The Stars Grow Brighter

you’ll see things changing if you bother to look up

Mike Paulus

The stars grow brighter. Standing here in Wisconsin on this half of the planet, the part we (for no good reason) call the top, the stars are getting easier to see. But it’s just beginning.

Every year at this time, from now and stretching into the mute night skies of winter, we can watch the stars grow sharp. They twinkle harder. It starts now because our planet is swinging around the sun in such a way as to point its Northern Hemisphere right into the spiral arm of the galaxy to which we belong.

It’s like walking directly under a streetlamp and looking up. For months.

I never used to notice the timing involved. For me, some nights were just nicer than others. Sometimes the sky was prettier, it sparkled more. It never mattered why. I don’t know why it matters now. But I guess it does.

Maybe this past summer you noticed the big orange star in the sky, up there to the south, nearish to the moon. It’s still there.

Don’t wish on that thing.

As most of you hopefully know, it’s not a star. It’s Mars. Every 2.2 years, Mars and the Earth end up on the same side of the sun, and sometimes we orbit in tighter trajectories than others. This year we’re only 35.8 million miles apart. This coziness allows us an intimate view of the red planet, which grows orange the closer it gets.

Mars was at its closest in late July, so unlike the actual stars, it’s fading. It’s almost done being the brightest body, but here in September it still stands out. A pumpkin in a field of fireflies. It won’t shine this bright again until 2035.

Maybe you thought Polaris, the North Star, was supposed to be the brightest thing up there besides the moon. It’s not. Navigationally speaking, it’s a pretty important ball of gas, but it’s not the brightest. It’s medium bright. It’s ranked lower on the brightness scale than dozens of other stars, including ones named “Peacock,” “Koo She,” and “Mimosa.”

It's embarrassing, really. 

And get this. Polaris isn’t even one star. It’s a system of at least three stars, all of them bound together by gravity, floating together some 433.8 light years away from us. This whole time, it’s been the North Stars.

But that’s OK. It’s not Polaris’ fault. As we learn more, we change our models, and our understanding expands. It’s the best way we know to grow closer to the universe.

Grade school models of the solar system left us with the impression our planets orbit in perfect circles. The reality is much messier. Or it would be if we weren’t spread so unthinkably far apart. At any rate, all the planets are flying around the sun in goofy egg-shaped patterns, all at different distances, all at different angles, over, under, around, spinning and spinning.

We are catawampus as all get out.

And the whole mess – the sun, the planets, and everything in between – is teetering through space together, a twirling jumble of imperfect spheres. And the whole galaxy is teetering through a universe of galaxies. And one day, I’m told, our galaxies will fly so far apart we may just forget about each other. The space beyond the Milky Way will sit empty. Because the light in the stars can no longer travel that far, and we won’t be able to see the next galaxy over. Galaxies, for all their enormity, will be less than a memories.

This slow, awkward parting will require an unimaginable amount of time. It’s hard to notice the distance as it grows. But we are always, always swirling away.

The galaxies keep saying goodbye. And we make our lives on the little dots hanging there in between the stars.