StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



Print Large Sky Charts For 9 p.m. EST:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]
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Status Current Moon Phase
1063    JANUARY 1, 2017:   Good Start to the New Year
The first week of the New Year begins with some interesting early evening visual and binocular observations. Check out Venus on January 1 as soon as it gets dark. The Goddess of Beauty will be found directly above and to the left of a thin, horned 14 percent waxing crescent moon. Look for earthshine with binoculars, the light reflected from the moon’s surface by a nearly full Earth. It will give the unlit portion of the moon a ghostly appearance. If the night is exceptionally clear, you’ll be able to see this ashen light with the unaided eye, and a reddish, fainter “star” above and just to the left of Venus. You will be witnessing the planet Mars. Train your binoculars upon Mars and look just below and to the right of the Red Planet, about the same angular distance that the horns of the moon appear separated through your binoculars. You should see a faint starlike object. That will be distant Neptune, mathematically and independently predicted (1845) by John Adams (English) and Urbain Leverrier (French), but officially discovered by the German astronomer Johann Galle in 1846. Galileo recorded Neptune in December of 1612 and again in January of 1613 while observing Jupiter, but he didn’t make the connection. If Sunday proves cloudy, another chance to view Neptune awaits on January 2 when the distance between Mars and Neptune will have grown twice as great, just over a degree. The 21 percent lit, waxing crescent moon will also be found in the same field of view. Likewise, but a little more difficult to view, will be Venus and the moon in the same field of view. Wide-angle binoculars will prove helpful here. By January 5, the first quarter moon will be stationed five degrees under the planet Uranus. As the moon keeps jogging east over the next three days, watch as it approaches Aldebaran, the yellow-orangey alpha star of Taurus the Bull. The moon is to the right of Aldebaran on the 8th and to Aldebaran’s left by January 9.

[Mars passes Neptune]
Mars was separated from Neptune on the night of January 1, 2017 by just over one-half degree. Compare the map below with the picture above to see that stars of +13 magnitude were recorded in just 20 seconds. A Tele-Vue 101mm, F/7 refractor was mated to a Canon 80DSLR at ASA 400. Image by Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg, PA...
[Mars passes Neptune]

1064    JANUARY 8, 2017:   So You Want to Go to Space…?
What is it like to go into outer space? I’ve read a lot of insightful descriptions: the years and years of training, so that your tasks are so tightly choreographed that it almost becomes as natural as breathing, the intimidation of the machinery that will take you into space, and the fact that any mistake can be fatal. Space is unforgiving and to be unprepared is to face certain death. Mike Massimino in Spaceman, Crown Archetype, New York, 2016, probably has provided the most personal portrayal of his first day in space. He was a Mission Specialist/Spacewalker on STS-109, launched on March 1, 2002, the fourth mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. “Mass,” as he was nicknamed by his fellow astronauts, wanted to go to space his entire life. Mass wrote, “And you feel horrible, absolutely terrible. Adjusting your body to space is painful.” Bodily fluids shift. “In space [fluids are] are free to float up to your head. Everybody’s face was red and flushed and puffy.” Astronauts feel as if they have unending sinus blockage. Food also loses its taste. “…Your spine elongates—again, because there’s no gravity keeping it compressed. You grow about an inch in space, and all those sensitive muscles in your back have to stretch and adjust. That’s painful too.” But the worst is probably the nausea induced by the fact that “your eyes… are telling your brain that you’re moving, and your inner ear [is] telling your brain that you’re still, because your inner ear [fluids don’t] move when you’re weightless.” Since there is no up or down in space, performing a summersault feels like you are remaining perfectly motionless while the interior of the ship is whirling around you “which causes the worst vomit-inducing feeling of vertigo you’ve ever experienced.” Normally after a few days, the nausea subsides, but about a third of all Shuttle astronauts suffered from queasiness throughout their entire mission. Having participated in scores of small aircraft parabolas, where weightlessness is induced for about five seconds, I know that I’d be in the perpetually “not so pretty group” if I went to space. I’m glad to be living on terra firma.

1065    JANUARY 15, 2017:   Rock on, Orion!
The winter constellations are all ablaze during the next two months, and foremost on the list of any frosty evening is the Winter Group with its premier pattern, Orion the Hunter, nearly due south at 9 p.m. Most recognizable are his three bright belt stars in a close, straight, upward tilt: Mintaka (upper right), Alnilam (center), and Alnitak. In South America, they are called the Three Marys, but in reality, they are part of an association of very hot, young, super luminous stars that were born at the same time and live in the same stellar neighborhood. Above and to the belt’s left is Betelgeuse, a red supergiant, the brightest star of its type in the sky, just about ready to go supernova. Its rival is Antares of Scorpius, a summer constellation. When Betelgeuse detonates, between now and perhaps a million years into the future, its brilliance will rival that of a gibbous moon, but seen as a pinpoint of light in the sky. To Betelgeuse’s right is Bellatrix, another young, hot blue star, only 250 light years from the sun and recently born into the rich mix of gas and dust that populates the Orion region of space. Below Bellatrix is Rigel, the brightest blue supergiant star in the heavens. Rigel, at 860 light years distant, shines with a luminosity of 85,000 suns, and is the size of Mercury’s orbit. Like most of the stars that compose the outline of the hunter, Rigel will probably go supernova in the next several million years. Left of Rigel is Saiph, another stellar powerhouse 720 light years distant, and radiating some 65,000 times the energy of the sun. While being dazzled by the bright stars of Orion’s torso, do not forget to view his sword hanging below the belt stars. All three components are clusters of stars by themselves, but the most famous, the fuzzy “star” at the sword’s center is the Orion Nebula. It represents the location of the youngest active region of stellar birth in the galaxy. Binoculars will easily show its nebular characteristics. Rock on, Orion!

1066    JANUARY 22, 2017:   The Three Marys: Stellar Role Models
Years ago, early in my teaching career, after concluding a planetarium program about the winter constellations, one of my students talked to me about the three belt stars of Orion: Mintaka, Alnitak, and Alnilam. She said that in her country, Ecuador, they were called The Three Marys (Las Tres Marias). After my first initiation to this asterism, a group of stars as famous as a constellation, but really just a part of an officially sanctioned star pattern, more students made similar comments until I began to incorporate The Three Marys into my constellation lessons, especially when I was speaking to older, predominantly Hispanic groups; but who these three biblical Marys were still remains a mystery, partly because of the commonality of this Hebrew name. Were they the three women at the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter, Mary Magdalene (one of my favorite biblical characters), Mary of Clopas, and Mary Salome, or the three Marys present at the crucifixion, Mary the mother of Jesus, and again, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Clopas? They were risk takers, gutsy individuals. Christ always had an entourage of women following him during his short, but prolific ministry on Earth, and in the early Church, women played a central role; but gradually as Christianity formalized, women became less powerful as they were gradually downplayed into minor characters by the male priesthood, except for Mary, the mother of Christ. In solidarity with the demonstrations for women’s rights being conducted throughout the nation and the world, The Three Marys composing Orion’s belt couldn’t be more appropriate. They are powerhouses of stars. Mintaka (upper right) shines with the luminosity of 180,000 suns, Alnilam (center) radiates with a brightness of 375,000 Sols, and Alnitak (lower left) 100,000 suns. If these stars were only pink, but The Three Marys are blue giants, and blue in astronomy means young and impressive, similar to whom these women really were!

1067    JANUARY 29, 2017:   Venus, Mars, Moon Mingle in SW
A beautiful display of our two closest neighboring planets, dazzling Venus and ruddy Mars, and our nearest neighbor in space, the silvery moon, awaits viewing during the early part of this week. On January 30, watch for a thin, nine percent lit, waxing crescent moon low in the WSW in deep twilight about 45 minutes after sundown. After looking at the moon, don’t go inside just yet. Watch as it gets darker and look slightly away from Luna, so that the rods of your eyes which are more sensitive to light are observing the moon. You might be able to detect the ashen light of the entire lunar disk, created by the reflected light from a nearly full Earth, almost 80 times brighter than a full moon, reflecting the “shine” of Earth back to us from the unlit portions of the moon. This ghostly illumination called earthshine is a marvelous sight that will be easily enhanced if you own binoculars and allow your eyes to “gulp” in the extra light that they will gather. Tuesday evening will even be better because the moon will have moved to a much higher location above the horizon, allowing the earthshine to be viewed in a completely dark sky. The moon will also be mingling with Venus and Mars, the trio visible in the same field through most binoculars; however, do not let a lack of optical aid keep you indoors. The grouping will dazzle the evening sky and probably be part of the conversation of westward bound motorists as they return home from work. By February 1, the moon, Mars, and Venus stand like soldiers in a straight line above the SW after dusk. You’ll still be able to catch earthshine on the moon if atmospheric conditions are clear enough, but the thickening crescent and its increase in brightness will make this more of a binocular event after Wednesday. One final note, star groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, debuts his famous but mostly inaccurate weather forecast concerning winter’s duration on February 2. Phil’s correctness rating stands at 39 percent (Stormfax). Here’s still hoping for an early spring!

[January Star Map]

[January Moon Phase Calendar]