StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]


437    JANUARY 2, 2005:   Planets On Tap for 2005
Writing this column for the best of astronomy in 2005 is a tough act to follow after some of the events that occurred in 2004. There is no transit of Venus, no grand gathering of the planets, no total lunar eclipse, and only a very marginal partial solar eclipse for the southern US on April 8. Yet the unexpected can always occur: a spectacular aurora, a bright meteor, or a newly discovered comet. Even sunsets, splashing reds and lavenders against the bottoms of clouds as twilight deepens into a blue moonlit landscape, can be very inspiring. The planets will certainly be fun to watch this year. Saturn, now in Gemini the Twins, will rule the winter sky, while Jupiter will be prominent during the spring and summer months. We also have another excellent opportunity to glimpse Mercury in the west after sundown from March 6-18. Mars, which was so prominent in 2003, makes another close approach to Earth during the fall of 2005. The god of war will not set any distance records this time, but it will again easily outshine Jupiter to become the fourth brightest sky target. Mars will also be better positioned for telescopic observations because of its higher altitude in the sky. Mars also passes near to Neptune on April 12-14, and then catches up to and passes Uranus on May 15-16. Mercury and Venus are only one third of a moon’s diameter apart on June 25 in the early evening sky, while on September 1, Venus and Jupiter will be positioned within one degree of each other, low in the west after sundown. One last sure bet will be the Perseid Meteor Shower, which this years plays to a fat waxing crescent moon. The morning of maximum meteor activity, August 12, will occur long after moonset on the previous evening. Clear skies and good observing to all!

438    JANUARY 9, 2005:   Astronomy From 26,000 Feet
It was one of those mornings that I dread thinking about—almost no sleep and a 3:00 a.m. alarm so that my wife and I could catch our flight to Albuquerque, NM. New Mexico is dubbed “The Land of Enchantment,” but on that chilly morning our combined enchantment level was nearly imperceptible. Like drones, we waited in line with hundreds of other sleepy travelers at Philadelphia International and slowly made our way through security. We lifted off in the dark and climbed over an orange-hued city still at rest from the Christmas rush. Into the clouds we soared and as my view grayed, I nodded for maybe 10 minutes. When I awoke, the cabin was dark and out my portside window was a pristine strip of brightening turquoise sky, and just above it Venus, shining with a cold steady light. To Venus’s left was another luminary, Mercury, plainly visible like I had never seen it before. What a treat! Since our aircraft was moving towards the southwest, away from the rising sun in the southeast, the brightening sky was slowed to a crawl, and I was able to keep Mercury in view for over an hour, the longest that I have ever been able to glimpse the Messenger God. I kept Venus in sight until about 10 minutes before sunrise. Photos from 26,000 feet can be found at web StarWatch. This week, Mercury and Venus are near to each other again, but the conjunction occurs even closer to the horizon, so viewing from an aircraft is almost a necessity. If you are earthbound, then your southeastern horizon must be flawless, the air extremely transparent, binoculars in hand, and lady luck by your side. Mercury and Venus are closest on January 12. View about 45 minutes before local sunrise. Mercury will be to the right of Venus this time.

[Mercury and Venus]
Mercury (left) and Venus rise above altocumulus clouds on the morning after Christmas, 2004. Digital photography from 26,000 feet by Gary A. Becker...

[Mercury and Venus]
Sunrise from 26,000 feet on the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gary A. Becker digital photo...

439    JANUARY 16, 2005:   Winter's Heat
Over the Christmas break my wife and I traveled to New Mexico. Last week, I wrote about the outbound flight and my sighting of Mercury and Venus. Another astronomically related experience occurred when I was hiking in Frijoles Canyon of Bandelier National Monument about 50 road miles to the west of Santa Fe. The canyon, with its steep, yellow walls composed of solidified volcanic ash, and Frijoles Creek, offering a readily accessed water supply, was a natural locale for the Ancestral Puebloan Indians. Here the population flourished between 1150 AD and 1500 AD, building a large D-shaped pueblo along the narrow canyon floor, as well as pueblos against the sheer face of the south-facing cliffs. Cave like rooms were carved into the soft volcanic tuff to supplement living, storage, and ceremonial space. Most of the simple cliff dwellings have long since succumbed to the elements, but the caves remain and they attract the tourists. What attracted me was the radiant energy being given off by the walls. The day was brilliant but cold. I wore a down jacket/flannel shirt combination. At the caves the jacket came off, and still I sweated. What a remarkable use of passive solar heating! The air temperature near the walls was probably in the upper sixties. My hike continued down from the warm cliff dwellings into the narrow canyon and across Frijoles Creek, perpetually shaded in winter by the north-facing canyon walls. As soon as I crossed the shadow’s boundary, I entered a skeletal forest carpeted in snow. Frijoles Creek in sections ran silently under a canopy of ice and snow. In a mere 200-yard traverse, the temperature had probably dropped by 40 degrees or more. I shivered. The down jacket was put back on. It was winter in New Mexico once again.

[Frijoles Canyon of Bandelier]
Bandelier National Monument, 50 miles to the west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers visitors a glimpse of Ancestral Puebloan life between 1150 AD and 1500 AD. The contrast in winter temperatures between the south-facing and north-facing canyon walls took me by surprise. You might guess where the people lived. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

440    JANUARY 23, 2005:   Big Week for Huygens
It came down with a splat in a muddy, low-lying, stench-filled drainage channel near a shallow sea under a yellow sky. It sounds like the final resting place for a north Jersey-based Mafioso figure, but indeed it was the final resting place of Huygens, the 703-pound European Space Agency (ESA) lander that was piggybacked onto NASA’s Cassini for the last seven years. Huygens’s mission was “to go where no ‘man’ had gone before”—to a freezing, reeking, cloud-shrouded moon, so alien to our senses, that liquid methane was the “water” of that world. In early July 2004, Cassini went into orbit around Saturn. On Christmas Day, Huygens was released and nudged towards Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Twenty days later, it began a 2-1/3 hour parachute descent, sampling Titan’s atmosphere, recording its temperature, density, and pressure, listening to the sounds of its air rushing by, and photographing its surface. Huygens relayed data to the Cassini spacecraft for more than three hours after landing, even though Cassini had long passed out of range. The misty black and white photographs, transmitted during the parachute-assisted descent, revealed what looked like shorelines, sinuous drainage patterns, and areas where plumes of mist were rising from the surface. ESA instrumentation suggested that Huygens landed in hydrocarbon-rich wet sand or clay which also contained water ice. The temperature recorded at Titan’s surface was a brisk minus 292 deg. F. It appears as if Huygens set down in a small drainage channel complete with partially buried abraded rocks, and flow marks in the sand or mud. In the distance the rocks become more plentiful, indicating the channel’s boundary. Photos can be found in StarWatch at the URL below.

[First Image of Titan's Surface]

[Huygens Views Titan During Landing]

441    JANUARY 30, 2005:   Here is to Gray on Groundhog Day!
Astronomically speaking, the year is divided into four quarters bounded by the equinoxes and the solstices. In 2005 the equinoxes, where days and nights are equal in length, occur on March 20 (vernal) and September 22 (autumnal). The solstices, or sun standstill points, happen on June 21 (high summer sun) and December 21 (low winter sun) respectively. Even though these times are not that important to astronomers, most people seem to be curious about them. In often a more dramatic way we celebrate the midpoints between the seasons. The best known is Halloween, the middle ground between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Here, according to Celtic legend, the veil between the living and the dead thins, so that the dead can pass into the world of the living. After All Hallows Eve, cold, bleak winter rules. Likewise this week, we pass the midpoint between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. Many Christians will celebrate Candlemas on February 2, the Purification of the Lord. The ritual entails the consecration of the candles which will be used in services throughout the forthcoming year. Candlemas has its roots steeped in the pagan traditions of purification (Celtic) or driving away evil spirits (Roman) using fire. Locally, we celebrate Groundhog Day on February 2, slightly modified from the northern European tradition that substitutes instead the burrowing badger. If spring were about to burst forth, groundhogs living amongst Earth’s roots and tubers would be the first to know. However, the forecast of an early or late spring has reverse psychology associated with it. The groundhog seeing his shadow plunges us back into winter for six more weeks. A cold, gray day means an early spring. Here is to gray on Groundhog Day!

[Punxsutawney Phil]
Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter on February 2, 1994. Indeed, four weeks later, the Lehigh Valley was socked with one of the deepest snowfalls on record. Way to go, Phil. The upper inset shows Ed Stauffer of Lowhill Township, Lehigh County standing in the plowed roadway that passes his home. All photography courtesy of Adam R. Jones...

January Star Map

December Moon Phase Calendar