StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]


332    JANUARY 5, 2003:   Saturn with a Bang
Clouds, rain, and snow... This week's StarWatch has been cancelled due to inclement weather. It would be a simple protest again the recent wrath of Mother Nature, and probably the last one that I'd ever get to make in print. So let's say there is one partly clear night this week. What are you going to do with it? I would suggest dusting off that new telescope that looked so good under the tree, but has now been moved precariously close to the attic steps, and taking it outside to view the most beautiful planet of them all, Saturn. First, give your telescope about an hour to cool down, preferably outdoors, so that the optics can adjust to the change in temperature. Then bundle up, making sure that your head, hands, and feet are generously protected from the cold. Saturn has not been brighter in 30 years, so it won't be difficult to find. Currently at 10 p.m., the Ringed World is due south over the head of Orion, the Hunter. Saturn technically lies in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, near Zeta Tauri, the star that forms the tip of the lower horn. If you look at Saturn this week, you will also be pointing your telescope in the direction of M1, a supernova remnant, the remains of a red giant star that went ballistic in a great stellar detonation first seen on the morning of July 5, 1054 AD. The new star shown with a luminescence 700 times greater than Saturn's current brightness. The expanding cloud of debris that is M1 has become too diffuse to be seen easily with small telescopes, but Saturn will impress, even if you're looking at it with a birding scope. The rings are as open as we get to view them, with the result that we can see part of the A-ring extending completely around the back of the planet. A locator map is available in the StarWatch section of the URL listed below. Clear skies!
[Jupiter and Saturn]

333    JANUARY 12, 2003:   Jupiter Awaits
Have you seen Jupiter lately? It was that diamond of brilliance that everyone was trying to find on the evening of the Leonid meteor shower in November, the patch of sky from which the shooting stars were radiating. Almost two months have passed since then, and the Earth has revolved nearly one-sixth of its distance around the sun. Each day of orbiting has caused the stars and planets to rise about four minutes earlier than the day before. As winter has overtaken us, that diurnal stride of the earth has caused the constellations of fall to blend slowly into the familiar star patterns of winter. It is truly amazing to envision the dynamics of this heavenly ballet as we each live our separate lives upon the surface of this whirling world. Jupiter, at the time of the Leonids, rose at 10:45 p.m. This week it breaches the eastern horizon just before 6:30 p.m., but don't expect to see it easily for at least another hour. However, when Jove gets fist high it will be unmistakable, the most brilliant object of the heavenly pantheon other than the waxing gibbous moon. In fact, the moon will be near Jupiter on Saturday and Sunday and straddling Saturn on Tuesday and Wednesday. If you wait until about 9:30 p.m., you can catch all three through binoculars or your telescope. Another heavenly dance to behold are the motions of the four large Galilean satellites as they orbit Jupiter. You'll need a good pair of binoculars held with steady hands to view the brightest moons, Ganymede and Callisto, but a spotting scope or telescope at 30 power will be needed to bring into focus the nightly steps of the parade that Jupiter's Galilean satellites present to the curious observer. By following the steps of this march, you can witness exactly what Galileo saw telescopically in early 1610.

334    JANUARY 19, 2003:   Equation of Time
We have some incredible observers living in the Lehigh Valley, eclectic folks like Len Hvizdos who watch the sun rise and make accurate observations that all of us have witnessed, but few of us have ever contemplated. Len wrote to me and queried that if the shortest day was on December 22 (2002), then why was the sun rising later and later right into early January? His observations were impeccable. The earliest sunset for the Lehigh Valley occurred on December 8, 2002 (4:35 p.m.) and the latest sunrise was on January 5, 2003 (7:22 a.m.). The explanation lies in the fact that we don't really keep time based upon the true position of the sun in the sky. If we did, there would be no question to ask because earliest sunset and latest sunrise would coincide with the shortest day of the year. Instead we create the beat of the 24-hour clock with the position of a fictitious sun that moves uniformly along the celestial equator, a course which is tilted by 23.5 degrees to the actual pathway of the sun in the sky. This insures that the fictitious sun is always due south at noon, but creates two discrepancies which cause the real sun to stray from the fictitious sun. One is the oval-shaped or elliptical path that the earth takes around the sun during the year. This causes the eastward motion of the real sun to vary against the starry background and either lead or lag behind the fictitious sun. Secondly, the real sun's eastward motion is also affected by how much its position shifts with respect to the celestial equator, the pathway of the fictitious sun. This also causes the real sun to lag behind or lead the fictitious sun. These two independent conditions blend to form what is called the equation of time, which causes the real sun to rise and set slightly out of phase with the true seasonal variations.

335    JANUARY 26, 2003:   A Straightforward Shot
One of my routines each clear evening is to go outdoors and scan the sky. It's my way of making sure that everything celestial is in its proper place. Lately, I have got to admit that my solitary, stealth-like sojourns under the heavenly vault have been brief, in fact, very brief. I normally don't bother to put on a jacket, if you get my "snow" drift. But Sunday morning, January 19th was different. When I popped outdoors just after 1:00 a.m., the sky was lightly veiled with high cirrus clouds, and the nearly full moon was haloed with Jupiter just below and to the moon's left. Standing there in the frigid night air, breath fogging up my glasses, I had one of those defining moments. Should I go back indoors and grab the digital camera, or was it a hot shower and then directly to bed? It was really a straightforward shot, 15-20 seconds, tripod mounted, with my wide-angle lens. I compromised, dashing inside to reemerge minutes later, sheathed in only a jacket-no gloves, hat, or boots. The camera worked flawlessly, but my images looked blue. I lengthened my exposure and the results were bluer. Twenty minutes had gone by. I changed my position to a stand of bare-branched trees and recomposed. Still blue… Ten more minutes… Then it hit me like a block of ice flung from Mt. Everest. I had been photographing paintings in the Met the week before and my camera was set for indoor lighting-STUPID! I changed the setting to daylight, since moonlight is merely reflected sunlight, and reshot with success. Then grabbing the aluminum tripod legs, which sucked the very last bit of heat from my shaking hands, I headed back indoors. Judge for yourself if the photo was worth it in this week's web StarWatch. The shower was wonderful!
[Jupiter and Lunar Halo]
A BEAUTIFUL 22 DEGREE LUNAR HALO graced the skies over the Lehigh Valley on Sunday, January 19th. This 20-second digital imaged recorded by a very cold Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg also caught Jupiter to the left and slightly below the moon. The spectral colors caused by moonlight being internally dispersed by rotating ice crystals in high cirrus clouds can be seen with red sharply defining the inner boundary, especially near the top of the halo, and a diffuse blue blending into the yellowish sky along the outside of the halo.
[Winter Conjunction]
THE MOON, MARS, AND VENUS steal the morning sky show between Sunday and Wednesday of this week. Look towards the southeast at 6:00 a.m. Graphics by Gary A. Becker...

January Star Map

January Moon Phase Calendar