Hot fun for the summer solstice
URBANA – The crowd inside the Krannert Center on Friday counted loudly the last 10 seconds to 6:59 p.m.
"Three ... two ... one ... happy summer," yelled Jim Kaler as he dropped a plastic time ball from his hand to the floor.
Kaler, an astronomy professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, helped organize the summer solstice celebration, now in its second year.
To help kick off the hot season, organizers brought in jazz performances, an indoor planetarium and a 3-D presentation of the planets.
The "lighthearted event" was meant as a way for people to "have a good time on the first day of summer," Kaler said.
The day is the longest one of the year as there's more sunlight for the Northern Hemisphere than on any other day. The earth's axis now tilts the Northern Hemisphere toward the sun.
The summer solstice typically begins June 21, but came a day earlier this year because of leap year, Kaler said. It brings 24 hours of daylight north of the Arctic Circle and 24 hours of darkness south of the Antarctic Circle.
During the solstice, the sun's rays are directly above the Tropic of Cancer and can cause severe burning for those with lighter skin, Kaler said.
But for locals, summer is a good time to watch the stars, he said.
"It's a pretty sky," Kaler said. "Find a beautiful, clear night in late July. The Milky Way dominates."
There are several facts a novice stargazer may not know, he said.
For example, stars can be as "small" as Champaign-Urbana or as large as the solar system, have a life cycle like humans and sport colors like blue and pink, Kaler said.
"We're part of the same system," he said. "Without them, we wouldn't exist."
There's an intimacy in the universe, a connection that envelops us all, Kaler said.
"We're walking on stuff made from stars that exploded," he said.
Marek Jochec, a graduate student from the Czech Republic, shared the night with friends, his wife and a 6-month old daughter.
Though he's always had an interest in the stars, last year's event prompted him to buy a book on the solar system.
"Now I can see where I've improved," Jochec said of identifying stars and planets.
He said his amateur studies have sparked more interest in astronomy, both from a physical and mythical perspective.
"I like to see how people imagined things then," Jochec said.