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Retro Rhythms!

Retrograde periods are like this Thomas Hart Benton hoedown --  they can send you into a swirl or take you down...

By John Townley

Awhile back, we compared the periodic retrograde motion of the planets to breathing tides, the ebb and flow of forward motion that creeps up, falls back a bit, then creeps yet farther up like waves on a rising tide. That’s a nice metaphor, but what is it that actually, physically happens to produce the tensions (or disruption of tensions) between the planets that retrograde periods clearly demonstrate in their effects on earth?

Actually, as it turns out, wave interaction may be not just a metaphor for what happens but the actual event itself. But to investigate that possibility, it’s important to know when retrograde motion occurs in the scheme of things.

For planets outside our orbit (Mars and out), retrograde motion occurs when we (Earth) get on the same side of the Sun as another planet and begin to catch up with it, so to speak. Since our orbit is smaller and we complete it more quickly, at a specific point (depending on our distance from the outer planet) we’re moving so fast it appears the other planet is moving backwards in comparison with the sky background. The same thing happens when you overtake another car on the road, if you’re on the inside of a circular track, where the inside track usually overtakes the outside. To extend the automotive image, we “leave ‘em in the dust, like they’re going in reverse”.

As we approach and pass an outer (superior) planet, it appears to move backwards against the deep sky.
For some animated examples, watch outer Mars retro, inner Mercury retro, or the whole, swirling geocentric dance

For planets inside our orbit (Mercury and Venus), it’s they who overtake us periodically when we are both on the same side of the Sun and for a brief time they seem like they are moving backwards. Actually, in both cases, each planet seems to be going backwards from the other’s point of view in relation to the perceived background. The same happens with cars on that circular track – each seems to be going backward against the background (which for one is on the same side of the track, and for the other the opposite side of the track – it doesn’t work that way for two cars moving in a straight line).

The difference is: the apparent retrograde motion of the outer viewed from the inner is the same in real time but proportionately different in relation to the length of each planet’s year. From Earth’s point of view, Jupiter is retrograde once a year (our year) for about 1/3 of our year. From Jupiter’s point of view, Earth regularly goes retro 11-12 times in its year, but for relatively brief parts of its year. In real time, however, they total up the same (1/3 of the total time).

In geocentric view of recent Venus retro, apparent reversal begins and ends with Venus nearly thirty degrees from the Sun

In heliocentric view of same dates, it happens on only a twelve degree separation. 

Well, as dizzying as that seems, it still just describes the relative positions of the planets (Earth and any other) and the visual view from each, not their interactive physical dynamics – which is where the waves come in. The wave we want to look at is actually described by the distance between the planets and whether they are closing in or drawing away from each other. It’s a gravitational pressure wave, and it’s real and strong – so strong that it changes (perturbs) the orbits of both planets as they pass each other. As they draw together (from the time they are on opposite sides of the Sun to the time they are closest, lined up, with the Sun opposite both) they are in relative free fall, or as close to it as their bound orbits allow. After their closest approach, the inner begins to pull away from the outer, increasing the gravitational tension between them. The heart of the period of retrograde motion (heliocentric conjunction) marks that switch in pressure, from decreasing to increasing, just like an acoustic pressure wave at its trough, or bottom. This is where, from the point of view of the inner planet, the outer planet is opposite the Sun, and from the point of view of the outer planet, when the inner planet is conjunct the Sun. For both, it is the bottom of the “exhale” period, where the least pressure applies, but also a point of instability (aligned with the L1 and L2 points) and change.

 In this very physical view, the retrograde station of a planet is a marker – like a tape cordon around a crime scene – indicating that an unstable period in that area is cutting in, so tread with care. Hey, when you’re looking at someone and suddenly the rest of the world starts to move backwards around you both, any fool would take warning that something is in the wind. And, the direct station is the other side of that crime scene, after the fact, announcing business as usual is returning. The shadow periods are precursors and exit indicators even farther away from the event.

After you "swing your partner" (l) in a dizzy retro twirl, you should come out into an easy "promenade" (r)

So what is the totality of the event itself, physically? It’s simply a rhythmic pulse, when the planets involved turn the beat around, so you’d better be ready to step lively and dance accordingly. The retrograde moment is when the caller announces “Swing your partner!” and you know you’re moving into a spin, as the background swirls dizzily around you. Follow it gracefully and knowingly, make your turn at the bottom, and when the caller cries “Promenade!” at the direct station, you’ll be on your way, in tune with the music and at one with the dance.

Looked at this way, a retrograde period is both a breather (like an ebbing wave or tide) and a call to get more engaged in the intricacies of life’s choreography, so you swing through and then out of it with an accomplished, showy spin and don’t simply trip over your feet because you weren't paying attention…


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