StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1068    FEBRUARY 5, 2017:   Sunglasses at Night
On Friday, February 10, we will witness a very strange lunar eclipse. Eclipses come in two basic “flavors.” Solar eclipses occur when the moon hides the sun. They are daytime events and require safe filtration while any part of the sun is visible. The next total solar eclipse for us is only months away, August 21 of this year, when the moon’s shadow sweeps across the country from coastal Oregon to South Carolina on the East Coast. For Pennsylvania and New Jersey about 80 percent of the sun will be covered by the moon, an event that will requre special filters to see throughout the entire eclipse. More about this later. On February 10 we get to witness the second broad category of eclipses, a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow blocking the moon, but this one will be decidedly different. If you could see the dark shadow of Earth projected into black space, you would observe a circular region where most of the sun’s light was completely blocked called the umbra, and a ring or washer-shaped area surrounding the umbra where the intensity of sunlight gradually diminished towards the umbra, a result of Earth blocking more and more of the sun’s light. This secondary shadow of Earth is called the penumbra. During this lunar eclipse, visible in the east, the moon only enters the penumbra of Earth, but the position of the moon at its maximum depth, 99 percent at 7:44 p.m., EST, is so close to the umbra that Luna will appear decidedly darkened (dusky) in this region. A very small portion of the moon, about one percent, opposite to this location will be exposed to full sunlight. The moon will look as if it is gradually losing light from one side to the other. If the moon is made into a clock, at maximum eclipse, Luna should be brightest at the 3:30 position and darkest at the 9:30 location. If you want to heighten the effect of the diminution of light, try wearing sunglasses to observe the moon. Remember the Cory Hart song lyrics, “I wear my sunglasses at night.” Well, here is your perfect opportunity to go Hollywood during the February 10 penumbral lunar eclipse. Clear skies to all!

1069    FEBRUARY 12, 2017:   America’s Crescent and Star—Part 1
On the morning of July 5, 1054 AD in the constellation of Taurus the Bull, a new star appeared to the right of a thin waning, crescent moon. The star brightened rapidly, becoming over twice the luminosity of Venus, now visible in the SW after sundown. It was seen in broad daylight for 23 days and remained visible, but fading, to the unaided eye for over one-and-half-years after its appearance. The remnants of this Type II supernova are still visible today in modest-sized telescopes under dark skies as the expanding debris of gas and dust known as the Crab Nebula. We know the date and location of the 1054 supernova because of the fastidious record-keeping of Chinese (and Japanese) astronomers (astrologers), but European records are virtually nonexistent with the possible exception of a gold, cup-shaped Byzantine coin commemorating the life of Constantine IX Monomachos who died on January 11, 1055 AD. The coin has two stars represented, but no moon. The crescent moon and star were also familiar to the Byzantines and cultural (not Islamic) symbols promoted by the Ottoman Empire (1300-1920). The crescent and star can still be found on the flags of many Islamic nations, but here is where the analogy may end—moon or sun/Venus, perhaps—but moon and supernova, probably not. Native Americans in the Southwest did symbolize the supernova event of 1054 AD in rock art drawings showing a crescent moon and a star. In fact, a friend, Alan Vernick, saw the same cipher inscribed on the Hopi’s (NE Arizona) most sacred sun-watching station when he was taken on a private tour by a Hopi resident. The most famous crescent and star in Native American rock art can be found on the underside of a ledge on West Mesa in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, near Nageezi, New Mexico. A hand is also incorporated into the drawing which has been shown through observation to have pointed to the moon when the supernova of 1054 was first seen. Check out “this week’s StarWatch” at for photos.

[West Mesa, Chaco Canyon]
View of West Mesa near the supernova pictograph in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, near Nageezi, New Mexico... Image by Gary A. Becker, 2012...

[West Mesa, Chaco Canyon]
West Mesa looking up at the 1054 AD supernova which is visible in the central region of the photograph. Image by Gary A. Becker 2012...

[Closeup of 1054 Supernova Pictograph]
Supernova Pictograph of 1054 up close: The hand has been shown through direct astronomical observations to point to the moon and the new star when the new star appeared. The round structures attached to the walls of West Mesa are the homes of mud swallows which are chased away by the Park Service to help preserve and keep visible the pictograph. Image by Gary A. Becker, 2012...

[Closeup of 1054 Supernova Pictograph]
The 1054 Supernova as it was seen on the morning of July 5, 1054 AD against the backdrop of a photograph of the eastern horizon and pictograph overhead. Full frame fisheye image and superimposed graphics by Gary A. Becker, 2012...

[Crab Nebula, Hubble Space Telescope]
The 1054 Supernova as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope...

1070    FEBRUARY 19, 2017:   America’s Crescent and Star—Part 2
I wanted to say a few more words about America’s crescent and star to bolster some of my claims that it was authentic and also to give a little more balance to the consideration that it was not a supernova. Last Thursday, I had my students on the Sky Deck of Collier, and they were treated to a sighting of the International Space Station. Hanging brilliantly above the ISS in the western sky was Venus. It just dazzled, taking command of the entire viewing area. Put a thin, waxing crescent moon in its vicinity, like we will have on the evening of February 28, and you will be able to observe a twilight rendition of the “supernova” pictograph. It will be a stunning view if weather conditions permit. Many archaeoastronomers feel this is exactly what the drawing under a West Mesa rock overhang in Chaco Canyon represents. The pictograph is also near Penasco Blanco, an Ancestral Puebloan town, but there is no evidence of a sun-watching station or any ceremonial altar above the pictograph’s location, a situation that is peculiar to a site that would have had this type of astronomical significance. The supernova was only two to three times brighter than Venus, but unlike Venus, the “new star” would not have changed its location in the sky. The Chinese record the event 12 hours later and placed the moon at the appropriate distance Luna would have traveled from the supernova during that interval. The pictograph’s “hand pointing to the moon” can be precisely documented because during an 18.61 year period, the same lunar phase repeats itself at the same time and sky location as the 1054 event. The observation was made on the morning when the moon’s location would have corresponded to the 1054 event. The Chacoan culture was also at its apex during this epoch. Most damaging to the Venus-Moon theory is a faded petroglyph/ pictograph of a series of circles with a wavy tail emanating behind it. Halley’s Comet made a spectacular appearance in 1066 AD and conceivably the same shaman could have inscribed both events on that canyon wall. Decide for yourself!

[Supernova Pictograph with Halley's Comet]
After the discovery of the 1054 Supernova pictograph in the mid-1970’s, archaeoastronomers were so entranced with its meaning that no one saw the very faded image of what might have been the 1066 return of Halley’s Comet painted and pecked below the supernova depiction. A decade went by before its discovery. The image of the comet is easily visible in this digitally enhanced photo through a boost in contrast. The comet has faded because it is exposed to direct sunlight each morning while the supernova pictograph remains virtually shaded at all times. Image and digital processing by Gary A. Becker...

1071    FEBRUARY 26, 2017:   Eclipse Dreaming
On August 21 the US will be treated to a total solar eclipse where the moon’s shadow will sweep from coast to coast. Last summer, my friend, Pete Detterline, and I traveled along the path of totality from central Nebraska to central Idaho and picked about a half-dozen excellent sites where we could view the event. Our main focus became Guernsey State Park in eastern Wyoming where statistically we have a 95 percent chance of successfully viewing the event under favorable conditions. I’ve been waiting for this eclipse for decades. The telescope that I will be using is set up in my study so that I can analyze all of the possibilities of capturing the 2 minutes and 13 seconds that I will be immersed within the moon’s shadow. I recently dreamed about this eclipse and would like to share some of its more sobering moments. Although Guernsey is completely open with a perfect sky, in my dream when I wake up on eclipse morning, there are trees everywhere, and they are growing rapidly. I calculate the arc of the sun and discover a spot which will be open during totality; but I have two hours before the eclipse begins and plenty of time to disassemble and reassemble my equipment right down to the last nut and screw to make certain that all is set for the big event. While I’m reassembling, a tree starts growing right in front of me, so I take the scope and all of the disassembled bits and pieces to a new location. I continue my reassembly efforts, but when I think the telescope and mount are fully together, I have a small cadre of brass nuts, bolts, and a couple of springs in my assembly tray. Heavens, where do they go? I hastily search and find the places where the missing pieces should be attached, but now racing towards the sun are high clouds coming in from the east. It is hopeless, looking down at my shirtless body, and realizing that I look surprisingly a lot like Tarzan. A school bus pulls up and out prance 27 women that look a great deal like Jane. “Me Tarzan, you Jane(s),” I speak. The heck with seeing this eclipse… I wake up. No eclipse! No girls! Another astronomical nightmare...!

[February Star Map]

[February Moon Phase Calendar]