StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1163    DECEMBER 2, 2018:   Ready for Comet Wirtanen?
I make it a regular routine to go outside at least once an evening to check the sky. Last Friday, November 30, I saw Orion the Hunter, probably for the first time in several weeks. It startled me because I was actually expecting it to be overcast; but there it was, three belt stars, shoulder and knee stars, all sitting pretty in the south. The time was about midnight. There were gossamer patches of hazy sky, and the vapors from my exhalations hung in the air, telling me that the humidity was very nearly 100 percent. Clouds returned later that night. It got me to thinking about the actual chances of seeing Comet 46P/Wirtanen because December is the cloudiest time of the year for the East Coast, averaging about three clear-to-mostly-clear evenings per month. Late November and January are not that much better. What I have gleaned from a lifetime of interest in astronomy and making observations is that when an important event occurs, you prepare for it regardless of the meteorological expectations because if it is clear, you want to be able to take the picture or make the observation with a minimum of fuss and frustration. So make sure you’ve got the binoculars or camera and tripod ready and that you know how to operate them in the dark. I am going to concentrate on the two best evenings to make an observation, the 15th and 16th of December when Wirtanen will be passing the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. On both evenings the comet will be in the same binocular field of view as the Pleiades, which if it is clear, should make it relatively easy to spot if 46P/Wirtanen continues to brighten as expected. Currently, it is on track to do precisely that. If you are outside around 11 p.m., Orion will be in the southeastern sky, its three bright belt stars pointing upward towards a V-shaped grouping of stars, the head of Taurus the Bull. If you fire your imaginary rocket upwards, following the path of Orion’s belt, you will pass under Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus. In suburbia the “V” should be observable without optical aid on a clear night, but if not, use those trusty binoculars to spot it. Continue upward just a little farther, following the line of sight of Orion’s belt stars, and you will come across a gossamer clump of haze and dim luminaries. That will be the Pleiades, bright enough even to be visible from mid-sized towns. Use averted vision to make the Pleiades appear brighter. Check them out with binoculars, and you’ll see a tight grouping of dozens of blue stars, an indication that the Pleiades are relatively young, about 115 million years of age. Wirtanen will be on the Aldebaran side of the Pleiades on the nights of December 15 and 16. Here’s my prediction. The weather will be cooperative on both of these evenings, and everyone who dares to be ready and brave the cold will see a faint comet. More about Wirtanen in next week’s StarWatch.

1164    DECEMBER 9, 2018:   Big Week for Comet Wirtanen
Years past in the 1970’s right before Thanksgiving at the end of an astronomy class at William Allen High School, a student by the name of Tony asked if I had ever heard of a person named Whipple? At that time there was a popular TV commercial about a grocery sales clerk named Mr. Whipple who was always being reprimanded for squeezing the Charmin bathroom tissue in the supermarket in which he worked. “Don’t squeeze the Charmin” was the catchphrase. I responded to Tony by saying, “Isn’t he the guy that squeezes the Charmin?” I could see immediately by Tony’s posture that I had picked the wrong Whipple. So I countered by saying, “Dr. Fred Whipple, Mr. Comet, Harvard astronomer, the person who first postulated the dirty snowball theory about comets and explained the morphology of these hairy stars.” Tony lit up like a searchlight and then exclaimed enthusiastically, “He’s my uncle.” We talked for a while, and I gave Tony some suggestions regarding questions he might ask Fred Whipple. When I saw him in class after the holiday break, he said to me that he had made the biggest mistake of his life. Tony continued, “I asked my uncle what he did for a living, and three hours later, he was still talking about his work.” I love that story as much as I enjoy watching comets when they become bright enough to be seen at least with binoculars. Comet 46P/Wirtanen is such an object, and it’s due to make its best showing this week. There are some pros and cons about this comet, but I’ve found it from suburbia with binoculars and with minimal hassle. Wirtanen will be passing some prominent sky objects like the Pleiades which should make it easy for the general public to find with binoculars. A new map is included with this issue of StarWatch at Also read last week’s StarWatch. Wirtanen is a small comet; its nucleus is only about six blocks in diameter, and it has been around the sun many, many times, hence much of its “oomph” is gone. It’s icy core, however, has continued to outgas with hyperactivity, allowing ultraviolet energy from the sun to cause this gas to fluoresce or glow. The comet is passing very close to Earth, about 7.2 million miles, the tenth closest approach of a comet since 1950. The closeness of the comet will counteract its brightness because its nearness makes the object appear huge in the sky and that causes its brightness to be spread over a large area of the heavens, making Wirtanen’s actual surface brightness appear dim. I’ve seen 46P/Wirtanen on two recent nights, December 5 and 7, but I have found it well over a dozen times. I have also compared it with other objects like star clusters in Auriga and Gemini to see if there could be any confusion. There is none. Wirtanen is its own unique object, a fuzzy, low surface brightness “blob,” now about twice the diameter of the full moon. Wirtanen should remain a binocular object from suburbia, but it still has some brightening ahead of itself, about three times, which should improve visibility, but it will also get a little bigger as it makes its closest approach to Earth on December 17. Wirtanen’s increase in size will counteract some of its increase in brightness. Another nemesis, the moon, enters the scene on the 15th when it will be at first quarter, only about 1/12th the brightness of a full moon, but nonetheless adding luminescence to the Holiday heavens, diminishing the contrast between the sky and the comet, making Wirtanen more difficult to see until after moonset. Although this is not a flashy comet, 46P/Wirtanen is definitely worth seeing, and this is the week to make your best attempts at viewing it.

[Comet Wirtanen Locator Map]
The path of Comet 46P/Wirtanen during the time when it will be at its brightest is shown in this star chart. Although the size and shape of Wirtanen is shown correctly, the brightness of the comet is not. It will appear more like a greyish cotton ball and without the cyan color. Color only becomes apparent with longer exposures taken though a camera. Use binoculars to see Wirtanen because of its large size and faintness. Gary A. Becker map using Software Bisque’s The Sky.

1165    DECEMBER 16, 2018:   The Winter Triangle
If you look in the west, northwest right after dusk, you’ll notice the three bright luminaries of the Great Summer Triangle twinkling madly as they approach their demise with the horizon. Yes, on the cusp of winter, summer still lingers in the form of star patterns reminding us of temperate, verdant evenings filled with fireflies and warm breezes. In the southeast, rising as the Great Summer Triangle departs, is another group of three stars, Orion the Hunter’s Betelgeuse; Sirius, the Dog Star of Canis Major, the Big Dog; and Procyon, the Alpha Star of Canis Minor, the Smaller Dog, beginning their ascent and dominance over the cold, bleak midwinter landscape. Unlike the Great Summer Triangle, its winter counterpart is not preceded by the word “great,” even though the stars that comprise it are brighter than those of their summer rivals. That’s probably because the Winter Triangle is surrounded by a cornucopia of sparkling gems which diminish its impact. It also stands much lower in the southern sky and is visible for a shorter duration of time, whereas the Great Summer Triangle literally spans the zenith for an entire season. The brightest star of the Winter Triangle is also the brightest star of the night. Step aside, Polaris, the North Star, one of the biggest misconceptions that the general public has about the heavens, and welcome to blue-white Sirius. Yes, I’m really “serious” about this statement. Sirius and serious are pronounced the same way, but the star Sirius is over 23 times brighter than the North Star, and it is one of the closest luminaries to the sun, only 8.6 light years away. A light year is the distance that light travels in one year, about 5.9 trillion miles. Sirius is a “happy star,” spontaneously changing hydrogen into helium (mass into energy) in its core, a process that takes up about 90 percent of a star’s lifetime. However, because of its greater amount of matter, about 2.1 times that of the sun, its luminosity is about 26 times greater than Sol. Procyon, above Sirius and slightly to the east, is also a nearby star at 11.4 light years. It’s more evolved than Sirius or the sun, shining with a brightness of about seven Sols, and currently in the process of advancing from core hydrogen burning to the burning of hydrogen into helium in a thin shell surrounding its core. The word “burning” to astronomers is simply how all “living” stars maintain themselves, by fusing lighter elements into heavier ones to create the energy that overcomes the force of gravity wanting to collapse them. Finally, Betelgeuse, the red shoulder star of Orion and the most western member of the Winter Triangle is the true enigma of the triad. Astronomers know that it is a red, bright supergiant, but its distance, size, and mass are not known accurately. It may be 500 to 900 light years away, stretch as far as Saturn’s orbit if placed in the center of our solar system, and possess eight to 17 times the mass of our sun. Its luminosity could be as great as 100,000 suns. One fact that astronomers do agree upon is that this star is doomed, and its life could have ended already with the outward blast of a supernova headed our way. Not to worry, global warming still remains the most serious environmental threat of the moment, not Betelgeuse going supernova; but when humanity finally sees it, expect to witness the light of a gibbous moon concentrated into a pinpoint of luminescence in the night and daytime sky. What a show that will be!

[Winter-Summer Triangles]
The Great Summer Triangle is setting as the Winter Triangle rises. View the Great Summer Triangle right after dark when it is higher in the western sky. Likewise, the Winter Triangle can be better seen around midnight in the southeast during December. Gary A. Becker map using Software Bisque’s The Sky.

1166    DECEMBER 23, 2018:   Merry Christmas, Ole Saint “Mick”
Field experiences have always been an integral part of my teaching career. I’ve been involved in tens of thousands of them if you consider all of the lessons that I’ve taught in the Allentown School District Planetarium. I still maintain that getting learners away from the classroom and into an authentic encounter is the best way of cementing a concept into a student’s mind. Unique experiences are hard to forget. My current favorite is taking my Moravian astronomers to Shooting Star Farm, north of Quakertown, PA. There they get a chance to observe stars, galaxies, clusters, and nebulae from a dark sky locale through high-end telescopes that my astronomy buddies share with them. There’s dew on the grass and often a chill in the air. It’s the real deal. Likewise, I also partnered with Dieruff High School environmental studies teacher Daniel Schaffer, to develop 10-to-15-day field experiences specifically honed for our student outcomes. Because they were so specialized, they were built from the ground up requiring about six months of planning for each adventure. Keep in mind that this was at a time when landlines and snail mail ruled. I was the minutia guy making the hundreds of phone calls, meeting people, and executing an itinerary that let parents know exactly where their kids would be hour by hour. However, there was another way of organizing, and that was to work with an agency that specifically designed student tours. These trips were more generic in nature, suited mainly for English and Social Studies educators. The companies worked with thousands of teachers around the world, but our specialized field experiences just didn’t fit the template of the bigger agencies. It’s difficult to put into words the sheer exuberance of the day of departure, to witness all of the planning swing into action, to feel the electricity, the excitement emanating from the student participants, many of whom had never flown or been far away from home. You can also imagine the disappointment of a student group from Dieruff High School upon their arrival at Kennedy Airport, discovering that their flight to London had been overbooked, and they were being sent home to be placed on standby. English teacher, John Bannon, was the lead chaperone on that trip. It was a crushing, tear-filled ride back for the kids. Students were told to be ready in a heartbeat to assemble and return to the airport when seats became available on another flight. Sure enough, John got the call around 4 a.m. the following day that a plane with sufficient seating had been secured. However, upon arrival at Kennedy International, the jet that would ferry them to Europe was much smaller than anyone expected. It was the supersonic Concord. For some reason in their excitement, a group of Dieruff girls scrambled in front of John during boarding, and as they led the group down the narrow aisleway towards their seats, there was a bit of a commotion and screaming that ensued. John was completely clueless even as he approached the teens jumping up and down next to Rolling Stones’ rocker, Mick Jagger, who was also booked on the flight. When Dieruff’s newspaper, The Leader, chronicled the trip near the end of the school year, there were no pictures of London Bridge, Stonehenge, Stratford-upon-Avon or the Tower. It was all about Jagger. The teachers commented on his graciousness, how he took the time to talk with the students, and how he allowed them to take as many pictures as they wanted. Merry Christmas, Ole Saint “Mick,” and continue to keep on rocking.

1167    DECEMBER 30, 2018:   Lee Butz: Star Salesman
The following article appeared in the "Town Square" section of the December 5 issue of the Morning Call, NEWS 16.

I wanted to extend my congratulations to Mr. Lee Butz, chairman of the board of Alvin H. Butz, Inc., for his successful efforts to bring life back into the future reopening of the Allentown School District Planetarium. During 17 of my 38 years teaching in the planetarium, the Board of School Directors instructed me to raise the necessary funding to operate the facility or it would be closed. During those nearly two decades, I was able to accrue $170,000 from evening programming and public donations, all of it without District reimbursement for my time. Lee raised over a quarter of a million dollars in just six weeks. I have to say that I’m just a little envious of his abilities, but both of us managed to keep the stars shining for the students in Allentown, for me in the past, for Lee and his friends, a brighter future for ASD pupils with the Learning Dome.

However, there is a warning that comes in tandem with this adulation and Lee Butz seem to understand this. The excitement that will be a part of the new Learning Dome will eventually fade, and along with it the funding to keep it operational, so money must be put aside to keep the program viable for future generations. I salute that effort.

When the ASD Planetarium opened its doors in the fall of 1965 under the very capable leadership of Robert (Mike) Brown, the community excitement was so great that a second person, Richard Garger, was hired the following year. When Garger moved into administration in 1972, I came on board as the assistant director, becoming director in 1978 when Mike Brown became an administrator at Allen High School. John Peterson then became the assistant director. By 1979 the District was already putting pressure on the planetarium even though John and I showed administration a continued positive growth in program usage was occurring. After 1980, when John Peterson was released from service, it became one struggle after another as district officials slowly tried to erode the program until the only recourse that was afforded to me by the school board in 1993 was to raise the necessary operating expenses to keep the program sustainable. I did just that, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. It was an incredibly satisfying experience to be released from the purse strings of the District and to become independent of the many rules that guide a large public organization. The planetarium continued to flourish due to hard work on my part and an incredibly supportive public, including The Morning Call, that came to my rescue whenever disaster threatened. Time and time again, it was truly a community effort that saved the ASD Planetarium, and I will always be grateful for that unwavering support. I had a wonderful career teaching the subject that I loved in Allentown and continue to live that dream today as an astronomy educator at Moravian College.

However, less self-adulation… I need to return to Mr. Lee Butz. During the darkest days of my teaching career, when the District was aggressively trying to close the planetarium, a letter arrived from Alvin H. Butz, Inc. It was on a Friday as I recall. Inside was an unsolicited note of encouragement and a check for $500 from Mr. Butz. In subsequent conversations, Lee said that if I ever needed financial support to keep the planetarium operational, he would get his “buddies” together to help. I pledged to myself that I would never let that happen, and I’m proud to say that it never did, but it was a wonderful safety net to have that extra support. When I told Lee about this story in early November, he had no recollection of the donation or of the inspiration that he had provided to me so long ago. I was one of so many, but to me it was a lifesaver, similar to the “Starfish in the Sea” parable. I was the starfish washed up along the shore, and Lee helped to threw me back into the ocean to survive. Now he and his friends have done the same for this wonderful Allentown School District program. Thank you, Lee Butz and friends for performing this small miracle which will benefit so many.

[ASD Planetarium 2005]
The ASD Planetarium on the last day of school for teachers in 2005. Volunteering for the National Park Service in Bryce Canyon, Utah as a Night Sky Interpreter lay ahead for that summer. Gary A. Becker composite image.

[December Star Map]

[December Moon Phase Calendar]