StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

AUGUST  2011


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781    AUGUST 7, 2011:   See Pluto Tonight!
This evening, the planet Pluto—oops—dwarf planet Pluto is visible in the evening sky 6.6319 degrees to the northeast of Kaus Borealis in the constellation of Sagittarius. We have a local weather channel that highlights nighttime and daytime astronomical events in such a fashion and maybe your viewing area has one too. Actually, it’s a good station. The weather information is usually right on target, but as an astronomer reading this stellar hype, I often have to chuckle because it may be correct, but it is entirely useless. Let me tell you what it takes to make a visual observation of Pluto. I have only seen the former planet twice in my life, when it actually was a planet, and on two consecutive evenings. This is how my friend, Tommy Taylor, a retired lawyer from Boston, and I did it. The first qualifier for visually seeing Pluto is a really dark, clear sky. Suburban areas like mine just don’t hack it for visual work, although photographically it would not be too difficult. The second qualifier is a big telescope which allows the eye to absorb thousands of times more light than normal. I saw Pluto through a 25-inch scope at Chaco Canyon near Nageezi, NM a decade ago. In this case the telescope gave me over 8,000 times more light than a normal, fully dark-adapted eye, allowing me to see objects faint enough to reveal Pluto. A computer generated chart told Tommy where Pluto was located. Tommy then utilized the map and its brighter luminaries to find that locale, but specifically did not identify Pluto. Then he hand drew a map of the stars in the telescope’s field of view, and I verified their positions. We then waited for the next evening which fortunately proved to be clear, and Tommy repeated the same procedure. When we compared the telescopic field with the first map, one of the fainter stars had moved. Pluto had been discovered 71 years too late.

782    AUGUST 14, 2011:   My North Star
I have something in common with Christopher Columbus. We both flubbed finding the North Star. For Columbus, it was all about navigation—knowing how far north of the equator he was. Polaris could provide him with that information. For me, it was all about setting up my telescope and aligning it so that one of the axes was pointing precisely at the North Celestial Pole, very near Polaris. Sue and I were enjoying 11 days in New England, nine of them at Oceanside Meadows Inn, a wonderful B&B in Down East Maine where it really gets incredibly dark. Not all nights were clear, but there were three spectacular days which evolved into clear evenings. When I set up my computerized scope, I incorrectly read my inclinometer. That’s a device that allows me to change the polar axis of the mount to the correct altitude of Polaris at my specific location. When all other adjustments are made properly, a computer in my control paddle automatically slews the telescope to wherever I want it to go. Give the computer bad information and you go nowhere. As it got darker, I picked out my North Star, made all the precise calibrations and went nowhere. Through my sighting telescope there were so many stars brighter than the way Polaris appears from my home in PA that I was really confused. I could look up and see plainly the North Star, but I couldn’t find it in the alignment telescope. When I figured my error and found the real North Star, it simply dominated the field. The next two hours were spent getting the camera, filters, and exposures adjusted for the first real picture. At 1 a.m., I took a six minute exposure of the Andromeda Galaxy. The camera processed the image and viola, there it was—gorgeous. In my euphoria, the dew-drenched control panel slipped from my fingers. The scope went spastic. A happy ending followed several days later, but not on that particular morning. I simply went to bed and tried to forget.

[Great Galaxy in Andromeda]
Happy ending... Twenty-six hours later, I received another controller for my telescope from Vixen Optical near LA. The next three nights were cloudy, but August 5 was radiantly clear and I spent most of the evening imaging. Here is a six minute digital photo that I took of the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda is our closest galactic neighbor in space that looks like our galaxy, the Milky Way. Gary A. Becker picture taken from Oceanside Meadows Inn near Prospect Harbor, Maine...

783    AUGUST 21, 2011:   Zodiacal Light Night
Reediting some of my astrophotos the other day, I came across an image of the zodiacal light which I had taken in 2005 at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, PA. Potter is in the center of Pennsylvania’s northern tier of counties which represent some of the darkest areas of the Mid-Atlantic, just the right conditions for photographing the cone-shaped zodiacal light, minute particles of dust that lie in the plane of our solar system. The dust is from the tails of countless comets reflecting (scattering) sunlight back into the eyes of the observer. It was September 3, 2005 when friend and meteorologist Adam Jones suggested that we “crash” the annual Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs because the night was going to be exceptionally clear. Adam was also a pilot, and Cherry Springs just happened to have a grass airstrip. So off we went, the Cessna loaded with equipment for a night of anticipated viewing. When we landed after our 75 minute flight, there were hundreds of people at the site, as many telescopes, and a sky that promised to be a real winner. I brought my “new” Canon 20D, a tripod, and enough battery power to last the night. Someone interested in my camera lent me their telescope for an hour, so I could take guided images, but most of my shots were done with simply a “camera on a stick.” By 4 a.m., I might have been the only observer still imaging the sky. It was very quiet, cold, and dewy, but the camera was working fine. I began taking a series of images near the eastern horizon as Orion rose above silhouetted conifers. It was then that I noticed the coned zodiacal light climbing ever higher into the morning sky, intersecting a sideways Orion and the winter Milky Way. It was the icing on the cake of a perfect night. Around 5 a.m., I remember collapsing into my sleeping bag thoroughly exhausted from eight hours of glittering starscapes. Photos are online.

[Zodiacal Light from Cherry Springs State Park]
The zodiacal light, the cone-shaped band of luminescence moving skyward from lower center left to upper center right, competes with the winter Milky Way as it crosses left of Orion the Hunter from upper center left to lower center right. The two in combination make what looks like a giant "X" in the eastern sky. Gary A. Becker image from Cherry Springs State Park, Potter County, PA, 3:45 a.m., September 4, 2005…

784    AUGUST 28, 2011:   Summer/Winter in the Same Night
Besides the onset of the school term, late August for me has always represented the time of the year when an observer can still see the best of the summer sky in the early evening, catch all of the fall constellations throughout the night, and watch the rising of the Winter Group with bright Orion the Hunter right before dawn. Another case for a grand sweep can be made for the latter half of March and early April, when after sundown the winter constellations still shine brightly in the west and southwest, followed by the spring star patterns for most of the night, and ending at dawn with the summer constellations in the east. There is, however, a problem with the second observing scenario. Try spending quality time outdoors after dark in March at a mid-latitude site, when clear evenings herald temperatures dropping into the mid-twenties with a lower wind-chill to boot. That’s why August and the beginning of September are so special. A clear night will usually foster little in the way of wind and usually not much dew. Temperatures will be more heartening, bottoming somewhere between the low 50’s and the mid-60’s. Right after dark from rural locales, the double banded summer Milky Way cuts the horizon just to the west of south. Its misty light straddles the sky, passing nearly overhead, ultimately disappearing into the NE. That is summer at its finest. Go to bed and set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. Outside, a colorful sideways Orion will be an easy target, just south of east, its three bright belt stars pointing towards the horizon with red Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel cattycorner to each other. Above the Hunter will be the “V” outlining the head of Taurus the Bull, and still higher the gossamer Pleiades or Seven Sisters. To Orion’s left will be the head stars of the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux (brighter) and Mars (reddish). The bright “star” due south will be none other than the giant, Jupiter. Good viewing!

[Winter Stars in the Summer]
Winter stars can be seen in the summertime by going outside just before dawn. Summer's finest can be witnessed just after dark in early September. See the map below. Go outside at 9:00 p.m. rather than 10:00 p.m. to see the same sky as in mid-August. This week the moon will not be in the sky. Gary A. Becker maps using Software Bisque's The Sky...

[August Star Map]

[August Moon Phase Calendar]