StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]


327    DECEMBER 1, 2002:   Leonids Wrap
Comments made about the Leonid meteor shower by Paul Carpenter in his November 22nd article entitled "One Spectacle May Improve the Human Herd," B1, served as the inspiration for this week's column. In an hour's worth of observing from the Blue Mountain Ski Area, Mr. Carpenter witnessed only two meteors. However, they were memorable, one coursing halfway across the sky, an Earth-grazer, a Leonid meteoroid that was entering the atmosphere tangent to his observing location. Paul was definitely a happy camper. Even though the meteors were sparse, the zestful bantering among my friends and the expectancy of what the next hour could bring, kept me alert and on an adrenalin high all night. All totaled, I saw 28 Leonids before finally crashing at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Dieruff senior, Henry Huynh, saw 15 Leonids from his backyard in Allentown between 5-6 a.m., while freshman, Emily Plessl, traveled to the summit of South Mountain and saw 28 meteors in 80 minutes of observing ending at 6:05 a.m. Allen senior, Nick Lukow, seemed to have the best success witnessing 12 Leonids from Cetronia between 11 and 11:40 p.m. Monday, and 25 meteors from Allentown's Rose Garden from 5:30 to 6:10 a.m. Tuesday. But many of my students who had no way of escaping center city lights, including Dieruff junior, Alberto Salce, who recently moved into town from the Bronx, saw nothing. Still their mood was not pessimistic. More importantly, they and everyone else who viewed the Leonids were part of a real time science experiment. Even though the predictions for high rates were not achieved, the experiment was not a failure. When the Leonids roar or meow next time in 2098, we'll certainly be closer to the mark because of what we learned in 2002.

328    DECEMBER 8, 2002:   Venus: Star of Bethlehem Look-Alike
If you think that Thursday's snow made nearly 17,000 Allentown School District pupils exuberant, you might consider that teachers also went bananas upon hearing about the school closings. It is utterly impossible to separate the kid from the teacher when the white stuff starts to tumble from the sky. But if this recent spat of winter-like weather has not gotten you into the Holiday mood, then maybe I can suggest a more celestial approach that will add an extra dash of glitter to this season of light. You may have previously seen it low in the east on the morning of November 19, while trying to catch Leonid meteors, shining like a yellowish diamond against the reddening dawn sky. It caught me by surprise earlier last week when shrouded in a robe and flip-flops, I shivered into the morning air to behold brilliant Venus. It is an excellent Star of Bethlehem look-alike glimmering in the brightening eastern sky. Venus had been the most prominent member of the grand parade of planets seen last spring. At this time and for months before, Venus had been far from the Earth on the backside of the sun, inching away from Sol during winter, spring, and summer. Finally, Venus made the turn in its orbit, raced back passing between the Earth and the sun on October 31, and rapidly gained prominence in the morning sky. Because Venus closed to within a scant 25 million miles from Earth, it disappeared from the evening sky and reemerged as the bright morning star in only a few weeks. Find the goddess of beauty around 6 a.m. in the southeast and see if Venus doesn't provide you with just that little extra bit of Holiday cheer. If you can't manage to get up that early, Venus' snowy portrait is in the StarWatch section of the URL listed below. Happy Holidays to all!
[Venus and Mars]
Star of Bethlehem?: Venus brings an extra touch of Holiday spirit to the dawn sky. Venus will be prominently placed in the east until late February 2003. To Venus' right is Mars, which will become eminent late this summer. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

329    DECEMBER 15, 2002:   Mars Direct
Venus remains bright in the SE around 6 a.m., but just to its right is Mars. Mars is presently a glimmer of the spectacle it will become next summer when Earth passes close to the Red Planet in late August. Mars will be the first planet that humans explore, and it will probably happen within the next 25 years. The plan that NASA has adopted is practical and doable with today's technology at a price tag of 40 billion dollars, the same cost which propelled us to the moon in 1969, but in 2002 dollars. The mover behind the Mars Direct Plan is Dr. Robert Zubrin, an aeronautical engineer and President of the Mars Society, who sold NASA on his plan several years ago. Instead of traveling to Mars in a highly complicated rocket containing all of the supplies necessary for returning to Earth, Zubrin envisions first sending the return vehicle to the Martian surface. This ship would contain the manufacturing plant which would use Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere to convert six tons of liquid hydrogen gel into 108 tons of methane-oxygen fuel necessary for the return trip. Next, a crew of four astronauts would be sent along with a second empty return vehicle 26 months later, after the first return vehicle was fully fueled and operational. The voyagers would travel in a simple, but sturdy tuna can-shaped craft, 16 feet high by 27 feet in diameter, the living quarters and workshop which would land next to the original return vehicle. If for some fluke the landing were more than 600 miles off target, the second automated fuel making plant would be used as the rescue ship to make the propellant and provide the accommodations for the return trip. It puts that little red world currently next to Venus in the SE in a whole different light. More about this visionary plan next week.
[Mars Direct]
Mars Direct: We are going to Mars, and this is what the first Mars habitat may look like if Robert Zubrin has his way. The taller smaller return vehicle, which makes its own fuel for the homeward journey of six months, is to the right. Mars Society drawing...

330    DECEMBER 22, 2002:   Christmas on Mars
Looking from my pod window across the desolate Martian landscape, I can see it is reddened by fine sand which occasionally swirls and puffs in the wind-driven air. The temperature is nearly 90 degrees below zero in the early morning sunlight. There is a stark beauty here which beckons further exploration. I can see my boot prints from yesterday's EVA amid the craggy dark boulders which pepper the soil for as far as the eye can see. A half-mile away, a low rise, the rim of a small crater gouged into Mars a billion years ago by some wayward house-sized rock, draws my attention upward into a creamy rose-colored sky. The scenery is bleached in red. Perhaps one day there will be green here also. It is the first Christmas on Mars experienced by humans. I can only fantasize about what it will be like, but my good friend and teaching colleague, Peter Detterline, Director of the Boyertown Planetarium in Gilbertsville, PA will be one step closer to that reality when he looks from his pod window this Wednesday morning and experiences his first Christmas from the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah, near Hanksville. The scene will have some green in it, the blue sky, and breathable air, but Pete's surroundings will still have many of the stark qualities that humans will expect to find on their first mission to Mars. An avid observer, who spent the last five years completing the construction of a robotic observatory, Peter is charged with achieving the same goal in a mere two weeks while at the Mars Station. Thank goodness he sighed, "I will be out of simulation when working," but Peter's responsibilities will also involve extra vehicular sojourns with other crewmembers in full spacesuit regalia. What an adventure, Christmas on Mars!
[Mars Desert Research Station]
Follow Peter Detterline's work as he strives to get the Mars Society Observatory operational during the next two weeks. Detterline, director of the Boyertown Planetarium, in Gilbertsville, PA, Montgomery County, is overseeing the work to install the telescope for the Mars Desert Research Station, Crew 10.
[Mars Desert Research Station]

331    DECEMBER 29, 2002:   Heaven's Best for 2003
It has become tradition for this column to look ahead into the forthcoming year and describe some of the astronomical highlights that will be visible to residents of the Lehigh Valley. Foremost on the "To View" list for heavenly sights are two total lunar eclipses, one occurring on May 15-16 and the other happening on November 8. I consider both of these events primetime because they will be taking place when most of us are normally awake. They are also shallow eclipses, meaning that at mid-totality when the moon is deepest into Earth's shadow, a good portion of the lunar limb (edge) will still be near the boundary of the shadow. This should produce bright and colorful eclipses turning the lunar landscape into a palette of browns, reds, oranges, and even yellows. Low power telescopic views will enhance these hues, so hold onto that scope if you received one as a holiday gift. On May 7, Lehigh Valley residents will awaken to a sunrise transit of the planet Mercury. As the sun breaks the eastern horizon, Mercury, will be seen near the upper right limb of the sun, an event that will only be visible with optical aid. You will need to use your scope to project the image of the sun onto a white sheet of paper or better yet purchase a front-end solar filter that will reduce the sun's intensity before its light even enters your telescope. Finally, you'll be able to witness an astronomical event that has not been seen as well since Biblical times. This summer Earth will be nearing Mars while Mars will be at its closest distance to the sun. The result will be a spectacular opposition of Mars on August 28 when the Earth-Mars distance will shrink to 34 million miles. Telescopic images of the Red Planet will be stunning, and Mars will be shining at its absolute brightest.

December Star Map

December Moon Phase Calendar