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. 

Was there really a Christmas Star?

Dec 1, 2014

Was there really a Christmas Star?

The star Mira in the constellation Cetus means “Star of Wonder”. This star is visible over the horizon in the south every year at this time.

Mira is the star of wonder because it has been known, since ancient times, to be a star of great variability. They call it that because sometimes it’s invisible and sometimes it’s the brightest star in the sky.

In ancient times, it was believed that each human being comes from a particular star, that souls on Earth were equal in number to the stars in the universe. Each soul was connected to a star.

Then, the fact that the Star of Wonder grew brighter or dimmer every few months meant something unusual was about to happen in this soul/star connection, that perhaps a significant birth was about to happen.

The ancient sages would read the stars patterns, and this is how they knew if a significant birth was going to take place.  When Mira starting pulsing toward greater brightness they knew it was time to make ready.

Mira continues to impress astronomers to this day, since it is the only star known that has a comet-like tail, which suggests that there’s something even more unusual about it. 

Find Mira looking south about an hour after sunset. It appears in the region of the sky where there are great superclusters, the largest structures known in the observable universe~as though they were souls, waiting their turn to come to birth.

Benjamin Franklin and the Stars

Nov 24, 2014

With Thanksgiving happening across the country this week, it’s time to consider one of our most pervasive cultural myths: Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the turkey as the national emblem of the United States.

This cultural myth is based on a letter Franklin wrote in 1782 to his daughter Sarah about the eagle as the national emblem. In the letter, Franklin wrote: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. …while the Turkey is in Comparison, a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…”

Unfortunately for the turkey, it has become much preferred as table-fare rather than as enduring emblem, which might be due to the fact that there are no turkeys represented in the star patterns overhead.

What we do have overhead is the star pattern of the eagle, recognized throughout history and across cultures as the constellation Aquila. And despite Franklin’s opinion of the eagle as a bird of bad moral character, many cultures, from the Ancient Greek to the Native American and even to the International Astronomers Union, have all recognized Aquila as the eagle constellation. Sometimes, different cultures see different creatures in the star patterns, but the fact that so many see the eagle in the constellation Aquila lends itself to the fact that the eagle is regarded as one of the most sacred creatures in the world, perhaps even making it too sacred to eat.  

So as you’re settling in for traditional fare this Thanksgiving, look to the West, where you can find Aquila the eagle setting into the horizon, its star Altair the brightest object in that region of the sky this Thanksgiving week.

Damp drizzly November in the stars

Nov 17, 2014

Looking south toward the horizon after 9 pm this month, there is an unmistakable single bright white star: Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut marks the mouth of the constellation of the southern fish. And it’s also the guide to what’s known as the ‘watery region” of the sky, because there are several other water-related constellations here, like the starry whale and the waterman.

This grouping of water-related constellations is prominent every year in November, and lends itself to an interesting bit of history that unfolded under these stars one Autumn nearly 200 years ago.  

American History in the stars

Nov 10, 2014
Mars and Pluto among the stars of Sagittarius, from the app StarWalk, available here

There are two ways to find history in the stars this week: First, in the position of the red planet Mars; and second, in the Leonid Meteor Shower, which rains down overhead from now until the end of the month.

Orion and the pearly gates

Nov 3, 2014

The first week of November is the halfway point in the season, which is technically called “cross quarter”.  It means that we are now closer to the onset of Winter than we are to the onset of Autumn. 

In many cultural traditions, this particular cross quarter signals the time for celebrating the lives of loved ones who have died. In different traditions, these celebrations occur either over a few days or a few weeks, as in the Mexican ‘fiesta’ known as the “Day of the Dead”, or the Native American tradition of “Ghost Suppers”.

In November, one of the world’s most well-known constellations rises up over the eastern edge of the northern hemisphere: the constellation Orion. Looking back into ancient Egyptian culture, we find that the region of Orion in the sky was linked to their god of the dead, Osiris.

One of the easiest ways to identify the constellation Orion is by his tell-tale belt of three stars.  The central star in Orion’s belt is named “Alnilam”, which means ‘string of pearls’.  Ancient Egyptians believed Alnilam portended fleeting public honors to those born under its influence, but we may also find here the source for references to the “pearly gates” that the dead pass through from this life into the next. It was as though the dead traveled into the afterlife through the region of the Orion constellation, where they met the god of the dead, Osiris, and passed through the string of pearls at the center of his belt.

One of the few specific references to known constellations that occurs in the Bible appears in the Old Testament Book of Job, in which God admonishes Job with the question: “Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?” Job is being asked whether he has the power loose the bands of death.

The presence of Orion was a comfort to ancient cultures, and the association of its rising with remembrances of the dead continue into our own time. Watch for Orion and his tell-tale belt of three stars rising in the East after 9 pm.

Mars and the social media mania

Oct 27, 2014

The planet Mars has been in the news a lot lately, and this week it will be visible crossing the path of Milky Way stars, accompanied by the Moon in the southwest Tuesday night.  More than any other planet, Mars has been at the center of the most extraordinary examples of the mischievous effects of social media.

In 2003, Mars came as close to Earth as it had in recorded history, leading to the erroneous and annually repeated internet legend that the red planet will appear as large as the Moon.

Nearly 80 years ago this week, 23-year-old Orson Welles and his colleagues broadcast a radio rendition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds reciting events in the novel as if they were a real news broadcast. The idea that aliens were invading from Mars caused mass hysteria. That was October, 1938, nearly 40 years after HG Wells originally penned his novel The War of the Worlds, a scientific romance written in response to several significant events in the 1890s.

In 1894 the scientific community was excited about Mars’ close approach to the Earth. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing ‘channels’ on the surface there.  Because it was commonly held then that Mars was an old and exhausted planet that had once sustained life, it was not unusual for scientists to seek there for evidence, just as NASA’s Curiosity Rover does today. 

Then came increasing militarization in Europe and the cataclysmic eruption of Mt Krakatau. These events fueled the hyper-realism behind HG Wells’ writing style, and the possibility of invasion by aliens caused Mars-mania to reach fever pitch.

Interest in life on Mars sustains into our own time. Over 200,000 people have already applied for a one-way trip to the desolate planet.

Given the enduring interest and mischief stirred by our red neighbor, perhaps the question we need to ask is not “is there life on Mars?” but rather, “What does Mars stir to life within me?”

Partial eclipse in the land of story and stars

Oct 21, 2014

On Thursday there’s a partial eclipse of the Sun, visible from Northern Michigan starting just before 6 pm. The Sun will set about 45 minutes later, while 10% of it is obscured from our view by the disc of the Moon. But be careful~though the eclipse is occurring around sunset, it is not safe to look directly at the Sun. Protective eye gear is needed.

Mercury and the dawn

Oct 13, 2014

This week the action in the sky is not something that’s visible to the naked eye observer. It’s a phenomenon known as the ‘inferior conjuncton’ of Mercury with the Sun, and it happens on Thursday. 

Uranus and the Lunar Eclipse

Oct 3, 2014

There’s a Total Eclipse of the Moon Wednesday morning, visible throughout Michigan and across North America. This eclipse, which is the second in a rare series of four Total Lunar Eclipses, begins at 5:15 am eastern daylight time. Two and a half hours later, the Sun will rise in the East, and the Moon, on the opposite horizon, will set, still in Eclipse phase for Northern Michigan viewers.

During Wednesday’s eclipse, the Moon will appear to move through the region of the Pisces Fishes, and will appear just half a degree above and right of the planet Uranus.

Uranus was the first planet discovered with the use of a telescope, in 1781. It is just barely visible to the naked eye, and is better viewed with binoculars or telescopes. If the Moon were not being eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow Wednesday morning, it would be too bright, and Uranus would not be seen.

Let’s consider Uranus a little further. In ancient Greek culture, the name Uranus is associated with the primal god personifying the sky. Uranus was born from chaos, the primal force of the universe, and had no father or mother. His name is sometimes interpreted as ‘rainmaker’ or ‘fertilizer.’ He came every night to cover the Earth and mate with Gaia, but he hated the children she bore him. These were the six sons and six daughters known as the Titans, as well as three one-hundred-handed giants, and the one-eyed Cyclops.

Uranus banished his monster children to the underworld, but was eventually overcome by one of his Titan offspring.  He became the vanquished god of an elder time, eclipsed by successive generations which he had brought forth into the world. In this way, Uranus became associated with the type of change that heralds the future.

When Wednesday’s Eclipsed Moon reaches greatest totality at 6:55 am, look for Uranus, just below and left of the darkened Moon.

Mars and Antares for Northern Night Sky

Sep 26, 2014
Astronomy Magazine

On Sunday and Monday, the waxing crescent Moon will sweep past a dramatic encounter of ancient rivals in the evening sky: the red planet Mars; and the red supergiant Antares, the star at the heart of the Scorpion.

There’s no distinct mythology regarding this rivalry, but the star-name “Antares” means, “anti-Ares.” “Ares” is the Greek name for the Roman god Mars, god of war. The region of the Scorpion, on the other hand, is always related to the Underworld.

Autumn Equinox

Sep 19, 2014

Autumn Equinox is next Monday evening, September 22nd. Equinox, from the Latin, means “equal night” and is the time when it appears that the Sun crosses the plane of the Earth’s equator.

But how do we know it’s Equinox? Who’s measuring, and how do they do it?

Measuring time and our place in the universe is an ancient task. Many areas of our world are populated with the ruins of what can rightly be called “astronomical observatories”, designed specifically for timekeeping. Think of StoneHenge in England or the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Andromeda and Pegasus

Sep 12, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storytellers’ Guide to the Night Sky.”

Because there are not a lot of stars in the region of the sky appearing overhead this week, it might seem like there’ s not a lot going on up there, but with the right imagination, you can find one of the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose unfolding overhead, hidden in the constellations Andromeda and Pegasus. You might know Andromeda as the ‘woman in chains’, while Pegasus is the winged white horse.

Harvest moons, asteroids and the watery region

Sep 5, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky.

Every year, the full moon that appears closest to Autumn Equinox is given the title Harvest Moon. It can come in either September or October. This year's Harvest Moon will appear on Monday in the southeast part of the sky.


Aug 21, 2014
August 2014 evening sky excerpted from Michigan State University Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar, info available here:

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky”. 

This week looking southwest an hour after sunset, the planets Mars and Saturn can be seen near the brightest, or ‘alpha’ star in the constellation Libra, the scales. This star’s name is “Zubenelgenubi”, from the Arabic, and it means the “southern tray of the scales”.  

With Mars and Saturn in the region of the southern scale, we can imagine that the two planets are literally ‘hanging in the balance’ this week. 

Venus and Jupiter: An Ancient Rivalry

Aug 15, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky.”

The two brightest objects in our sky after Sun and Moon are the planets Venus and Jupiter, and this week they make a spectacularly close approach to one another in the morning sky.

On Monday morning, August 18, looking east about an hour before sunrise, Venus and Jupiter will make the closest planet-to-planet conjunction of the year.

Perseid Meteor Shower

Aug 8, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky.”

This year the month of August can rightly be described as a season of celestial superlatives:

We have a Super Moon this Sunday, August 10th, followed by the annual peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower overnight Tuesday, August 12th.

Then, our two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, make a rare and wonderful pairing in the morning sky on August 18th, followed by the evening pairing of the planets Mars and Saturn on August 25th.

The Delta Aquarid "Wishing Star"

Jul 25, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky.”

Overnight Tuesday to Wednesday, July 29 to 30th, is the peak of the annual Delta Aquarid Meteor shower. This meteor shower takes its name from the third brightest star ~or delta star~ in the constellation Aquarius, and the shower can be seen across the entire Earth.

It is commonly held that meteor showers result from Earth’s passage through the trail of stuff left in the wake of a passing comet. But with the Delta Aquarids, the ‘parent comet’ that might be causing the shower, is not known with any certainty.

However, to name a meteor shower, astronomers don’t use the name of the comet anyway, rather, they use the name of the constellation or star in front of which the meteors seem to shoot.

To find the story in this meteor shower, then, we have to consider the name of the delta Aquarius star. This star has the name Skat, which is derived from old Arabic star globes. The name Skat means ‘a wish’~so we could rightfully say that the delta aquarid meteor shower is a shower of wishing stars!

In 1756, the German-born astronomer Tobias Mayer noted a fixed star near where h was observing the radiant of the meteor shower. Twenty-five years later, William Herschel observed this same object and thought it was a comet, but afterwards realized it was a new planet, our Uranus.

Since it was found in the region of Aquarius stars, Uranus is said to have dominion over this region of the zodiac, and is related to all new technology~it being the first planet discovered with the use of a telescope.

The best time to look for the Delta Aquarid wishing stars is between midnight and dawn, especially Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning. And also note that many of these shooting stars leave persistent trains – glowing ionized gas trails that last a second or two after the meteor has passed. 

I’m Mary Stewart Adams, from Emmet County’s International Dark Sky Park at the Headlands.


Jul 18, 2014

The most storied about objects in our night sky have a beautiful gathering this week, looking toward the east before sunrise. These objects are the Moon, the star cluster known as the Pleaides, and the brilliant planet Venus.

Starting Monday, July 21st, the waning crescent Moon will sweep below the Pleiades, the seven sisters of ancient Greek lore that are the shoulder region of the constellation Taurus, the Bull.

On Tuesday, July 22nd, the Moon, now slightly thinner, will meet the campfire-orange star Aldebaran, the Bull’s Eye, also found in the constellation Taurus.

A Story of New Zeland for Mars and Spica

Jul 11, 2014

Hello, this is Mary Stewart Adams with “The Storyteller’s Guide to the Night Sky.”

On Sunday, July 13, the red planet Mars will makes its closest approach the blue-white star Spica in the constellation of Virgo, the maiden. This will be visible in the southwest, one hour after sunset.

Dark Sky Park: Bootid Meteor Shower

Jun 27, 2014

The Moon arrived at New Phase at 4 am this morning, which means that conditions are perfect for catching the Bootid Meteor Shower during its peak overnight tonight, Friday, June 27th. The constellation Bootes, which lends its name to this meteor shower, is overhead all night, so all you need is a comfortable setting in the dark where you have a full view of the sky overhead~the meteors can be seen anywhere throughout the sky.

The word “Solstice” is rooted in the early Roman reference to the “stopping” or “standing still” of the Sun. This occurs twice each year, when the Sun appears to attain a position highest above or furthest below the celestial equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, we mark these days as the first day of Summer and the first day of Winter, respectively.

Dark Sky Park: Ophiucus

Jun 13, 2014

This week we have a combination of two of our most popular superstitions: Full Moon and Friday the 13th.

The Moon arrived at exact Full phase just after midnight this morning, Friday, June 13th at 12:11 am, making this a phenomena only for people in the Eastern Time Zone of North America.

An all-new meteor shower makes its debut tonight, and astronomers say it could put on a show starting as early as 10:30 p.m. ET Friday and peaking early Saturday. Called the Camelopardalids, the shower is named after the giraffe constellation. It's expected to be visible in nearly all of the U.S., if skies are clear.

"No one has seen it before," NASA says, "but the shower could put on a show that would rival the prolific Perseid meteor shower in August."

Dark Sky Park: The Camelopardalids

May 22, 2014

This weekend there is the promise of a brand new meteor shower, known by the ungainly name "The Camelopardalids." Meteor showers take their names from the constellation in front of which the radiant is located. To form the name, astronomers use the constellation name and add the letter 'd', so that the meteor shower in front of Perseus becomes the Perseids; the meteor shower near Orion becomes the Orionids, and the anticipated shower near Camelopardalis becomes the Camelopardalids.

Donovan Shortey/Flickr

Northern Michigan could end up being one of the best spots in the U.S. to witness a dramatic and rare meteor shower this Memorial weekend. That’s if both weather and meteor predictions hold true for the early morning hours Saturday.