The Storyteller's Night Sky

Every Monday morning at 6:30 and 8:30, IPR News Radio looks into the night sky with Mary Stewart Adams, Program Director of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City. Mary talks about the moon and the stars and the mythology associated with them. 

“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.

The meteor shower season continues this week with the peak of the Orionid overnight Friday to Saturday, and since Autumn is also the season for celebrating the dead, here’s an ancient myth to keep you entertained while you’re out wishing on the falling stars.

 


 

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.

The ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is beautifully playing out in the stars overhead starting this week, when Mars makes a triumphant move into the region of Scorpio stars.

The region of Scorpio has always been associated with the underworld, and all season the planets Mars and Saturn have been forming a triangle in the southwest sky with the brightest star there. This week, Mars will be like Orpheus, taking flight into this underworld, as though to rescue his beloved Eurydice.

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.

Breaking bread: this week on The Dark Sky

Aug 1, 2016

Every season we come to the halfway point when the rush and anticipation of its beginning gives way to the slow maturing of its end. This halfway point is known as cross quarter day and it happens this week, as we step fully into August.

The summer cross quarter day comes from harvesting traditions of days gone by when the first ripened wheat was brought in from the fields, ground into flour, baked into a sacred loaf, and offered in ceremony as blessing for the remaining harvest. This was the time for gathering in community to break bread together.

Getting what we wish for: this week on The Dark Sky

Jul 25, 2016

The moon is waning slowly through the morning sky this week, stopping to meet the star Aldebaran, the fiery bull's eye in the constellation Taurus on Friday, an hour before sunrise. This will be a beautiful sight, visible in the East at about 5:19 AM.

The technical term for this meeting of the moon with a star is "occultation" and it happens when the moon passes directly between us and a star.

A lot has happened in the world since the goddess of love and beauty disappeared from view last March, and this week she’s welcomed back to the stage of the sky as evening star.

The goddess of love and beauty is the planet Venus and she was born out of the foaming waters of the sea. 

This week, Venus will emerge in the evening sky in the west, in front of the constellation Cancer, the crab.

The star-spangled oak at Headlands International Dark Sky Park Edit | Remove

Summer is upon us and the Moon will be a beautiful crescent moving up the sky from the western horizon this week. But did you know that today July 4 the Earth is as far away from the Sun as it can get on its orbital path?

Constellation-hopping is one of the ways you can find your way around the night sky, and this week it can help you to the radiant, or center point of an early summer meteor shower, called the Boötids.

The Boötids take their name from the constellation Boötes, the herdsman, and even though the falling stars don’t really come from the constellation itself, this kind of naming practice makes for some great storytelling.

So what story can we find in the Boötes region of the sky that might suggest that the meteor shower is his gift to humanity?


Finding your inner hero: this week on The Dark Sky

Jun 20, 2016

Today, June 20th, is Summer Solstice, when the Sun reaches its highest place above the Celestial Equator. Today the Moon also comes to full phase, and because this happens opposite the Sun, it means that today the Moon is at the lowest point, in the region of the sky where we find our galactic center.

This week the Moon grows through the evening sky toward Full Phase, passing three bright planets on the way and ending up aligned with the galactic center on Summer Solstice. 

This week’s journey of the Moon is a bit like the ancient story of the Olympian gods gathering their forces to overtake the Titans, the first generation of gods in the ancient world.

The Flower Fairy in the Stars: this week on The Dark Sky

Jun 6, 2016

When you look into the night sky this week, you’ll see a beautiful line up of planets and stars that lend themselves to a French fairy tale by the Count de Caylus from the 17th century known as “The Fairy Gifts.”

Where do the constellations come from?

May 31, 2016

Have you ever looked into the night sky and wondered what the ancients were thinking when they identified patterns that look nothing like what they are named for?

There are thousands of stars visible to the naked eye and human beings have spent thousands of years reaching toward these stars for a better understanding of life on earth.  Through all of this there are only 88 officially recognized constellations in the sky, 48 of which are holdovers from ancient times. But who made them up, and why?

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