StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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963    FEBRUARY 1, 2015:   Groundhog Day: Not the Movie
My wife and I have three rabbits as pets. My favorite is Skye Blue, a female Dutch, who loves to sit on my lap and receive my famous “chiropractic” bunny massages. With a body temperature of 104 degrees F., you can image the workouts Skye has gotten lately with the cold weather that we have been experiencing. However, as anyone will attest, rabbits are fairly low on the mammalian food chain, designed to duck and cover, evade, and outrun their predators. They aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, but they are, in reality, quite loving creatures. Easter is their time, but another member of the rodent family is getting top billing right now. It’s the slow moving, and even slower thinking groundhog. They make lagomorphs look like virtual Einsteins, and in addition, rather than just delivering eggs, groundhogs decide “weather” winter is staying or going. No rodent should have to live under that kind of pressure. The badger is the European equivalent, but in America, groundhogs were adopted as the soothsaying marvels that were given this opportunity to excel, and about 40 percent of the time, they get it right. It’s all about roots, and the fact that groundhogs are burrowing creatures that have the opportunity of observing how roots and tubers are growing, whether they are fattening ahead of schedule, indicating an early spring, or are falling behind in their timetable, which means more winter lies ahead. A highly chatty groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, and others across the country, make this prediction on February 2. Now add the sun to the mix. If Phil sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter, and if not, an early spring is at hand. This all occurs on the first of the four cross quarter days of a year, the time between a solstice, a high or a low sun, and an equinox, a mid-positioned sun. Frankly, I could care less about Phil’s observations because I’ve got Skye (and my wife) to keep me warm. Okay, now I’m in trouble. Happy Groundhog Day!

964    FEBRUARY 8, 2015:   Jupiter Ascending
Jupiter Ascending—the movie: Unknown to Earth's residents, life on this planet and countless other worlds has been seeded by families of alien royalty. For Earth it occurred about 100,000 years ago for the purpose of harvesting the evolved living creatures once they reach a "Darwinian state of perfection" to produce a type of youth serum that allows the alien royalty to live forever. Yup, that’s just part of the “totally intriguing” plot of the latest 175 million dollar, 127 minute, space blockbuster that began to grace our 3D cinematic landscape this past weekend. I’m completely confident about three things. Lots of people will die in this feature film, nobody will care, and FOX Broadcasting will absolutely love every moment of it! Now for the real Jupiter Ascending—it’s really happening. The planet Jupiter is ascending in the early evening sky and will be one of the dominant sky objects to grace the heavens this winter and spring. By 8 p.m. Jupiter is due east about 1/3 the distance from the horizon to the zenith. Don’t worry; there is no mistaking Jove which will be the brightest object in that area of the sky. Below and slightly to the left will be Regulus, positioned at the heart of Leo the Lion, easily seen, but about 40 times fainter than Jupiter. Jove stays visible in our sky through early summer, but before it disappears in the bright, muggy twilight, Jove meets up with another even brighter planet, Venus, which is also currently ascending in the western sky. On June 30 the two planets are separated by less than 1/3rd degree which will make for a truly spectacular pairing in the evening summer sky. Find Venus right now about 30 minutes after sundown, low in the WSW. You simply can’t miss it. If the sky is dark enough, you’ll notice another “star” above Venus. That’s Mars which is descending, getting closer to the horizon each evening. Here, the difference in brightness between Venus and Mars is more than 100 times. Good viewing and stay warm!

965    FEBRUARY 15, 2015:   Riding Light
There was a T-shirt that was popular several years ago. It showed a drawing of Albert Einstein holding up a stop sign. The shirt’s slogan read, “186,000 miles per second. It’s the law.” That’s the speed of light, and it represents the ultimate constant of the universe. Electromagnetic radiation, which includes the light that our eyes see, travels at this enormously fast pace in a vacuum, but is the speed of light really that fast? It all depends upon your perspective. The radio waves that were used to communicate with the Apollo astronauts on the moon took about 2.5 seconds for their round-trip of nearly a half million miles. NASA could easily chat with Neil and Buzz with just a slight bit of hesitation due to the light time lag; however, when we start to consider even the meager distances in our own solar system, the speed of light becomes a real drag. A real-time animation of what it would be like to travel at light speed from the sun to Jupiter has been released by Alphonse Swinehart and can be viewed at This video is certainly not great entertainment, but the presentation makes an excellent point of demonstrating just how slow light travel really is, even among the planets. Just in case you’re not into watching a mostly black screen with a sun dot in the middle and listening to repetitive spacey music for 45 minutes, here is a recap of the times of the light flybys: Mercury—3 minutes, 13 seconds (3:13), Venus—6:00, Earth—8:20, Mars—12:39; the asteroids Vesta, Ceres, Pallas and Hygiea, 19:39, 22:58, 23:04, and 26:07 respectively; and finally, Jupiter and its four planet-sized moons at 43:16. So why does the video not illustrate all eight planets? That’s because it would be 1 hour, 19 minutes, 21 seconds to Saturn (1:19:21), 2:39:50 to Uranus, and 4:10:00 to Neptune. By that time, I truly think the viewer would go nuts. Ad astra (to the stars)! First stop, 4.22 years from now...

966    FEBRUARY 22, 2015:   The Universe is Crazy BIG!
Last week, I dealt with communicating at the speed of light within our own solar system. Although electromagnetic energy which includes gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared (heat) microwaves, and radio waves, travel at the same speed of 186,000 miles per second, this swiftness would only allow us to communicate in (almost) real time with astronauts on the moon. However, speaking with someone on Mars, even when Earth and Mars were at their smallest separation, would tax anyone’s patience because at the speed of light, it would still take about 6 minutes round-trip, and at their greatest separation about 22 minutes just one way. Send a message at 186,000 miles per second to the nearest star other than our sun, Proxima Centauri, and it would be on the run for a 4.22 year passage just to get there. Light or radio waves journeying across our Milky Way Galaxy would require 100,000 years, and to travel to our sister galaxy, Andromeda, the expedition would last one way, 2.5 million years from our perspective. Intergalactic, or for that matter interstellar dating, would be a real drag. Then there is the accelerating universe. When we view some of the most distant galaxies, we judge them to be just over 13 billion light years from us. That means that light has been traveling 13 billion years just for us to see the galaxy, and we see the galaxy as it appeared 13 billion years ago, not as it appears today. When the light left that distant beacon, the universe was much smaller, and the space between our Milky Way and the other galaxy was about 3.4 billion light years. Now that we “think” it is 13 billion light years from us, that galaxy has been rushing away from us at close to the speed of light for 13 billion years, and its true distance from us is a staggering 29 billion light years. So how huge is the universe today? Astronomers believe somewhere in the neighborhood of 92 billion light years across, and maybe even larger. Now that’s really BIG!

[February Star Map]

[February Moon Phase Calendar]