears his coworkers talking about the shows that were on television the night before. They try to get Mike involved in the conversation, but he has no clue what they’re talking about and wouldn’t care if he did. We haven’t tuned into a prime-time network television show since Seinfeld went off the air. We don’t need television escapes to keep our lives interesting.

Are you reading this? Scoffing at me because of my nose-up attitude toward television and television-based values? That’s okay. I forgive you. You probably don’t know any better.

But do this one day. Go outside in the early evening with your significant other and kids or dog. Find a dark and quiet spot. Settle down on the grass or a lawn chair. And just listen. Listen to the animals, the sound of the wind, the birds, the traffic in the distance. And look at the sky as it changes from evening to night. Look at the stars. Find the airplanes. If it’s dark enough, you’ll see some satellites, too. If you’ve got the kids along, tell them about the stars. Tell them the stories that you remember from your childhood. Or make something up, something special and meaningful. Ask them questions, make them tell you what they think about things. Make them think.

An evening away from the television can be magic if you let it.

At about 7:30 last night, Mike’s car turned the corner to come down the hill toward our house. But I wasn’t watching it. I was watching a shooting star as it sped past Venus and faded into the night.