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. 

Upon a time, before the faery broods drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,

Before King Oberon's bright diadem, sceptre, and mantle, clasp'd with dewy gem

Frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns, from rushes green, and brakes, and cowslip'd lawns,

The ever-smitten hermes empty left his golden thone, bent warm on amorous theft...

Last week the sky was tremulous as the Earth moved through a wide swath of solar wind, making way for all the terrific phenomena that's happening this week!

The planet Mercury begins its first retrograde of the year on Tuesday, which is Mardi Gras in the Christian calendar. If ever there was a festival that strikes the right mood for this trickster god, then Mardi Gras is it.

"We thus remove and absoltuely abolish the old calendar." 

With these words, written over 400 years ago this week, a universal ordering in the reckoning of time was established.

There's a Full Moon this week, the closest one of the year in fact, which lends itself to the illustrious anniversaries that also happen every year at this time.

There's President's day, honoring the births of Washington and Lincoln; and this is the week that Michelangelo died, in 1564; then there's the English Romantic Poet John Keats, who also died this week in 1821; and for the astronomy world, it's the anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who formulated a model of our universe that placed the Sun, not the Earth, at the center.

The ever-smitten Hermes empty left

His golden throne, bent warm on amorous theft:

From high Olympus he had stolen light,

On this side of Jove's clouds, to escape the sight

Of his great summoner, and made retreat

Into a forest on the shores of Crete.

These few lines are from John Keats' poetic narrative "Lamia", and they describe how the trickster god, Hermes, the bringer of dreams and escort of souls, who also serves as the messenger divine, escaped the heaven world for Earth, in search of the beloved.

We're halfway through the Winter now, but if the cold of the season has you down, then it's time to lift your spirits with a hunt for the unicorn ~ in the stars!

The constellation of the unicorn is known as Monoceros, and though it is made up of faint stars, you can still find it mounting to its highest place right now, straddling the Milky Way while it frolics in the company of some of our brightest stars. This is in keeping with its legendary status as a symbol of undivivded sovereign power and its role as guardian of the Tree of Life.

The Moon will be our escort across the dawn this week, like a goddess cascading down the stair of morning planets, and only slipping out of view on Saturday, February 2nd, which is this season’s Cross Quarter Day.

Mary Stewart Adams

With the Lunar Eclipse only just behind us, the big celestial news this week is the coming together of the planets Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky, looking east before sunrise. 

Besides the beautiful apparition of Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky this week, the thing that will undoubtedly be most talked about is the coming Total Eclipse of the Moon, which will be visible across the United States, reaching maximum totality in the midnight hour of the eastern time zone.

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?

 


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