storyteller's guide to the night sky

The constellation Cygnus wings back into the sky this month, trailing the better part of the Milky Way and a mighty quest in its wake.

Cygnus is variously known as the Swan, and the Northern Cross, on account of its shape. The outstretched wings of the swan appear like the t-bar on a cross as the stars rise up in the northeast on May evenings.

We typically associate ghosts and witches with Autumn and the season of the dead, but did you know that there are traditions for observing the same thing during the last week of April when life is springing up from the Earth?

The Lyrid Meteor Shower starts this week and comes to its peak overnight Saturday. What’s the best thing to know about it? It’s story, because if you find yourself under cloudy skies, you’ll still have something to marvel at!

Because the first New Moon of the season occurs Monday evening, March 27th, we get to watch its beautiful crescent adorn the western horizon most of this week.

Up until very recently, the planet Venus brilliantly dominated the western horizon, casting her veil of love and beauty over the sunset world. But Venus has disappeared into the arms Sun, who is escorting her to her morning star position, where she’ll remain there for the rest of this year. 

The Sun strides over the celestial equator Monday morning March 20, and all at once, it’s Spring! In the words of Johnny Mercer, at such a moment “Ma Nature’s lyrical, with her yearly miracle, Spring, Spring, Spring!”

When the Sun moves over the celestial equator we say it’s Equinox, a moment that inaugurates what Irish poet William Butler Yeats called “the most beautiful and living of the year.” 

When you’re a storyteller of the stars, you can’t help but look for them everywhere, not just in the sky, or in the myths and legends of the ancients, but in art and poetry, in architecture, in ceremony…

For this week’s “Storyteller’s Night Sky”, I’ve been looking for stars in one of my favorite places: the nursery rhymes of A.A. Milne, most famously known for his stories of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.

If you watch the Moon this week, dancing through the snow clouds, you’ll notice that it’s getting higher and higher in the nighttime sky, all the way until overnight Wednesday, when it mounts itself toward Full Phase Thursday morning and becomes the highest Full Moon of the year.

It’s a New Year, so it’s time to start a new trend I’ll call “Super Earth!”

So “Super Earth” is not really a fabrication, especially if you put it in the context of the “Super Moon” craze that’s been going on!  A Super Moon is technically known as Perigee Moon, or Moon closest to Earth, which happens every month.

It's Winter Solstice this week, at 5: 44 am Wednesday, December 21st, when the Sun reaches the point furthest below the celestial equator and there is a deep inner pause in the yearly breathing process.

The Sky is Falling: This Week on The Storyteller's Night Sky

Dec 12, 2016

Despite another “Super Moon” and the Geminid Meteor Shower this week, I’d like to talk about the constellation Ursa Major, and its better-known asterism the Big Dipper.

It’s December, which means it’s time for the annual discourse about whether or not there really was a Christmas Star, so here’s my “Storyteller’s Night Sky” perspective.  

With the New Moon on Tuesday, November 29th, and the inner planets serving as the Moon's footpath, this will be a spectacular week of early evening stargazing.

The Moon is new Tuesday at 7:18 am, which means it might be possible to see the thin crescent as early as Wednesday evening, about 40 minutes after sunset. The Moon will be just to the right of the planet Mercury, and both of them will be very close to the horizon, in the west.

What sign are you? This week on The Storyteller's Night Sky

Nov 21, 2016

We’re drawing toward the end of November, which means that now, the signs of the zodiac start to get all mixed up.

You've undoubtedly heard the November Full Moon referred to as the "super moon", because it is the closest Full Moon to Earth in nearly 70 years. But what does that mean?

The Moon's orbit around the Earth is not a circle, it's an ellipse, which means the Moon-Earth distance is always changing.

The technical name for the Moon closest to Earth is "perigee Moon". A perigee Moon can be 50,000 km closer than an apogee Moon, which is the Moon furthest away from us. 

There’s a convergence of things taking place this week on Friday, when 11.11 rolls around on the calendar, and did you know that there was a time when 11.11 marked a celebration of religious and military cooperation.

We’re at the bitter end of the campaign season, and it’s easy to feel like turning on the news is a bit like opening Pandora’s box~so I want to see if this is a valid analogy to make, given what’s happening in the sky right now.

In classical Greek Mythology, Pandora is the first woman to be created, and her name means: She who receives gifts from all the gods.

“In folklore, angels tickle harps and the Devil plays the violin. So it is hardly surprising that extraordinary musical ability in mere mortals has long been explained by way of heavenly blessings or, more frequently, dark pacts…” So begins the tale of “The Dark Fiddler ~ The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini”.

I recently took my stories of the stars to Davenport, Iowa, and while I was there, I visited the Figge Museum downtown, where there was a fabulous exhibit of the art of Gary Kelley, for his book on the notorious 18th century Italian violinist Paganini.

On October 5th, Venus is closest to the star Zubenelgenubi, the "alpha" or brightest star in the constellation Libra. Edit | Remove

In ancient astrological tradition, the constellation Libra is ruled by the planet Venus, goddess of love and beauty. Venus is our evening star right now, and this week it will pass very close to the brightest star in Libra, triggering the Sicilian fable “Catherine and Her Destiny.”

This week the Moon comes to New Phase ~ for the second time this month ~ which makes it a good time to talk about how the Moon moves through our sky.

The Moon moves around the Earth in roughly a circular orbit, and it completes one orbit in 27.3 days. This is called its “sidereal period.” But just because the Moon has completed one orbitdoesn’t mean that it comes right back to the same phase again…this is because over that 27.3 days, the Earth has also moved, so you could say the Moon has some “catching up” to do.

This week the Sun comes to its Autumn Equinox point, which means daylight hours grow shorter and moonlight hours increase.

Friday’s Full Moon is closest to Equinox which makes it this year’s Harvest Moon. Harvest Moon is not larger or more orange in color, and it doesn’t stay up later so farmers have more light to bring in the harvest. It’s special because it reveals the magical, elemental forces at work turning Earth’s resources into gold.

Photo by Jason Gillman

Did you know that the northern lights are twice as likely to occur in September and March as they are at other times of the year?

The northern lights are caused in part by increased activity in the earth's magnetic field. This field extends from the earth's interior out into space where it meets the solar wind, the stream of charged particles coming from the sun that exerts a pressure on our magnetic field.

Summer's message in a bottle: this week on The Dark Sky

Aug 29, 2016
Photo by MSA

This week our smallest planet is making a quick retreat from the evening sky and into the notorious motion known as the "Mercury retrograde."

Mercury has been on the evening side of the Sun since the middle of July, though the planet always appears so close to the Sun from our perspective on Earth that it is not so easy to see it.

Moon at greatest brilliance: this week on The Dark Sky

Aug 15, 2016

If ever there was a time to climb the silver ladder to the Palace of the Queen of the Moon, then it's this week when the Moon comes to Full Phase on Thursday morning, August 18 at 5:30 AM.

On Thursday the Moon will exhibit what's called an "opposition surge" that will cause its surface brightness to increase up to 40% over other times. How does this happen?

This will be one of the best weeks for stargazing all year and here’s why:

Every year in August, the thickest part of the Milky Way is visible over the southwest horizon, and because the Moon is at waxing crescent phase this week, it will sweep through the sky between sunset and Milky Way without diminishing the light of the stars.

And all five planets that are visible to the naked eye are also in the evening sky, in the west after sunset, with the crescent Moon cascading past them.

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