StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

AUGUST  2012


Print Large Sky Charts For 10 p.m. EDT:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]
Current Solar X-rays:  
Current Geomagnetic Field:  
Status Current Moon Phase
833    AUGUST 5, 2012:   Perseids to Party
One of the great astronomical joys of the summer is the anticipation of Perseid meteors glittering through the starry heavens. This shower blossoms annually when the Earth passes near the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle and encounters the debris left behind by this interloper which passes near the sun every 130 years. When the moon is favorable, like this year, it has been a tradition for me to lie out in a comfortable sleeping bag on a ground tarp and enjoy the show. Serious meteor observing isn’t for the fainthearted. It involves being vigilant over numerous hours of time, recording the frequency of shooting stars every 10 minutes, and refraining from distractions like music or intense conversation. However, you don’t have to be a serious observer to enjoy the Perseids, although a little bit of insomnia won’t hurt. This year, the activity maxes on Sunday morning with rates of about 60 meteors per hour, but Friday night into Saturday morning will also produce enjoyable numbers of speedy, bright meteors. There is no need to go outside right after it gets dark. Before midnight, meteor events are like raindrops splashing against the back window of a moving vehicle. Most drops miss the glass. After midnight, however, the Earth spins into the Perseid swarm and our local view becomes more exciting, similar to looking through the front windshield of a car moving through a downpour. Meteor can pop. If you are going to host a Perseid party, make sure that when the observing begins, cots and sleeping bags face northeast. Lie back and watch the sky overhead because normally that is where it is the darkest. At midnight, meteors will seem to radiate skyward from low in the NE, but by dawn, the constellation of Perseus the Hero will be much higher in the sky, allowing observers to catch meteors diverging from all directions. A map locating the Perseid radiant is online at

[2010 Perseid Radiant Map]
Perseid meteors will be flying all through the weeks of August 5 and the 12. Maximum night for the US will fall on the morning of August 12. This map is set for about midnight. Software Bisque graphics by Gary A. Becker...

834    AUGUST 12, 2012:   Mars on Earth
It rained “on Mars” today, a virtual downpour, complete with lightning, thunder, and huge, cold drops that turned the red Utah desert into a myriad of dendritic rivulets which fused into ruddy brown streams that had to be traversed by my Saturn “rover.” By the time that Boyertown School Dist. Planetarium Director, Peter Detterline, and I had reached the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah, my Bridgestone tires were rimmed by an inch or more of smooth, pebbly sludge. Mars had abundant water 3-1/2 billion years ago, and the five miles of mire that we plodded through to get to the Mars Habitat may have been a common occurrence to those simple microbes which exobiologists believe populated the watery basins of Mars so long ago. Now the real Martian landscape looks desert dry, its water either frozen on the polar caps, hidden near its surface, or liquid at depth. Unlike NASA’s Curiosity minivan, just beginning its multiyear journey of discovery on the Martian surface, the MDRS, is a two-story tuna can-shaped habitat which was constructed by the non-profit Mars Society in late 2001. It has been a cost effective alternative for exploring Mars-like terrain on the Earth in a similar fashion as to how astronauts might survey Mars sometime in the future. Another scientific facility, the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS), was constructed in 2000 and is located on Devon Island in Canada’s Baffin Bay. It has been in operation since 2001. Staring at my vision of Mars, the Utah badlands, from the second floor crew quarters of the MDRS, I can see an undulating landscape of red, white, and brown striated hills. There is no vegetation in sight. Albeit the blue, cloud-specked sky, I am witness to a similar terrain that will be greeting the first human explorers of the Red Planet. Yes, I am finally on Mars.

[Dawn on Mar]
Red Dawn on Mars: The Mars Habitat near Hanksville, Utah, operated by the Mars Society, offers volunteers a chance to discover what life would be like on the Red Planet. My 12 days on Mars were spent moving an observatory to a new location. Here, Peter Detterline of Douglassville, PA, Mission Leader of the refit crew, works with the telescope and mounting system of the new Musk Observatory at daybreak. In the background are Venus (brightest), Jupiter, and the Pleiades. Photo by Gary A. Becker...

835    AUGUST 19, 2012:   Dusk, Dawn Highlights Planets and Moon
All of the planets, along with the moon, are on display this week if you are willing to observe the dusk and dawn sky. The more traditional evening viewers will see a thin crescent moon emerging from the WSW on Monday or Tuesday about 45 minutes after sundown. The young moon during late summer and fall is very elusive because its orbital path is positioned close to the horizon. Although the moon maintains its eastward trudge against the background of stars, it gains very little in the way of altitude above the horizon. So for nearly a week, after its new phase, its setting times do not vary greatly. However, if you happen to catch the crescent moon on Tuesday, you’re in for real treat. Above Luna will be two planets, Mars (slightly left) along with Saturn, and immediately to the moon’s right will be found the blue supergiant Spica. Spica, Mars, and Saturn are all bright if seen against a black sky; however, because of twilight observing conditions, coupled with their low altitude, binoculars will make the view more memorable. Switch to dawn about 45 minutes before sunrise, and behold the landscape created by Jupiter and Venus (lower and brighter). They dominate the morning sky, including the winter group of constellations rising along with them. Scanning with binoculars to the right of Jupiter will reveal the V-shaped head of Taurus the Bull. To Jupiter’s left is Capella, the sixth brightest star of the night. Castor and Pollux of the Gemini Twins can be found to the left of Venus, while to its right, Betelgeuse, and the star pattern of Orion are highlighted. Below Orion’s belt and very near to the horizon will be the Dog Star, Sirius. To Sirius’ left will be Procyon. Mercury is also emerging to Procyon’s left, below Castor and Pollux, and it is the faintest object of the current horizon huggers. View the Messenger God with binoculars before it succumbs to the morning twilight.

836    AUGUST 26, 2012:   Blue Moon Shining on Me
While listening to an Elvis Presley CD, my attention was riveted to one of his songs, “Blue Moon.” Richard Rodgers’s, another famous song writer, also wrote about the blue moon. Both Presley’s and Rodger’s renditions of the blue moon were negative. In the Presley song, Elvis is pining about lost or future loves while Rodgers is writing about the “bad in every man.” But there is an astronomical definition of a blue moon which carries no emotional stigma. Here the blue moon is the second full moon of a month, a condition that occurs once every two or three years and twice in a single year when a blue moon falls in January, and then again in March. Since the moon requires 29-1/2 days to complete its phase cycle, no blue moon could ever happen in February, since even in a leap year, there are only 29 days. Yet it wasn’t always that way. The origin of our modern concept of a blue moon really occurred as an error made in a 1946 issue of “Sky and Telescope” magazine. Data garnered from the “Maine Farmers’ Almanac—1937” was interpreted incorrectly and became our modern concept of the blue moon. In a normal year there are 12 full moons, but every couple of years, an extra full moon must occur. The “Maine Farmers’ Almanac” divided the year into four lunar seasons with each full moon having a name. The first full moon of year was called the Moon after Yule, followed by the Wolf Moon, and then the Lenten Moon. A fourth full moon added into the mix would cause the full moon names to become out of synch with the seasons. To correct for this error, the third full moon in the sequence became known as the blue moon, thus keeping the run of full moon names always in step with the seasons. The first full moon in August occurred late on the first. A second full moon, a blue moon, happens early on Friday, August 31.

[August Star Map]

[August Moon Phase Calendar]