StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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

[Moon Phases]
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859    FEBRUARY 3, 2013:   Planets Meet in West this Week
Mercury appears in the WSW during dusk late in the week, but before the Messenger God gets his due, a curious, almost invisible conjunction (meeting) takes place on Monday between Mars and Neptune, very low in the WSW, three quarters of an hour after sundown. Mars and Neptune will be separated by less than a half degree on Feb. 4 and by less than one degree on the day before and after that date. You will need very transparent sky conditions as well as binoculars to spot Mars, and a small telescope if you want to include Neptune which is much fainter. An alternate way of seeing the two would be to capture the scene with a digital camera mounted on a tripod. A much easier conjunction between Mercury and Mars takes place from Feb. 7 to the 9, low in the WSW about 45 minutes after sunset. The sweet date is Sunday the eighth, when Messenger and Warrior are distanced by only one third degree. That’s an angular separation only 2/3rds the size of the full moon. On the day before and after February 8, Mars and Mercury are separated by about one degree. Again, clear sky conditions will be necessary along with a good WSW horizon, free from any trees or buildings to obscure the view. Be at your observing post no later than 6:15 p.m., about 45 minutes after sundown. Binoculars will easily reveal Mercury, and if another starlike, but fainter object is spotted near the Messenger God, that will be Mars. As the minutes roll by revealing a darker sky, Mercury should become visible to the unaided eye. During the weeks of February 10 and the 17, Mercury will be visible low in the WSW after sundown. The best evening for viewing just Mercury will be the 16th when the Messenger God stands nearly a fist, held at arm’s length, high above the WSW horizon. While you’re scouring the skies for Mercury, don’t forget Jupiter, brilliant and high in the south.


860    FEBRUARY 10, 2013:   Mercury's Week
Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who hypothesized that the Earth revolved around the sun, was said to have lamented on his deathbed (1543) that he had never seen Mercury. Copernicus lived at a latitude similar to northern Maine, and it was difficult for him to see the most elusive of the classical planets. Mercury always hugged the horizon, even in the best of times. I was an adult before I first glimpsed Mercury, but since then I have observed the Messenger God perhaps a 100 times and imaged it on dozens of evenings. I have, however, only seen Mercury twice through a telescope. This week is definitely Mercury’s time. Through Feb. 20, Mercury hovers about 10 degrees above the WSW horizon, 30 minutes after sundown. That is a fist held at arm’s length above a true horizon. Use binoculars to spot Mercury initially, since there will be plenty of light from a recently set sun. On Monday, look for a razor thin waxing crescent moon about a fist and a half (14 degrees) above the WSW horizon and about five degrees higher and to the right of Mercury. Binoculars should be able to capture the pair in the same field of view. As it gets darker, note the earthshine on the unlit portion of the moon, light from a nearly full Earth reflected back to us from Luna. The clearer the sky, the more conspicuous the earthshine will become. One hour after sunset, the moon will still be nearly 10 degrees high with its ashen light (from Earth) easy to perceive with the unaided eye and absolutely spectacular through binoculars. As it gets darker, turn your attention to the NE where a very familiar star pattern is rising, the Big Dipper. It is not a constellation, because it is only famous as a “dipper” to Americans. Its bowl will be ascending into the night sky followed by its handle, the last star, Alkaid, not quite visible. By 9 p.m. the Dipper stands prominently, mid-sky, in the NE, a beacon to the approaching spring.

861    FEBRUARY 17, 2013:   Thank You, Mrs. Hurd
I was diagnosed with lung cancer in late April of 2007. I was on the cusp of retirement as director of the Allentown (PA) School District Planetarium, and I was angry. My high school students looked at me with surprise, and many of them asked, “So you were a smoker?” I wasn’t, except for one drag at the age of 14. My family physician, Gerald Miller, played it safe, thinking maybe I had TB, so I was pulled from work because of the probability of being contagious. That gave me valuable time to read about the disease which allowed me to converse with my surgeons in a more knowledgably manner. The operation was performed on June 3, laproscopically by William Burfeind, a young teaching physician from Duke University. The hospital was St. Luke’s in Bethlehem. I can still see Burfeind’s smiling face looking down at me in recovery. He said, “We sliced and diced that tumor and could find no cancer.” After a very painful night in ICU, I was transported up to a room in the Hurd Pavilion of St. Luke’s where I received state of the art treatment by a large cadre of caring nurses and physicians. Four days later, I walked out of the hospital without assistance. In 2009, when I was asked to join the Moravian College faculty, I spent lots of time working with retiring professor Joe Gerencher, a wonderful mentor. When I finally got to see the Collier rooftop observatory, there was this new A-shaped, roofed building blocking a critical view of the horizon in the southwest. Horizonal astronomy was always one of my interests. I was flabbergasted. The students called it PPHAC, the Priscilla Payne Hurd Academic Center. Priscilla Payne Hurd died February 5 at the grand age of 93. What do you say to a woman whose generosity helped save your life, but messed up your horizons? There are only two words that come to mind. Thank you, thank you, thank you...

[Priscilla Payne Hurd]
Priscilla Payne Hurd died at the age of 93 on February 5. I never met the philanthropist, but her generosity may have saved my life. This portrait by Edgar Jerins was displayed at the Payne Gallery at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA.

862    FEBRUARY 24, 2013:   Gotcha, Fallen Star
I was at Bey’s Rock Shop in Bally, PA on February 16, literally ready to exam a small 32 gram slice of the Esquel meteorite, when I heard about the Russian event in Chelyabinsk near the Ural Mountains. “Wow,” I thought, “That must have been some spectacle,” and indeed when I saw the numerous YouTube videos emerging onto the Internet, I wasn’t disappointed. The thousand or so people who were reported injured were not struck by any pieces of the meteorite, despite what some media sources have said, but were rather the unwitting victims of the shock front that was created when the meteorite exploded, 10 to 25 miles above the ground. The now confirmed stony meteorite entered the atmosphere at just over nine miles per second, and the force of the air ripping past its surface became so dynamic that the main body broke apart. That’s the part of the video sequence where the object flashed and became for a few flickering moments brighter than the sun. When that transpired, an object that had a volume no greater than a cube 40 feet on every side broke apart into tens of thousands of fragments, each becoming its own bright meteor, and in totality, explosively pushing the atmosphere away from it to form a shock front expanding at supersonic speeds. By the time people inside buildings, aware of something amiss going on outside, had walked over to windows to see what was happening, the shock front reached the ground, shattering the glass, literally by the push of the air generated by the explosion. Evidently, car windows were also broken because dozen of alarms can be heard going off in the background on the video soundtracks after the sonic boom passed. Numerous meteoric fragments have now been identified on the ice of Lake Chebarkul, about 45 miles east of Chelyabinsk near an ice hole where some experts believe a larger remaining fragment penetrated.

[Russian Meteorite Fall]
The fall and explosion of a large stony meteorite near Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15 attracted worldwide attention. Over 1000 people were injured by flying glass from broken windows created by the shockwave. A factory roof also collapsed. Small fragments of the meteorite have been recovered on Lake Chebarkul about 45 miles east of Chelyabinsk near a suspicious hole in the ice. YouTube images...

[February Star Map]

[February Moon Phase Calendar]