The Storyteller's Night Sky

Every Monday morning at 6:31 and 8:31, 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. 

The meteor shower of the giant Orion peaks overnight this week, especially in the early morning hours of October 21st, so let’s take a look at what’s tucked in here.

As a star lore historian, my work is about trying to find the stories in the stars each week. So after looking at star maps and watching sunsets and moonrises, I look at ancient mythologies or astrological traditions, sometimes it’s the results of scientific research that get stirred up in my thinking about how to find the story in what’s going on, but over the years I’ve realized that, all of this is about trying to read the phenomena themselves. 

On Tuesday the planet Mars will be closer to us than it will be for another 15 years, so the question is: will we be inspired by the red planet’s genius or its demon?

The Harvest Moon rises Thursday, October 1st, and this year, it’s the first Full Moon of Autumn, and the first to appear above the celestial equator. This matters for us in the Northern Hemisphere because it means that from now until Spring, we will experience more moonlight than sunlight.

The Autumn Equinox occurs at 9:31 am on Tuesday the 22nd, but it’s what happens in the aftermath that’s drawing my attention this week, because of its relationship to the threefold mystery of being human.

When the stars were regarded as divine spiritual beings, or rather the outer vestments of such beings, then it was understood that each month, in its journey through the sky, the Moon would have an encounter with these beings. As such, the Moon was regarded as the coordinator of the festival cycles of the year, for the Moon was the gateway between the earthly/physical and the celestial/spiritual worlds, which are being celebrated in such festivals.

As we turn toward the final weeks of the season, my imagination as a star lore historian turns to the German folk tale of the mischievous gnome Rübezahl, who sought to entrap Summer’s beautiful princess and keep her in his love palace beneath the Earth forever.

This week I’m celebrating at “The Storyteller’s Night Sky” because it’s been eight years since I started doing these weekly segments about the stars for Interlochen Public Radio, looking into the celestial world around us through the lens of the humanities, rather than the lens of the telescope. 

The Moon comes to New Phase on Tuesday and will wax through evening twilight all week while Venus is bold as morning star. What can we expect in a week when the goddesses stand as guardians of the visible horizon and bookend the opposite ends of the day?

This week as the Perseid Meteor Shower achieves its peak, I imagine that the thrill of seeing a falling star and making wishes comes from a deep soul memory of being in the presence of the divine, which was understood in former times as the presence of the “hidden god.”

The Moon comes to Full Phase Monday, August 3rd at noon, then it wanes through the night sky, catching up with Mars next Sunday, before arriving in the vicinity of Venus, our brilliant morning star, later next week.

The star Spica appears high in the southwest about 45 minutes after sunset at this time, which means we’re drawing close to the halfway point in the summer season.

The halfway point in summer is the cross quarter day known as Lammas, for loaf mass, which indicates that this mid-season is all about bread and the wheat harvest. Traditionally at loaf mass, the season’s first wheat would be ground into flour then baked into bread and offered at the sacred site as a blessing for the remaining harvest. Later, the farmer’s wife would be tossed in a blanket with the last sheaf, to bring good luck in the subsequent threshing.

The big news in night sky this week was going to be Saturn’s annual opposition, but then Comet NEOWISE survived its closest approach to the Sun and trumpeted into naked-eye visibility, so now I want to talk about this unpredictable messenger from space instead.

This week, in that sacred place where the dark of night surrenders to the dawn, a mighty council of stars is taking place, as if to say: “O, humanity, if you seek remedy to your current trials, lift up your thoughts to the stars, for the powers that wait on your noble deeds have gathered and await your participation.”

So maybe you heard there was an eclipse last weekend. Did you see it? Or did you go out to look at the brilliant lunar light and wonder what everybody was talking about? Sometimes it’s like that.

The Moon is building toward a mighty crescendo this week but will then perform a sleight of hand when it arrives at Full phase and slips invisibly into eclipse in the midnight hour July 4th to 5th.

Because the Moon was New on Sunday, we’ll get beautiful views of it as a waxing crescent in the evening sky all week long, looking west into the twilight after the Sun sets, and especially overnight Wednesday, when it moves past the star Regulus, at the heart of the constellation Leo, the Lion.

The word Solstice derives from the Latin sol  for ‘sun’ and the verb sistere ‘to stop, or be stationary’.  In the cycle of the year, Solstice marks the two points when the Sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon ~ and this year, both of these moments, Summer Solstice in June, and Winter Solstice in December, bring rare celestial phenomena.

Sky watching is a lesson in learning that things take time, even though they can be fleeting once they occur.

Think of Saturn and Jupiter. Because of the difference in their orbital rhythms, it takes them 20 years to come together in the same region of sky, which they’ll do this year,  at Winter Solstice in December. They’re already pretty close to one another, and they’ll be constant companions throughout the weeks and months ahead. When they come to the moment of their exact conjunction, they’ll be closer than they have been since the time of Galileo in the 1600s!

On Wednesday this week, the planet Venus comes to a meeting with the Sun, known astronomically as inferior conjunction. And while Venus is having this encounter with the Sun, the two of them will be square, or at a right angle, with the planet Mars, which greets the dawn from the stars of Aquarius. So what can it mean?

This last week of May is also the last week of the year that the planet Venus will be visible in the evening sky, because she’s in her retrograde motion now and quickly falling into the arms of the Sun.

There’s a New Moon on Friday this week, and on the same day, the planets Mercury and Venus will join one another in the same region of the sky, looking west after sunset.

Three of the five naked-eye planets begin their retrograde motions this week, beginning with Saturn on Monday, followed by Venus on Wednesday, and Jupiter on Thursday. 

Mercury meets the Sun at superior conjunction on Monday, on the other side of the Sun from Earth, then the Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower peaks toward dawn on Tuesday, followed by Full Moon on Thursday morning. What are your plans for the week?

Venus will be at its brightest for the year this week, which brings Alfred Tennyson to mind for the Storyteller’s Night Sky: Her constant beauty doth inform stillness with love, and day with light.

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