StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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



275   DECEMBER 2, 2001:    Leonids in Review
The number of people in the greater Lehigh Valley who viewed the Leonid meteor storm of November 18 probably numbered in the tens of thousands. From those who meticulously planned their observing night to individuals who simply sat by windows and watched from indoors, few went away unimpressed. The ability to predict this event so precisely lends new credibility to the science of meteor astronomy and the hundreds of amateur astronomers collecting the data. Jack and Elaine McCambridge after being clouded over in Emmaus drove to Hope Church cemetery in Lower Milford Township. "We saw hundreds... They fell in groups of five to 10 everywhere we looked." Adam R. Jones of Allentown, viewing just south of Bake Oven Knob, reported counts as high as 40 shooting stars per minute with a broad peak occurring around 5:15 a.m. His total tally for two hours was 1200. Bernard Kita and his wife counted 341 Leonids between 3:45-6 a.m. despite high clouds. Allen Student, Ben Hobaugh, viewing south of Allentown counted 10-15 meteors per minute between 4:30-5 a.m. Rates near center city Allentown were also high as reported by Dieruff senior, Sara Sperlbaum, who observed between 4-5 Leonids per minute during a 30 minute period ending at 5 a.m. Dieruff senior, Cory Chapkovich, saw over 100 meteors while delivering newspapers in East Allentown. Jon Rush of Coopersburg wrote, "From my backyard in Lower Milford, I saw 796 [Leonids] between 3:45-6:15 a.m. Around 5:30 a.m. I saw 100 in 12 minutes." Geminid meteors fly next week, but they won't storm. More Leonid reports plus a great picture of Leonid meteors taken by Glen Hacker of Reading can be found below. Check them out!

[Leonid Meteors]
Glen Hacker of Reading, PA video recorded these bright Leonid meteors using an image intensifier about 10 miles west of Allentown on the morning of November 18th. The bright star to the lower left is really the planet Jupiter. Composite image created by Gary A. Becker.


Jack and Elaine McCambridge got clouded out in their hometown of Emmaus. They drove up to Hope Church cemetery in Lower Milford Township. The church sits on top of a hill. Jack wrote, "The show... was unbelievable. We got there at 4:40 a.m. and stayed until sunrise." Sky conditions remained clear. Jack noted that the entire sky was filled with shooting stars. "We saw hundreds... They fell in groups of five to 10 everywhere we looked."

Adam R. Jones of Allentown went about 20 miles northwest of the city, near Bake Oven Knob to his mother's farm where he luckily escaped the fog until 5:45 a.m. On the average, Adam noted a meteor count of 10-15 shooting stars per minute for one and one half hours starting about 3:55 a.m. Adam reported counts as high as 40 meteors per minute and noted a broad peak around 5:15 a.m., which was right on target with predictions. Adam's total count for the morning was about 1200 meteors

Michael Stump of Allentown was in Stone Creek State Park near Media, PA. Even with the light pollution of the Greater Philadelphia area brightening his sky, Mike managed to see 40 Leonids between 4:30-4:45 a.m., 50 meteors between 5:00-5:15 a.m., and 89 shooting stars between 5:30-5:45 a.m.

Bernard Kita and his wife counted 341 meteors between 3:45 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. from their observing site in Lower Nazareth Township near Hecktown. Three hundred Leonids were observed between 4-5 a.m. Bernard writes, "We had no clouds until 5 a.m., but even after that, we could still see the occasional fireball, even through the thin clouds. Most of the [meteors] were dazzling..., and many left parallel and double trails. I was surprised to see double tails. Many also had extremely bright heads. A few appeared to arrive head on, leaving only a very short trail, but appearing suddenly as a very bright light. At other times, we had three and four trails visible simultaneously. It was an incredible show, the experience of a lifetime. Thank you for advising everyone to see it."

Mark Burkhardt reports that 27 Members of The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg went to the club's Weiser State Forest site and were greeted by 2,500 meteors. Most of them were very bright. The group did experience some fog, but it cleared out as soon as it came in. Burkhardt noted that they even had meteors illuminate the fog. It looked like a flashbulb going off. There was one fireball had that was recorded at -10 magnitude, which is about 200 times brighter than Venus. That meteor left a luminous train that lasted for three minutes.

Allen astronomy students, Jocelyn Arce, Daniel Devlin, Cathryn Edwards, Daisha Hernandez, Ben Hobaugh, Abby Hoff, Mary Miller, and Travis Knerr, noted varying amounts of activity throughout the night. Hernandez, viewing from a center city rooftop between 2-4 a.m., noted many multiple events with sometimes as many as three meteors in the sky at once. Hobaugh, observing from south of Allentown, saw 10-15 meteors per minute between 4:30-5:00 a.m. Edwards viewing from center city Allentown, saw 37 meteors from 4-5:15 a.m. Knerr saw a meteor per minute between 5-5:15 a.m. Miller, coming home from Slatington about midnight, saw 10 shooting stars from her car, then continued observing "some very amazing meteors" from the city until 3 a.m. Probably the most interesting observation came from Abby Hoff who viewed from 3-5:30 a.m. She noted hundreds of events. Near the end of her observing session, the meteors became very colorful with numerous blue/green meteors witnessed.

Kristy Radcliffe of Quakertown, observing with friends near Lake Nockamixon in Haycock Township, also noted colorful meteors and photographed several of them around 5:00 a.m. Her best example appears below.

[Rainbow Leonid]


Dieruff astronomy students, Cory Chapkovich, Jenny Cernobyl, Kristina Grob, Michael Kadas, Ramia Kamaria, Nicole Kuzma, Jennifer Orendach, Katherine Salazar, Joshua Shaffer, Sara Sperlbaum, and Ryan Wasser also were meteor hunting on Sunday morning. Shaffer, calling in his report from the light drenched campus of MIT near Boston, saw a disappointing five meteors from 2:30-3 a.m. but heard from other individuals that the sky action picked up towards dawn. Similarly, Orendach saw only 12 meteors from 2-3 a.m. Grob and Cernobyl saw 44 Leonids between 2:15-3:15 a.m., while Kuzma witnessed 32 meteors from 2:15-3:30 a.m. Kamaria observed over 100 Leonids from her window and then from the roof of her house. All five women were sky watching from East Allentown. Kadas and Wasser saw over 100 shooting stars near Lake Nockamixon from 4-4:30 a.m., while Cory Chapkovich noted over 100 meteors while delivering newspapers. Finally, Sara Sperlbaum saw between 4-5 meteors per minute during her half-hour center city shift which ended at 5 a.m.

Sam Borso, as reported by Dieruff student Stephen Hopkins, saw 622 Leonids between 4-6 a.m. from South Mountain. Hopkins saw 50 meteors while delivering papers on his route which is near the Fairgrounds in Allentown.

Jon Rush of Coopersburg wrote that, "From my backyard in Lower Milford, I saw 796 [Leonids] from 3:45 a.m. to 6:15 a.m. That included time away to wake my wife and son to see the spectacle. During one flurry [of activity] around 5:30 a.m., I saw 100 in 12 minutes. I was so excited that I forgot to check my count at ten minutes. The clouds rolled in around 5:45 a.m. and rolled right out again. Even when they were there, they were thin enough that I could see the meteors right through them. I saw two bolides. One was heading NW at around 5:45 a.m., and one was heading almost due east at around 4 a.m. BTW, thanks for the column."

Nick Knisely reported from the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society on South Mountain that "At 3:45 a.m. things started to get truly lovely, so we set ourselves up in... lawn chairs and started counting rates for a minute... or so. Viewing was okay, given the relatively urban setting, with transparency down to about +4.5 magnitude and calm atmosphere and high humidity. We counted rates increasing from around 2-3 a minute to about 14 a minute getting close to 4:30 a.m. At 4:45 a.m. we had high clouds start to scud across the sky, and I gave up formal counting... At our peak around 5:30 a.m. or so, we were seeing a couple of bright Leonids a minute, some so bright that they lit up the domes like a lightning flash, as well as many smaller Leonids. We saw a number of truly lovely simultaneous events. The best part was that two or three atmospheric skipping meteors were seen as well." There were about 70 people present by dawn including 30 of Knisely's Lehigh University astronomy students.

According to Joe Zelinski there were more like 150 people at the headquarters of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society by dawn on November 18th. He noted that when he arrived at 1:00 a.m. there were two individuals from Bethlehem who had already been observing for the past two hours. Their Leonids total for 1:00 a.m. was already in the mid-70s. By dawn they had reached a count of 622. Zelinski noted "the skies were excellent until about 4:30 a.m. when thin, high clouds rolled in and out during a period of 10 minutes. This happened about twice more before dawn. Meanwhile, a steady stream of people continued to arrive, until by 4:30 a.m. the parking lot was nearly full, and cars were parking in the driveway and the road. By peak hour, 5:00 a.m., there were probably in excess of 150 people watching the show, including several stalwart club members who had became clouded out at the club's dark sky site, Pulpit Rock Astronomical Park."

Peter Detterline, director of the Boyertown (PA) School District Planetarium observed from California and saw 1,007 for the night in 5.5 hours of observing. His highest hourly count was 393 meteors.

Dave and MaryEllen Strout write, "from our vantage point at a park just off of Market Street in Bethlehem, my wife and I observed 403 meteors between the hours of 4:30 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. We saw 100 [Leonids] from 5:00 a.m. to about 5:15 a.m. They were beautiful--full trails that sparkled yellow-greenish-orange. I teach at Warren Hills in Jersey, and I'm a big sky watcher. Did you know that on a very quiet night you can hear meteors as [they shoot through] the atmosphere? It's faint, but detectable!"


276   DECEMBER 9, 2001:    Here Come the Geminids
We will have one more shot at the Leonids in 2002, but for now, our focus will shift to another wonderful meteoric event which builds during this week and crests on Thursday evening into Friday morning. It's the Geminid meteor shower. Everyone assumes that the Perseid shower of August is the big meteor event that can be counted upon year after year. But over the past half-century, Geminid meteors, radiating from near Castor, the head of the mortal Gemini twin, have been gaining strength and now dominate the annual parade of comet dust trails that the Earth intersects. Whereas the Perseids max with rates of 40-60 meteors per hour, lately the Geminids have been consistently producing 60 to 120 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. And Geminid meteors are easy to spot, with an average brightness equaling the stars of the Big Dipper. Observations on Wednesday or Thursday will yield lower rates, but even brighter meteors than on the evening of maximum. Geminids also "burn in" at slower velocities than the Leonids, so the meteor event lasts many times longer. Still, Geminid durations are measured in fractions of a second. Oddly enough the parent body of the Geminids is an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon, with an identical orbit to the Geminid meteor stream. Discovered in 1983 by IRAS, a satellite which looked at the sky in the heat sensitive infrared, Phaethon was an important milestone because astronomers had long speculated that some asteroids were actually comets in disguise that had been perturbed by the gravity of Jupiter into asteroid-like orbits. You can see Geminid meteors all night, but the action is usually better after midnight when the radiant is higher in the sky. Consult the meteor map that can be found at this week's web StarWatch.

[Geminid Meteors]


277   DECEMBER 16, 2001:     Yule Lights
It is just past midnight on Saturday morning, and this week's StarWatch waits to be written. My wife, Susan, and I had just returned from a late dinner at Bubba's, north of Quakertown. With Christmas less then two weeks away, Coopersburg has taken on a festive look with sparkling icicles hanging from the eaves of nearly every roof, colored lights, and twinkling reindeer. Most of my block is lavishly decorated. You can tell where the local astronomer lives, that bi-level with the bordering conifers shrouded in somber darkness amongst the Holiday cheer. The pines create little oases of darkness where I can peer into the heavens. I park my Tracker and open the door. As soon as my feet touch the driveway stone made soggy from a day of steady rain, I am aware of several things that are severely out of joint. Trees moan from a December sounding wind, despite the air being temperate with the woodsy smell of spring. But even stranger still is the sky, awash with the glittering pantheon of winter's finest. There are stars that I have not seen from my backyard in years, plainly visible, and star figures for which I can account for every member. The Pleiades look like a beautiful tiny, little dipper, and Orion's sword contains the smudge of its famous nebula. I can see the faint eyes of the Big Dog, and Lepus, the Hare plainly crouches below the feet of the Hunter. Amidst the festive lights of the Yule sky dazzle Jupiter and Saturn, both near record brilliance, but shining with a steadier light. Why is it so dark, I muse? In addition to the air being cleansed by the day's rain, distant clouds diminish Allentown's dome of light. The beauty of the stars awakens my Holiday spirit and decorates my soul in their celestial lights. Peace to all!


278   DECEMBER 23, 2001:    Saturn Occultation/Lunar Eclipse End Year
The last 45 days have been an extraordinary time for observational astronomy, even though clouds locally masked some of the events. It all kicked off with the Leonids on the morning of November 18. You'll probably never again have the opportunity of seeing so many meteors in such a short time interval. The next time the Leonids are predicted to storm is around 2099. The bright winter group of constellations returned to the sky, and along with them, Jupiter and Saturn, both near record brilliance. The moon occulted Saturn during the early evening of November 30, but scudding clouds and soggy ground prevented many would-be observers from seeing this event. The Saturn occultation is repeating itself on Friday morning, but the timing is far less convenient. The moon begins covering Saturn at 4:02 a.m., but you'll need to be setup and watching at least 15 minutes beforehand. Binoculars or telescopes are a must. The moon will be low in the WNW, at an altitude of 13 degrees, so an unobstructed horizon is necessary too. It will take about 90 seconds for Saturn to disappear. Thirty-five minutes later, Saturn emerges against the lit surface, which will now be six degrees lower. The swan song to this year's observing calendar happens on Sunday morning, December 30, when the full moon enters the penumbral shadow of the earth. You'll need only to peak from a window that faces west at 5:30 a.m. to see the lower left portion of the moon appearing slightly darker than the upper right. The moon never enters the primary shadow of Earth; an astronaut on the moon would see only part of the Earth covering part of the sun. A nice visual caveat will be Jupiter, less than three degrees from the eclipsed moon.


279   DECEMBER 30, 2001:     What's In Store for 2002?
The astronomical events that lie ahead in 2002 will seem tame to those of the past two months and the year since Christmas 2000 when we saw the last deep partial solar eclipse. There are no solar eclipses visible from the Lehigh Valley during 2002, and only one penumbral lunar eclipse which occurs on the evening of November 19th. From the perspective of the moon, the Earth never completely hides the sun, so the moon will never enter into the true shadow of the Earth. The moon will appear to have a dusky look near the upper left of its disk. Maximum eclipse is happily in the early evening at 8:49 p.m. Perhaps the most anticipated event of the year occurs only a day and a half earlier, during the morning hours of November 18. The East Coast is again poised for an intense return of Leonid meteors. However, it is doubtful that rates will approach those of this past November. The nearly full moon will drench the sky in its unfriendly light virtually all night. After 1 a.m. observers will be able to face Leo rising in the east with the moon's harsh glare away from direct view. Late April through early May presents a wonderful opportunity to view five planets with the unaided eye. About one hour after sundown, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter line up like a string of pearls in the west. The grouping tightens by May 5 with Mercury nearly nine degrees above the horizon, and Saturn, Mars, and brilliant Venus forming a small, nearly perfect equilateral triangle with sides about the same width as the belt of Orion. Mercury makes another good appearance near mid-October. Venus will dominate the late spring and early summer sky as Jupiter and Saturn depart. February 20 sees an almost first quarter moon hide Saturn around 7:23 p.m. high in the south.


December Star Map

December Moon Phase Calendar