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 Crescent Moon is making a solo sweep up the evening sky this week, not meeting a single planet until it passes by Mars next Sunday.

At this great division of time between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, it’s comforting to know that from one year to the next, there will always be eclipses, and meteor showers, and, of course, Mercury will make its several retrogrades. But even with all this predictability, one year differs from the next pretty dramatically in the course of human history, so the trick is to find the unfolding narrative. 

The waning gibbous Moon is activating a centuries old traditional story this week when it sweeps past the Beehive Star Cluster an hour before sunrise Christmas morning, and then past the star Regulus at the heart of Leo, the Lion the morning following.

The Beehive Cluster was first catalogued in 130 AD by the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in his “Almagest”. This fuzzy group of stars is at the heart of the constellation Cancer, and Ptolemy used a word to describe them that means both “hive” and “manger”.

The belt of the Zodiac embraces the Earth like a mighty circle of stars and is important to us because it’s only among this region of stars that we find the Sun, Moon and planets in their orbits. 

The Milky Way is also a mighty circle of stars that seems to wrap itself around the Earth, but because the the Milky Way is not on the same plane as the Zodiac, it appears to us that their paths cross one another. At Solstice this year, these crossing points will be uniquely activated by Sun and Moon.

Lucy and the sky: this week on The Storyteller's Night Sky

Dec 10, 2018

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaks overnight Thursday, just as Comet Wirtanen is hurtling our way, the closest comet of the last century. 

At the same time, the planet Saturn, ancient guardian of the past, is following the Sun over the western horizon at the end of the day; while Jupiter, who bears the promise of the future, is sweeping into the morning sky at dawn.

The “culmination” of a star is when it is highest above the horizon of the viewer, and it can be imagined like a sacred sign that can be read, like an accent mark on a syllable. So, what accents are happening in starry worlds now?

High above the horizon in the south the constellation Cetus, the whale, is coming to its highest place in the sky. The most interesting star in this region is Mira, the miracle star; it marks the throat of the whale. Mira is a naked-eye variable, waxing and waning in brightness over a period of 11 months, and it just so happens that it’s reaching its peak brightness right now. 

There is a dynamic story unfolding across the sky in this season, more than can be fully explained in this brief episode of The Storyteller’s Night Sky, so here’s just some of it, first from the imagination, and then the intellect: 

The celestial Lion shook, and so loosed the royal stars from his ancient mane, signaling the sacred entrance of the Sun into the domain of the mighty healer where he is hidden there, hovering above the scorpion’s underworld. Before entering, Lord Helios summoned his messenger, drawing him near to bear witness to the encounter, while Beauty, steeping in the baths of abundance in order to amplify her amorous radiance, beckoned to her own messengers, sweet envoys of ethereal light; one from among the seven sisters; the other from the Dame Divine, that first woman Virgo, where she on celestial centuries reclined, waiting on noble deeds among men.

Recently, a coronal hole rounded the surface of the Sun, stirring up the solar wind so that, as the wind raced earthward, scientists posted forecasts for possible geomagnetic storms, the kind that can cause beautiful displays of the aurora, or northern lights. 

This year the mood is just right for a true Halloween experience, but only if you’re daring. The Sun will set early October 31st, the way it does in this waning season, and after twilight fades, we’ll have four hours of true darkness before a misshapen Moon emerges in the black pool of the midnight hour.

On Tuesday the 23rd, the Sun and Uranus will be on opposite sides of the Earth from one another ~ this is called an “opposition”, and it happens between them once a year. Uranus is moving through the region of Pisces stars and this is the best time of year to try to catch a glimpse of it with the naked eye, but not until after the Full Moon, which will happen the very next day on the 24th, when the Sun and Moon stand on opposite sides of the Earth from one another ~ but rather than calling this an opposition, we call it Full Moon, and it happens at least once every month. 

There’s a rare treat on the horizon this week when the planet Uranus makes its closest approach to Earth. This occurs simultaneous to its opposition with the Sun, and it means conditions are just right for catching a glimpse of the elusive planet with the naked eye. 

This week the dragon constellation Draco is host to a fickle meteor shower; thousands of years ago, it was host to the North Star. In between then and now, it lent itself to origination myths of King Arthur.

Every once in awhile there’s a particular line up that allows for a convergence of things historic and astronomic, and here’s how it happens this first week of October, 2018:

After the Full Harvest Moon Monday night, the Moon spends the rest of the week waning through its gibbous phase. “Gibbous” is the term we use to describe the phenomena of light on the Moon’s surface, when it makes the Moon appear convex on both edges, as opposed to one edge being concave, like at crescent phase. So what’s so unique about this now?

This month marks the 172nd anniversary of the discovery of Neptune, the only planet in our system that can’t be seen with the naked eye, and this week, it comes to its annual opposition with the Sun.

The planet Venus moves close to the star Spica this week, where the star is held in the arms of Virgo, the maiden. What can it mean?

 


On Sunday the planet Mercury completed its retrograde and resumed its direct, or eastward motion. This coming weekend, the planet Mars will do the same thing when it completes its apparent retrograde.

 


After last Saturday’s New Moon, we entered the sacred sequence of days leading up to the 7th Night of the 7th Moon in the Chinese tradition, which brings us to the portal between the worlds. 

The Qixi Festival is celebrated during the most romantic time of the year, when the Crescent Moon sweeps across the western horizon toward the thickest part of the Milky Way.

The Perseid Meteor Shower reaches its peak just after New Moon this weekend, which means that if the weather cooperates, the conditions are ideal for a terrific show of falling stars.

 

You can see the meteors whizzing through the sky after 11 pm, once the constellation Perseus has mounted into the sky. This hero rises in the north east, carrying the severed head of the Medusa in his left hand as his trophy. 

We’re halfway through the Summer, and now the meteor showers begin!

 

The end of July marks the halfway point in the season, known traditionally as “cross quarter day.” But before we get to that point this year, we pass through a dramatic close encounter with the planet Mars, especially Thursday this week, July 26th.

 

The story I really want to tell this week is about the early 20th century American socialite and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, so I’m going to try to connect it to what’s happening in the stars! 

 

Isabella Stewart Gardner was known as a brilliant and unconventional patron of the arts, and this week marks the 94th anniversary of her death on July 17, in 1924, at the age of 84.

 

There’s so much happening in the sky this week, starting with the planet Jupiter, which changes direction after nearly four months of retrograde motion; there’s a New Moon that will cause a partial solar eclipse in other parts of the world; and after Friday the 13th, it will be possible to view all five naked-eye planets and the Moon in one night! 

 

 

This week the Earth arrives at that place in its orbital path that is furthest away from the Sun. This is called its “aphelion” and it will happen on Friday, July 6, even though it seems like a complete contradiction that Earth is furthest away from the Sun during the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer ~ but so it is.

 

 

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