November 30, 2021

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky Now

Mary Stewart Adams' guides our eyes to the ceremony of summer stars
By Mary Stewart Adams | July 18, 2020

In each and every day there’s a singular moment when, all at once, we realize … the stars. This moment brings a curious and immediate sensation of time moving on and allows us to recognize how little aware we are of what is present in the world around us, until we see it with our own two eyes. Even though the stars only begin to appear in the twilight, when the blue day has faded into its darker hue, and the sunlight has waned over the western horizon, we realize at the moment of a star's first appearance that it has been there all along, steady and certain, no matter the events of our days. 

Twilight is the best time to begin any summer stargazing adventure, especially if you are just beginning to learn your way around the sky. The brighter stars will always appear first, like signposts, pointing the way to well-known asterisms like the Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle, and indicating the region where the Milky Way will appear.

This summer, the array of naked-eye planets is intriguing, with Mars approaching his lady love Venus in the morning sky, where she is like a brilliant beacon heralding each new day as the morning star in the east, while Saturn and Jupiter are making a slow and steady procession beyond the Milky Way and toward one another, for their once-every-20-years “great conjunction.”

This auspicious meeting will happen again this year at winter solstice in December, but now is the season to get the best views of these two gas giants, since each of them comes to opposition with the sun this month (Jupiter on July 14; Saturn on July 20). The opposition of a planet to the sun is like a planet’s full moon phase; it rises in the east just as the sun is setting in the west, and then will march across the field of stars throughout the night, only setting in the West at dawn, when the sun begins to rise.

It takes Jupiter 12 years to complete one orbit of the sun, and in ancient cultures, this gave it dominion over all things that can be experienced through the element of space.

Jupiter is very bright — and will be the brightest object in the nighttime sky all summer long (excepting the Moon, of course). You’ll know it, because it’ll be the first to appear after sunset each evening. To find Jupiter, look low in the southeast starting around 9:30pm.

Note that each planet makes its opposition to the sun when it’s exhibiting its apparent retrograde, or backward-going motion, moving from east to west against the background of stars, rather than west to east. During the retrograde, planets loop closer to the Earth than at other times, which can also make them appear brighter than usual. Jupiter just made its closest approach last week, on July 15.

It takes Saturn about 28 years to complete its orbit — more than twice the time it takes Jupiter. For ancient stargazers, this behavior of Saturn’s lent to it being identified with all things governed by the element of time. Saturn to the Romans was Cronus to the Greeks, who established the boundaries of the Titan world and was regarded as the lord of the universe, but only after he expelled his father, Uranus.

Saturn is not nearly as bright as Jupiter, and it appears golden in the nighttime sky. Like Jupiter, Saturn is also making its retrograde motion right now, as though time were slowed down and lending a mood of laziness to the summer season. Saturn comes nearest Earth on July 20, rising in the southeast just after Jupiter. The two of them have bridged the thickest region of Milky Way stars to their right, where we find the constellation Sagittarius, and are now wandering on with the mountain goat, Capricorn.

Have you ever wondered what ancient sages were doing when they established the constellations — because they certainly don’t look like the objects and creatures for which they’re named. This mystery is settled when you realize that the ancients believed that every human being comes from a star, and that on the descent to life in the physical world, which is governed by time and space, the spiritual beings inhabiting the starry regions bestowed the gift of form to the human body, while the rhythms of the wandering stars, our planets, gifted harmony between the inner organs of the human being.

This way of knowing the human being in relation to the stars existed well into the Middle Ages; its evidenced by images depicting the relationship of the signs of the zodiac to the different members of the human being, from the head (Aries) to the feet (Pisces), and the planets in relation to their respective organs (Venus rules kidney; Jupiter rules liver, etc.). There were 48 recognized constellations in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, each described according to the member of the human being to which it was aligned. 

It wasn’t until the 16th century that European explorers, traveling to regions of the world unknown to them, began to see stars over lands they had never known, which in turn inspired them to start creating constellations of their own, based on the patterns they made up.

So here’s the rule of thumb: If it looks like what it’s named for, then it might be a constellation that belongs to 16th-century ideas, rather than to ancient concepts regarding our relationship to the stars.

Now, even though Jupiter and Saturn are at opposition to the sun this month, they join the lineup of planets that are visible in the morning, beginning with these two in the low in the southwest, and following on to Mars in the south-southwest, then brilliant Venus in the east, with Mercury joining the scene low in the east toward the end of the month.

Identify your best stargazing spot by day, avail yourself of a map for familiarizing yourself ahead of time with what you what you want to see, then gather up some stories and head to the stars.

GEAR TO GET YOU STARTED
Here are some of my best tips and favorite resources for finding your way around the summer sky in 2020:

First and foremost, a really good, clean star map, like MSU’s Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar. Just $12/year for one map each month, highlighting the best things to see each week on the calendar side, with a map of the whole night sky on the other side. Allows for planning — and building the excitement — before you find yourself out there in the dark. Available at www.abramsplanetarium.org/SkyCalendar/

A red filter on your flashlight, so you don’t disturb your night vision — or the views of anyone around you. Wrap red cellophane or even a red balloon over a regular white light, but test it out at home first.

A good pair of binoculars can be helpful, ranging in price from $80 to, well … the sky’s the limit. I particularly like the Vixen Optics 2.1x42 SG wide-angle binoculars, available at Enerdyne in Suttons Bay.

Though I much prefer maps to apps, there are a few night sky apps that are really impressive. Just always be sure to plan your viewing before you’re out in the dark, so you’re not wasting too much time looking at a screen instead of looking at the sky:

· Star Walk 2, and Star Walk for Kids, which uses your GPS location to calculate the exact position of the celestial objects from your location.

· I also like Distant Suns and Pocket Universe as apps that offer fun features.

· The International Space Station Tracker website is fun to check, especially if you want to impress friends and family with predicting its appearance beforehand: www.spotthestation.nasa.gov

The best guide of all to what’s in the northern hemisphere night sky is the Big Dipper, which is overhead every night and can lead you to the North Star, Polaris, while its handle also arcs to the bright star Arcturus, from where you can speed on to the star of abundance, Spica. And then there’s the back of the Lion, which is where the Dipper’s contents would spill if its cup leaked!

Following the Dipper’s pointer stars to Polaris allows leads you on to Cepheus the King — and Cassiopeia, his Queen. The Dipper’s position in the horizon can reveal the time of night and even the seasons of the year, plus the sweetest collection of three double stars, which skips along beneath this region of stars, known as the three leaps of the gazelle.

Want to learn more about the sky and its stories? Check out StorytellersNightSky.com — the website of “Star Lore Historian” Mary Stewart Adams — to stay abreast of upcoming star-gazing events, her audio recordings of her radio segment, and sign up for The Storyteller’s Night Sky newsletter, which delivers celestial updates to your email box. 

* Image above captured by photographer Libby Henderson at Lavender Hill Farm during Adams' “Giants of the Night Sky” program July 13.

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