StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]
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494    FEBRUARY 5, 2006:   "Doc"
I simply called him “Doc.” As a first year teacher in the Allentown School District, his elegant style and his devotion to chemistry was a true inspiration to me. He loved astronomy which made us instant buddies. After my first period class, I’d sometimes find myself irresistibly drawn to his classroom on the third floor of Allen’s Main Building or later in the Linden Wing just to listen for a few moments. His lessons flowed like honey, often in the form of stories, laced with personal anecdotes experienced along the pathways of his life. Sometimes he was a prankster, testing my knowledge with obscure facts, but more often Doc was like the Pied Piper. I simply wanted to follow him around to hear what he had to say next. One morning in the spring of 1973, I arrived at work in a somber mood. My friend, Stan Wilkes, and I had just received notice that our booking to Africa to see the total solar eclipse of June 30 had been cancelled. Doc, was also taking Allen students to see the same eclipse aboard the ship Canberra departing from New York City. Doc looked at me with a concerned smile and simply said, “Let me see what I can do.” Moments later, using something I had never seen before, a phone card, Doc was talking to a representative of P & O. In a deep, authoritative voice he announced that he was bringing the largest single contingency of passengers on board the Canberra. Doc then continued with, “I have two friends…” That evening upon returning home from school, a drawing of a ship under an eclipse was taped to the door of my room. Wings soared upward from cabin C252 with $827.50 inscribed between its feathers. With 2,000 people on a waitlist, the cabin was mine. My friend “Doc,” Dr. Willard S. Clewell, Jr., passed away January 23 at the age of 85.

[The moon and Venus]

495    FEBRUARY 12, 2006:   Mercury Rising
Mercury was aptly named the Messenger, for this tiny world skirts around the sun in only 88 days, and returns to the same configuration with respect to Sol in only 116 days. Mercury makes appearances into the evening and morning skies three to four times a year. It is a real mover, so if you miss one elongation, let’s say in the evening, the next appearance of Mercury in the morning sky will occur about two months later. Of course, waking yourself about 90 minutes before sunrise can be just a little grueling on the day’s routine. Not so for this current apparition... Mercury is positioned to the east of the sun, allowing visibility in the west after sundown. Throughout this week, Mercury will become easier to spot as it climbs steadily higher into the evening sky. By week’s end, look slightly left of the most intense area of horizon glow about 30 minutes after sunset. Your observing location must have an excellent west, unencumbered by trees, buildings, or horizon hugging clouds. Since Mercury will be bright, it really doesn’t matter if you are viewing from a high-rise in town or from a rural locale. Sky clarity and a good western horizon are the key ingredients. The use of binoculars will be an added plus for better confirmation. If a bright, star like object is seen near the western horizon during the next three weeks, it will be Mercury. During the week of February 19, Mercury attains its greatest angular distance from the sun, setting approximately 90 minutes after sundown through the end of the month. With good visibility over such an extended swath of time, the weather will have to cooperate on a least one evening. By March 3, Mercury has turned the corner and is rapidly heading back towards the sun and invisibility.

Mercury is for Lovers and will be visible in the evening sky from Valentine's Day through early March. The map shows Mercury's location about 45 minutes after sunset near the end of February. Graphics by Gary A. Becker...

496    FEBRUARY 19, 2006:   Spring: It's Just Around the Corner
Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but spring is just around the corner. Sure, you’re saying! We have just experienced the heaviest snowfall of the season, and this weekend feels more like windswept Fairbanks than Miami. The weather may still be wintry, but did you notice how quickly the snow melted off the roadways and pavements from last week’s storm? That is a certain sign of increased solar energy from a sun that is climbing higher into the sky each day. In fact, today at noon the sun is 12 degrees higher in the south than it was two months ago on the date of the winter solstice, December 21. By the end of this week Sol has climbed an additional two degrees. If that argument is not persuasive enough, then observe the nighttime sky. By darkness at 7 p.m., Orion, with its three famous equally bright and equally separated belt stars, is due south and mid-sky. In the northeast the Big Dipper is beginning to make its annual ascent, handle down, cup up! Give the Earth an additional three hours of spinning, and the firmament will take on a decidedly vernal appearance. The Dipper’s handle arcs gracefully downward to a reddish Arcturus of Bootes the Herdsman, near the eastern horizon. The Pointer Stars, or top two stars of the Dipper, which help to locate the North Star, point in the opposite direction to spring’s Leo the Lion, high in the southeast. To Leo’s right is bright Saturn, now positioned due south by 10 p.m. Looking farther to the right, the luminous winter group of constellations, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Major are beginning to crowd the western horizon, literally on the way out. It’s a sure sign of change when the bright stars of winter give way to the fainter luminaries in the east, proclaiming spring.

Mercury's movement during the course of a single day is evident by its change in position with respect to the two brightest stars in the pictures above and below. The brighter star to Mercury's left in the lower picture is SAO 164639, and to Mercury's right is SAO 145539. They are above the cloud in the first photograph. Both stars are found in the constellation of Aquarius and shine at magnitude +5.56. Digital photography from Cooperburg, PA using a Canon D20 by Gary A. Becker...

Mercury trails in this six second exposure taken at a focal length of 300mm on February 23 from Coopersburg, PA. The faintest star visible in the photo, below and to Mercury's right, is +6.35 magnitude SAO 146733. Canon D20 digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

Mercury was photographed under spectacularly clear sky conditions on the evening of February 24 near Coopersburg, PA. Canon D20 digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

497    FEBRUARY 26, 2006:   A Stretch of a "Tail"
High in the northeast by 9 p.m. is the Big Dipper decked out in its spring-like pose of handle down, cup up. Officially, the “BD” represents the greater of the two bears, Ursa Major. The Dipper’s handle becomes the long bushy tail, while the cup transforms itself into the bear’s body. Firing an imaginary arrow leftward from the “BD’s” two top Pointer Stars, Dubhe and Merak, brings you to the North Star, the brightest luminary of the Little Dipper or Little Bear, Ursa Minor. Binoculars will reveal the downward and right-handed sweep of the “LB’s” tail and the small cup which easily fits into the field of view. The Little Bear is really Arcas, the unfortunate teenage son of Zeus (Jupiter), king of the gods, and his earthly mistress Callisto, now known as the Great Bear. Obviously something went horribly wrong, and it was Zeus’s jealous wife Hera who interfered. It should have been divorce time, but Hera was on a power trip being married to Zeus. Instead, she would simply make life miserable for mortals that “tangoed” with her husband, turning Callisto into an old mangy bear and setting her loose in the woods. In the ensuing years, Hera made sure that Arcas became an accomplished hunter who one day would unexpectedly meet up with the fated Callisto. With the bow drawn and Arcas unwittingly ready to kill his own mother, Zeus stopped the action and began to verbally “duke it out” with his wife. The resulting compromise seems to have favored Hera. Zeus, in particular, did not want Callisto killed, so he consented to Hera’s demand that the bear be thrown into the heavens. Hera then ordered the same fate for Arcas, changing him into a smaller bear with Zeus also making the skyward pitch. This myth is really a “stretch of a tail” with an “unbearable” ending.


February Star Map

February Moon Phase Calendar