StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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

[Moon Phases]
Solar X-rays:  
Geomagnetic Field:  
Status Current Moon Phase
650    FEBRUARY 1, 2009:   Quantum Entanglement
“God does not play dice,” Einstein said. He was referring to his inability to accept the chaotic quantum world of the super small and its ability to predict events in terms of only probabilities. Einstein was wrong. God does play dice in the world of atoms and subatomic particles, but there may be a catch. Some physicists believe that on the subatomic level, our thoughts may have some influence in formulating our futures. So, you be the judge as to whether the following story was random or destined to happen. In a recent StarWatch article I lamented that sometimes people call the cops when they see me observing. While imaging one evening from this exceptional site near the crest of a hill west of Coopersburg, PA, a truck pulled over. The occupant got out and asked if I needed any help. That to me was a dead giveaway that I was under suspicion. I now know that it was Ricky Schantzenbach who queried me on that chilly dusk. He’s the brother of Russell who owns the field. All of this information flowed from the lips of Penn State junior, Richard Schantzenbach, Ricky’s son, who pulled up on another evening in late December while I was snapping away to make a similar inquiry, “What are you doing here?” After telling him my life’s story Richard did not depart. Instead he called his girlfriend who he said was “crazy about the stars,” and invited her over to observe. When Lauren Fragnito arrived, I was already aware of the fact that she had been an astronomy student of mine at Allen H. S. in the spring of 2006. Lauren and Richard had met that fall while attending PSU—Lehigh Valley. Now they were both at PSU Main in “Happy Valley.” Okay, so I’m not quite family yet, but the Schantzenbachs won’t be calling the cops anytime soon when they see me on their hill. And yes, I was hoping for this kind of happy ending. Was the outcome chance or was it fate?

[Moon and Mercury Meet]
Russell Schanzenbach’s field, near the crest of a hill west of Coopersburg, PA, is ideal for photographing objects close to the horizon. One of the first pictures that I took from this location (January 9, 2008) showed the slivery moon and Mercury just after sunset ready to dip into skeletal trees. Gary A. Becker image…

651    FEBRUARY 8, 2009:   Lulin: Comet of Cooperation
Billed as the comet of cooperation, C/2007 N3 (Lulin) is now headed for a much anticipated sweep across our winter sky during the next several weeks and should be easily visible with binoculars from rural, as well as suburban locales. Comet Lulin was discovered on July 11, 2007 by 19-year old Chinese stargazer, Quanzhi Ye, on photographs imaged by Taiwanese asteroid hunter, Chi Sheng, using a 16-inch patrol telescope at Lulin Observatory. Because of its nearly parabolic orbit, this is probably Lulin’s first venture into the inner solar system, making its brightness predictions more difficult to ascertain. This is because new comets usually carry with them a coating of volatile ices which are easily outgassed by the sun’s growing radiation, giving them a brighter showing when first discovered. Currently, Lulin is running slightly ahead of its predicted brightness estimates which may bring it into naked eye visibility from rural locations. Comet Lulin should be brightest on the North American evening of February 23/24 when it will approach the Earth to within 38 million miles. The comet has other noteworthy characteristics too. Lulin is moving in nearly the same plane as the planets but in their opposite direction of motion. By mid-February the comet will be visible initially as a late night target, but as it closes on the Earth, it will rapidly move westward rising about 25 minutes earlier each night. By the time of Lulin’s closest approach to Earth, on the evening of February 23/24, it will be visible for nearly the entire night. This is also the evening when Lulin is closest to the planet Saturn, a mere two degrees below the ringed world, a fine sight through binoculars and spotting scopes. A map showing Comet Lulin’s march across the sky from February 15 through March 5 is posted in “this week’s StarWatch” at

[Comet Lulin's progress]
Comet Lulin, C/2007 N3, will not in anyway resemble the brightness of the comet symbols represented on this map. The locations, however, are accurate for North American observers, particularly those on the East Coast. Lulin should be a fine subject through binoculars and spotting telescopes throughout the second half of February. Use the map no earlier than 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 15. Because of the comet rapid westward motion, you can go out about 20 minutes earlier each evening to find Comet Lulin at approximately the same altitude above the horizon. Map created by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's The Sky...

652    FEBRUARY 15, 2009:   Comet Lulin Steals Spotlight
Comet Lulin continues to be the main attention grabber for the next two weeks as this fuzzy star becomes better positioned because of its closeness to Earth and its retrograde (backwards) motion. These two factors will cause Lulin to rise about 25 minutes earlier each night. On February 15, sky watchers will have their first good opportunity to pinpoint Lulin as it passes the 15th brightest star of the night, blue white Spica. Observe Spica in the ESE between 11:30 p.m. (Feb. 15—shortly after its rise) and 1:00 a.m. (Feb. 16—moonrise). The comet should appear as a small elongated cottony target above and to the left of Spica. Locate Spica by finding the Big Dipper, high in the NE and following the “arc” of its three handle stars past bright, orangey Arcturus. Then keep going to “spike” Spica. On the evening of Feb. 16/17, Lulin will be above Spica. To see it, place Spica near the bottom of the binocular field, and Lulin should be above center. February 23 finds Lulin nearly closest to Earth and just two degrees to the right of the planet Saturn in Leo the Lion. Find Saturn shining with a steady, yellowish light by looking East at 11:00 p.m., one third of the way between the horizon and zenith, or find the Pointer Stars of the Big Dipper high in the NE to guide you towards the right to Leo. A map is posted with this week’s StarWatch at The dazzling luminary above Saturn is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, where Comet Lulin will rendezvous on the North American evening of February 27. Binoculars will reveal Lulin just a degree to the right of Regulus. On that same evening another spectacular show goes on in the SW right after sundown. A skinny crescent moon and brilliant Venus will be separated by less than two degrees. Get your cameras ready and pray for clear skies, especially on the 27th.

[Comet Lulin's highlights]
Comet Lulin passes several bright stars and Saturn on its journey away from the sun. These will be the best times to try and spot this binocular comet. Remember the brightness of the comet on the map is for positioning only and not an indication of Lulin's true luminosity. Map created by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's The Sky...

653    FEBRUARY 22, 2009:   The Big Dog and the "Hotdog"
In recent StarWatch articles I have written about Taurus the Bull and Orion the Hunter. It’s time for this column to go to the dogs, that is, Canis Major the Big Dog, and Canis Minor the “Hotdog.” At 9:00 p.m. this week, looking due south, you’ll find Orion slightly to the right, already headed towards his setting position in the west. Use the three belt stars of the Hunter as a sliding board and simply follow them down to that extraordinarily bright star towards the lower left. You have just found Sirius the Dog Star, the brightest luminary of the night. At only 8.6 light years distant from the sun (about 50 trillion miles), Sirius is not only bright because of its closeness to us, but also because it is a significantly brighter star, about 26 times more luminous than our sun. It has a white dwarf companion, about the size of the Earth, but with a mass comparable to the sun. Originally, this star possessed about six to seven solar masses, converting hydrogen into helium for perhaps 100 million years. Then it flowered into a red supergiant star near the end of the Jurassic period when dinosaurs were the dominant life form on Earth. In the end, this star shed about 80 percent of its mass before becoming a white dwarf, destined to cool forever until absolute zero is reached. Sirius represents the nose of the Great Dog with its body below in a position similar to a canine begging for food. See the map posted “in this week’s StarWatch” at the URL below. Use binoculars to bring out the faint eyes of the dog. His lower legs and tail are near the horizon and often dimmed by light pollution and haze. To the NE of Sirius is another bright luminary, Procyon, the alpha star of Canis Minor the Little Dog. Procyon means rising “before the Dog,” (Sirius). Four degrees NW of Procyon is a fainter luminary which completes the constellation, and for me, makes this pattern simply the “Hotdog.”

[Canis Major and Minor]
Canis Major and Minor the Big Dog and the Little Dog are best seen in the south around 8 p.m. this week. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's The Sky...

[Comet Lulin, February 24]
Comet Lulin passes the 5th magnitude star 59 Leonis at 10:05 p.m. EST on the evening of February 24. What I found especially interesting is that there was not a one star visible to the unaided eye in this 60 second image taken at an EFL of 320mm, F/2.8, ASA 1000. Photography by Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg, PA using a Borg-Hutech light pollution supression filter...

[Comet Lulin, February 28]
Comet Lulin passes the 1st magnitude star Alpha Leonis at 1:32 a.m. EST on the morning of February 28 in this 90 second image taken at an EFL of 320mm, F/2.8, ASA 1000. Photography by Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg, PA using a Borg-Hutech light pollution supression filter...

[February Star Map]

[February Moon Phase Calendar]