Hey, Sky Fans! This is kind of a long post. I hope you’ll read through.
One night, many years ago, my not-yet-wife and I were wandering around San Francisco. We lived there at the time, and we were out walking our dog. San Francisco’s famous hills can be a bit tricky sometimes. If you’re new to the city, as we were, it’s easy to be thrown off by them. On a street map, which I’ve hung onto like a life preserver any time I’ve moved to a new city, “wallet, keys, phone, map,” the hills are all flattened out; smoothed and erased to make room for the grid of intersections.
This sometimes makes for some exciting trips across town. Driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood you might be surprised when you come to an impromptu dangling precipice overlooking the bay or the ocean in one direction in another, with the nose of your car perched impossibly at a stop sign. Thanks to the map being willfully agnostic about it all, you’re there without even a hint that the cross-street you’re looking for is just over the peak. The feeling of being in a dentist’s chair sometimes becomes very familiar.
As we walked around what was our new home, the street became steeper and steeper. “Come on! Just a little farther!” We encouraged each other. Up and up we went, passing one tilted apartment building and slanted driveway after another.
Near the top, we decided it was a good spot to take a break and then head back down, toward home. The bright, busy part of the neighborhood had given way to a much more quiet residential area, and we had a nearly full view of the sky in all directions. To the east, beyond the Bay Bridge and the hills and derricks of Oakland, we could see the Moon rising near some bright stars. More were overhead, and even more behind us, to the west. As we caught our breath, I figured out which stars were which and quietly pointed them out to myself.
It was quite a sight, and quite a moment to soak in. There we were, the three of us, at this strange point in our lives: new city, new apartment, all of it. Looking out, that gorgeous sky was about the only shred of familiarity. Admittedly, Millie probably didn’t think much of it. She was always much more stoic than I am, but it was a moment that I didn’t want to walk away from as quickly as she did when she started pulling at the leash.
A couple nights ago, thousands of miles and thousands of nights later, the east-coast overcast took a break, and I stepped out to have a look at the sky a couple of times. These late days of spring are an unusual time to look up. That night in San Francisco was just around this time of year, so it’s with a certain amount of sepia in my memory that I go out and to see what I can see.
Spring is a transitional season on its own, but as late spring arrives and hands the keys to the night over to summer, we’re treated to the stars of three seasons, some coming, some going, sprinkled over the dome. The moving geometry of these seasonal asterisms — these unofficial but recognizable groups of stars — twists and changes from one night to the next. This moment we have now, to see three seasons in one day (with all due respect to Neil Finn) is a great time to be a fan of astronomy.
First, the stars of Orion and Taurus, the real hotshots of winter, have already split the scene, and left the Winter Circle reduced to just a tilted and tired arc, stretching for the finish. If you can, look low in the western skies for a while after dark. You’ll see Castor and Pollux, the bright stars of Gemini, the twins, along with Capella the brightest star in Auriga, to their right, and Procyon, in Canis Minor, to their left.
Then, high and toward the west, you can use the Big Dipper to find the three stars of the Spring Triangle. Following the curve, or the arc, of the Dipper’s handle away from the bowl, you can draw a line, and, as the mnemonic goes, “arc to Arcturus.” Arcturus is the brightest star in the kite-shaped asterism of Boötes, the herdsman. It’s one of my favorite stars in the whole night sky. From there, continue that same line, and “Spike to Spica,” the brightest in Virgo, a star that many people pronounce “SPEAK-a,” thereby crassly ruining that part of the mnemonic. The planet Jupiter will be nearby and very bright. Then, you can draw a line through the two stars in the end of the Dipper’s bowl and use them “leap to Leo,” the lion, where you’ll find Regulus, the Little King. Tonight’s Moon is nearby as you can see in the screenshot below.
And, if you time it just right, toward the northeast, you can see Vega, in Lyra, the lyre, the fifth brightest in the entire night sky, rising into the night. It’ll be right between the two birds that soar across the summer sky, Cygnus, the swan, and Aquila, the eagle, and their brightest stars: Deneb and Altair. These stars of the Summer Triangle will rise higher and earlier night after night, and be an amazing sight as the July swelter settles in.
It’s frightening to think about how many times the skies have turned over and reset since that night. How many times the Moon has drifted across, and how many times I’ve noticed, drawn the shapes, and annoyed my kids by pointing those stars out to them. It’s a wonderful thing to look for and remember though. Maybe you can find the time to track them down, too, and see three seasons’ stars at once.
Clear skies, everyone!