Skywatch

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

by Linea Van Horn on April 1, 2012

Skywatch

If you’re reading these words, you are a person who has already tasted the mind-blowing and magical connection between the solid earth under your feet and ever-changing sky above your head. And you’re hungry for more, because, well, here you are, reading these words! How does one bring heaven down to earth and enjoy this feast, anyway? What’s the key to maximizing this belly laugh of the soul? The easiest, most direct way to feed this connection is the simple act of looking up at the sky at every opportunity, day and night, until it becomes as familiar and comfortable to you as your own neighborhood. How simple is that?

As a child, you didn’t learn your way around the block in one day, and you won’t learn your way around the sky in one night, either. It’s an ongoing and ever-fascinating process, and the more you learn, the more you want to know. By developing the habit of regularly looking up, anchoring yourself in the sky becomes a conscious practice rather than an occasional event.

There are certain activities that you’ll want to check out on a regular basis. One of these is to observe the Sun rise and/or set. This is pretty easy to incorporate into a daily or almost daily routine: if you’re an early riser, just watch where on your horizon the Sun rises. Same thing with sunset: take a moment to see where it’s setting. Just watch. What you’ll notice after a few weeks is that not only the time, but also the location of the rising and setting Sun changes. And after a few months, you’ll also see that these risings and settings actually change direction. Every time you watch the Sun on your horizon, you’re bringing heaven down to earth.

The constellations, or star patterns, are another regular sky feature. They are extremely seasonal: that is, specific stars and constellations show up at specific seasons. This relationship between the constellations and the seasons actually shifts very gradually over many thousands of years, but from a functional sky-watching level, we can depend upon the regular appearance of Orion in the winter and the Summer Triangle in July. Learn to identify these two very bright star patterns, along with the Big Dipper, and you will have all the tools you need to navigate comfortably around the sky. Not a big learning curve!

The Moon ought to be easy to figure out. She’s always there at night. Right? Not quite! A month of Moon watching will teach you what Shakespeare already knew; it is constantly changing. When Romeo swears by the Moon on his love for Juliet, she cries out “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circled orb!” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2). The fact is that the Moon is constantly shifting in size, in appearance, in speed, in her rising and setting. She’s visible in the day as well as the night and with so many permutations and variations in her cycles, it’s not always easy to sort out where she’s likely to be. Here’s a little known and handy fact to help you determine whether the Moon is waxing or waning; when the light is on the right side of the Moon, she is waxing and gaining in size. If the light is on the left side of the Moon, she is waning and getting smaller.

Other sky events are limited-time opportunities. You’ve got to make an effort to catch them while they’re there. A current case in point: the beautiful alignment of Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets, in the western sky after sunset. This lovely scene has now been unfolding for several weeks. Jupiter came down from above and Venus rose from below until they kissed in the sky in mid-March. Smooch! Now, Venus is higher than Jupiter, and both are still very bright. The monthly visitation of the crescent Moon only increases the beauty of the alignment. Soon, Jupiter will disappear into the rays of the Sun, and this lovely and fortuitous coming-together will be but a distant memory.

We’ll be able to enjoy the evening apparition of Venus for several more weeks, but it too is a temporary engagement. She’ll reach the end of her tether and will turn retrograde on May 16, heading back towards the Sun, and by the end of May she will disappear into his beams.

What follows several days later is an exceedingly special and rare alignment with the Sun, called a “transit,” in which the body of Venus, traveling in between earth and Sun, will actually cross the disc of the Sun from our perspective. These transits of Venus—not to be confused with the astrological term “transit” which refers to the current location and motion of planets—occur in pairs and are separated by over 100 years. This year’s transit on June 4 or 5, depending upon your location, is the second of the series, the first one occurring in 2004. [Ed. note, Daykeeper regulars, check out Maya's take on the 2004 Venus transit here.] It’s creating quite a buzz because it’s the last time the event will occur in our lifetimes, and historically was a key tool in determining certain astronomical measurements and calculations. Discussion about this rare alignment is sure to increase over the next few weeks, but if you want to find out more, check out this great website.

Transit of Venus

Transit of Venus across the sun, 2004

Mars is also visible these days, a reddish light high up in the sky in the late evening. He’s still retrograde, as discussed in my last column but will turn direct on Friday April 13. Although not particularly striking in appearance, it’s still quite easy to pick him out and observe that his energy is now particularly strong near the midnight hours when he is overhead and thus prominent.

There are a number of good websites to guide you in watching tonight’s sky. My favorites are: EarthSky and Sky and Telescope. There is always something fun at Shadow and Substance. Look up! Feel comfortable in the sky as if it’s your own neighborhood. Because it is!

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Linea Van Horn offers fundamental, intermediate and advanced astrology classes locally in the SF Bay Area, and online. Learn more here.

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