StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]


384    JANUARY 4, 2004:   2004: In A Nutshell
My enjoyment of astronomy has stemmed from a sense of esthetics and order. Despite our technical knowledge, the heavens are still beautiful and mysterious to contemplate on the crest of a hilltop in the fading daylight. On the larger scale, events seem to be highly predictable. Reading about solar eclipses as a kid, I had only to wait until the cycles of the seasons, the twists and turns of the Earth and the moon brought the two into courtship and the light of midday rapidly vanished into a deep purple twilight. To enjoy the universe, we need only to gaze upward, and that can be accomplished in a city as well as in the open countryside. The sky is free and accessible to everyone. Four events seem to epitomize the beauty and the order of the cosmos during 2004. Presently, you can watch Venus climbing higher into the evening twilight, and Mars edging ever closer to the west. By late March all five naked eye planets will be strung across the sky like pearls of steady light. Mercury and Venus will be about as well positioned as they can get for the Northern Hemisphere. So if you have never seen Mercury in a dark sky, mark the last week of March on your calendars. As the planets and moon play in the spring, the clockwork universe is gearing up for an event that has not occurred since December 6, 1882. On June 8, the sun will rise with the large black dot of Venus transiting it. This event for East Coast observers lasts until 7:15 a.m. and may be visible to the unaided eye with the proper solar filtration. Mid-fall is when the next big astronomical event occurs. The moon passes through the Earth's shadow during the evening and morning hours of October 27-28. The moon again caps off the year by occulting Jupiter in the wee hours of December 7. Clear skies during 2004!

[Winter Portrait of Venus]
Venus will dominate the astronomical scene until June 8, when it will transit the sun. Happy New Year! Gary A. Becker digital photo...

385  JANUARY 11, 2004:   See Uranus This Week
The darkening eastern sky is ablaze with the winter constellations of Orion, the Hunter; Taurus; the Bull, Auriga, the Charioteer; and the Gemini Twins. Mixed in with this group, due east at 6:30 p.m. and about a third of the way up in the sky is Saturn. If you stretch a line left from the two brightest stars of Orion, reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel, they will lead straightway to the Ringed World, which should be shining with a steadier light than the bright luminaries that surround it. In fact at 6:30 p.m. Saturn should be the brightest object in the east unless your southeastern horizon is flawless, and Sirius can be seen just rising. When near the horizon, Sirius often appears wacky, twinkling madly, flashing reds, then blues as its light is refracted by Earth's atmosphere, and we catch different parts of its spectrum of colors bent our way. Probably waiting until about 7-7:30 p.m. would give most people a better chance of seeing Sirius dance low in the sky, even though it rises about 6:15 p.m. this week. During deep twilight and flanking the rising Winter Group in the southwest is Venus. It is simply the best excuse for watching the darkening sky this winter and spring. On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., look for Uranus to be less than one degree away from Venus. You'll need binoculars, but it should not be a difficult view to spot the seventh planet at the two-o'clock position close to Venus. There will be a star brighter than Uranus below Venus, and one above and to Venus's left, as well as a brighter star immediately to Uranus's right. By Thursday the separation is just a tad bit greater with Uranus at the 4-o'clock position from Venus with the same slightly brighter star, just to the right of Uranus. View maps at Web StarWatch and say a little prayer for clear skies.


[Venus near Uranus]

386    JANUARY 18, 2004:   Music of the Spheres
I'm listening to the music from The Last Samurai as I write and reflect over an enjoyable evening spent with my good friend Adam Jones, going to the movies, and afterwards eating a delicious meal after a day of high energy teaching. It was bone-numbing cold that evening, our exhalations catching the light from approaching cars in the frigid night air as we hastened back home. When my feet planted themselves onto the unyielding stones in my driveway, I did what I instinctively do. I looked up. My frozen breath was now caught in the light of a bright gibbous moon, and rising above my skeletal elms and maples in the backyard was Jupiter, shining with the purest white light. I was caught in a bubble of serenity where I felt especially close to God and the universe-no cold, no pain, just contentment in my own warm cocoon of thoughts. In the movie the Samurai were the emperor's imperial guard, but Japan was westernizing in the latter part of the nineteenth century with guns and cannon soon to replace the tradition of swords and bows. Americans were hired to train a new imperial army to defeat the Samurai, and one troubled American Indian fighter was captured. In the Samurai's efforts to learn more about their enemy, hate and suspicion slowly dissolved into mutual trust, and love. The patience, respect, and tradition of the Samurai produced a harmony that was made very compelling by the movie, a harmony that is also reflected by the heavens for all of us to enjoy. On that bitterly cold night, Jupiter and the moon were exactly where they should have been, telling anyone who cared to listen that the universe was unfolding as it should be. For just a moment I think I heard the music of the spheres, and the melody was beautiful.

387    JANUARY 25, 2004:   Jove Debuts
We are now about two months from one of the grand spectacles of the year, when all five classical planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will be visible to the unaided eye in the darkening twilight. It will be happening during the last two weeks of March. The planet Jupiter, which will be farthest from the main grouping of planets to be found in the west, is currently becoming visible low in the east by 10 p.m. The king of the planets actually rises about 8:30 p.m., but unless your horizon is flawless, I'd wait just a bit until Jupiter has had a chance to gain altitude and clear any obstacles, such as trees and buildings that may be low to the horizon. Jupiter is presently the fourth brightest object in the sky, but after Venus sets at 8:30 p.m., its only early evening rival for the next two weeks will be the moon. Keep an eye on the moon because as it grows, it will be wandering among the planets during this week and the next. Sunday will find its thin waxing crescent shape above brilliant Venus. Look for earthshine on the moon, sunlight reflected from the nearly full Earth back to the moon, then back to the Earth again. The earthshine will be visible on the part of the moon not illuminated by the sun and will give the moon a ghostly appearance which will be enhanced by binoculars or small spotting scopes. In fact with optical aid, you can often see earthshine on very clear nights right through first quarter moon and beyond by moving the sunlit portion of the moon outside the field of view. On Tuesday and Wednesday the moon will be near a much-faded Mars. By February 1st, 2nd, and 3rd the moon approaches, passes over, and then continues beyond the ringed world of Saturn. By February 7th and 8th the nearly full moon flanks Jupiter in the east at 9:00 p.m. Clear skies!

[Moon and Venus]
The moon and Venus bring an added sparkle to the cold evening twilight of January 24. Notice the earthshine making the whole moon visible even with some obscuration from a passing cloud. Gary A. Becker digital photo...

January Star Map

January Moon Phase Calendar