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Every Monday morning at 6:49 and 8:49, IPR News Radio looks into the night sky with Mary Stewart Adams, former Program Director and founder of the International Dark Sky Park at the Headlands, who has been telling stories of the night sky on IPR since 2013.

Filling in the Cosmic Spaces: this week on the Storyteller's Night Sky

aphelion sunset 2021.jpg
MSA
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Sunset over Lake Michigan, July 2021, as Earth achieves its orbital position furthest away from the Sun, called its aphelion.

This week begins with an exclamation point, and I don’t mean just the fireworks. There are three exceptional celestial phenomena all piled up on the same day, stirring the imagination and stoking vivid summer dreams.

So here’s what to know: The orbit of the Moon and all the planets is an ellipse, rather than a circle ~ an ellipse is like a squashed oval. This was figured out in the early 17th century by Johannes Kepler. And what this means is that sometimes, orbiting bodies come closer to the object they’re orbiting, and sometimes, they’re further away.

On Monday this week, the planet Mercury is in the morning sky, and is furthest away from the Sun as it can get, called its “greatest elongation.” Also that day, the Earth is as far away from the Sun as it can get, called its “aphelion,” and the Moon is as far away from the Earth as it can get, called its “apogee.” Crazy, right? But to be clear, the Moon gets to apogee once each month, Mercury achieves greatest elongation several times a year, and the Earth comes to aphelion once each year ~ but for them to all happen on the same day, that’s something.

It’s like they’ve all stretched out as far and wide as they can, giving us all the opportunity to consider, if it’s up to us to fill the cosmic spaces, what will we do? Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” as fitting contemplation:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?