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EarthSky // Earth, Human World, Science Wire Release Date: Jun 21, 2015

Summer solstice seen from Stonehenge

Why do people gather at Stonehenge in England on the solstice? Info and photos here.

View of the Heel Stone at summer solstice sunrise, as seen from inside the Stonehenge monument. Image Credit: mysticrealms.org

It’s summer solstice time for us in the Northern Hemisphere. This solstice occurs at the instant the sun reaches its most northerly point on the celestial sphere, the imaginary sphere of stars surrounding Earth. At Stonehenge – an icon of Great Britain and one of its most popular attractions – thousands of revelers caught a brief glimpse of the sun Sunday morning as they marked this summer solstice.

AP reported that about 23,000 sun-watchers gathered on the Salisbury Plain about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of London. But with the sun visible only briefly, the party was markedly shorter than in past years.

Visitors kissed the stones, dancers swirled on the grass and drummers pounded as part of the free-form celebrations. A small group of yoga enthusiasts held a short class and couples renewed their commitments to one another.

Stonehenge was built in three phases between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C. and its purpose remains under study.

However, it’s known that if you stand in just the right place inside the Stonehenge monument on the day of the northern summer solstice, facing north-east through the entrance towards a rough hewn stone outside the circle – known as the Heel Stone – you will see the sun rise above the Heel Stone, as illustrated in the image below.

In 2015, summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere (winter solstice for the Southern Hemisphere) takes place on June 21, at 16:38 Universal Time.

Summer solstice at Stonehenge via stonehengetrips.com

Summer solstice at Stonehenge via stonehengetrips.com

Waiting for dawn to arrive at Stonehenge, summer solstice 2005.  Image Credit: Andrew Dunn.  Wikimedia Commons.

Waiting for dawn to arrive at Stonehenge, summer solstice 2005. Image Credit: Andrew Dunn. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year, the sun is shining on us most directly at midday. Except at high northerly latitudes, above the Arctic Circle – where daylight is continuous for many months – the day on which the summer solstice occurs is the day of the year with the longest period of daylight. Meanwhile, it is the shortest day for Earth’s Southern Hemisphere.

At the northern summer solstice – always around June 20 – the sun’s path stops moving northward in the sky. For us in the northern hemisphere, it’s the day on which the days stop growing longer and will soon begin to shorten again. For this reason, in festivals and celebrations across this hemisphere of Earth, the summer solstice is a time of celebration.

EarthSky Facebook friend Buddy Puckhaber of South Carolina took this photo of Stonehenge in the early morning, while visiting.  He said,

EarthSky Facebook friend Buddy Puckhaber of South Carolina took this photo of Stonehenge in the early morning, while visiting. He said, “My wife and I were among the first visitors of the day.” Thank you, Buddy! Used with permission.

Stonehenge is tied to the winter solstice, too. At Stonehenge in England on the day of the northern winter solstice (always around December 20), people watch as the sun sets in the midst of three great stones – known as the Trilithon – consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third, horizontal stone across the top.

In the case of Stonehenge, this great Trilithon faces outwards from the center of the monument, with its smooth flat face turned toward the midwinter sun. In fact, the primary axes of Stonehenge seems to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunset.

This Stonehenge monument – built in 3,000 to 2,000 BC – shows how carefully our ancestors watched the sun. Astronomical observations such as these surely controlled human activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the metering of winter reserves between harvests. Stonehenge is perhaps the most famous of of the ancient astronomical monuments found around the world.

When Stonehenge was first opened to the public it was possible to walk among the stones – even climb on them.

The stones were roped off in 1977 as a result of serious erosion. Today, visitors to the monument are not permitted to touch the stones, but, if you go, you will be able to walk around the monument from a short distance away. Visitors can also make special bookings to access the stones throughout the year.

Another beautiful shot of Stonehenge from our friend Buddy Puckhaber.  Thank you, Buddy.

Another beautiful shot of Stonehenge from our friend Buddy Puckhaber. Used with permission. Thank you, Buddy.

Bottom line: If you stand at just the right spot inside the Stonehenge monument on the day of the northern summer solstice, facing northeast through the entrance towards a rough hewn stone outside the circle – known as the Heel Stone – you will see the sun rise above the Heel Stone. The 2015 June solstice comes on June 21 at 16:38 Universal Time. That’s 11:38 a.m. CDT in North America on June 21.

The winter solstice as seen from Stonehenge