StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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

[Moon Phases]


489a  JANUARY 1, 2006:   Diana and Aphrodite Share Spotlight in West
New Year’s Day starts out with a bang. Tonight at 5:15 p.m., look for Venus and an ultra thin crescent moon near the southwestern horizon. The two-day moon will be to the left of Venus with plenty of earthshine evident as sky conditions darken. This would be a great time to experiment with that new digital camera that you received for Christmas. Consider using a tripod to help stabilize the image, but if none is available, a bean bag, the hood of a car, or a tree will suffice. I successfully took one-second images of Venus and Mercury through my plane window while flying to Santa Fe last Christmas. The secret is to take tons of images and to save only the best of the best. With a digital format there is every reason to take lots of pictures since the cost of film and processing is no longer a consideration. Simply let the camera do the thinking. If manual focus is an option, set and lock the camera on infinity. On January 2, a three-day old moon has doubled its distance from the goddess of love. It will still be an impressive sight, a half hour after sundown, but it will be more difficult to photograph because of the brighter moon. If a telescope or binoculars were found under the Christmas tree, the moon and Venus are dynamite first light objects. Through a telescope Venus will appear to be a thin crescent or horned-shaped, just like the moon. On January 13, Venus will be at inferior conjunction, between the Earth and the sun, so it won’t be in our western sky for much longer. Earthshine, reflecting off the moon from a nearly full Earth, will illuminate the portion of the moon not in direct sunlight. Views of the moon in binoculars and telescopes will make it simply dazzle. A new StarWatch will be posted here tomorrow.

[The moon and Venus]

489b  JANUARY 2-7, 2006:   Moon to Occult Pleiades
If you missed the dazzling appearance of the crescent moon and Venus on New Year’s Day, you can look forward to the occultation of the Pleiades by the moon on January 9. An occultation occurs when a much larger object, such as the moon, hides or moves in front of a smaller object or objects. In this case, the stars of the famous Pleiades open cluster will be occulted by the dark leading edge of the moon starting around 8:00 p.m. EST next Monday. From the Lehigh Valley, the occultation will last for about three hours as the moon’s orbital motion slowly carries it through the star cluster, hiding, and then uncovering luminaries. Time zones farther west will see the occultations unfold one to three hours earlier, with the West Coast missing about half of the action because of sun and twilight. Observing sites to the south will see the Pleiades take a more direct hit, while from the northern continental US, the moon will pass farthest to the south of the Pleiades’ center. The events occur at varying times for different locations. From the Lehigh Valley, fourth magnitude Merope is occulted by the daylight limb of the moon near the terminator about 8:47 p.m. EST, and third magnitude Atlas at 10:02 p.m. There are many other occultations that take place between these two major events. From Denver, Merope is not occulted at all, but Atlas disappears at 7:26 p.m. MST. You will need a telescope or a spotting scope to appreciate this happening. Binoculars will not provide enough magnification. You will also need to stay alert as the occultation of a star approaches. Since the moon possesses no atmosphere, and star disks possess no real size, they will simply wink out. You can literally miss the event in the blink of an eye. With patience, however, success will rule the day.

[Pleiades Occultation by Moon]

490    JANUARY 8, 2006:   Astronomical Events for 2006
The year 2006 has in store some fine astronomical events. The year’s highlight will be a transit of Mercury across the disk of the sun, visible throughout the entire continental US on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 8. On January 9, the moon occults the Pleiades, the first of seven such events that will be visible from N. America during 2006. See last week’s on-line StarWatch. April 1 and July 20, favor the East Coast, while February 5 and December 31 favor the western US. The Pleiades occultations on October 9 and December 3 are visible over all of North America. The moon will also occult the bright star Spica on February 5. Venus will rule low in the eastern morning sky from late winter through summer and reenter the evening sky in late December 2006. In the evening, Saturn, with its magnificent ring system, will reign over the winter sky, while Jupiter and its retinue of bright satellites dominate the spring and summer sky. Mercury makes a spectacular and long appearance in the evening sky throughout all of June. Nearby will be Mars and Saturn. The triad will be joined by a razor thin waxing crescent moon on June 28-29 for some especially fine Kodak moments. The year 2006 is also especially fine for watching meteors. After the dearth of activity that hampers the first few months of the year, come the Lyrids on April 22 and the Eta Aquarids of early May. Both will be seen under favorable lunar conditions. Sadly, the Perseids on August 12 will be visible under bright moonlight. When the Perseids are seen under unfavorable conditions, this usually means that the Orionids, on October 21; the Leonids, on November 17; and the Geminids, on December 14, are viewed with minor meddling by the moon. Such will be the case for 2006.

[Mercury Transits the Sun]

491    JANUARY 15, 2006:   Capturing the Sky Digitally
Ever since my foray into digital photography seven years ago, I have been pointing my cameras towards the night sky. My most recent acquisition, a Canon 20D, does a better job of rendering starscapes than any previous system, including my Nikon film cameras. At its heart, Canon cameras boast a very quiet CMOS sensor, which adds little unwanted noise to long-exposures, even when the chip is pushed to higher sensitivities. It also takes a dark frame to record only the chip noise, and then subtracts this noise from the image, to produce a much cleaner-looking picture. Digital sensors are also not plagued by color biases or a reduction in light sensitivity when taking long exposures. These reciprocity factors are a characteristic of all emulsion-based imaging. Unfortunately, the orangey glow from street lamps will still be recorded. Last summer when I was in remote Bryce Canyon National Park in SW Utah, I was initially disappointed to discover that my 20D images showed a background with an annoying greenish tint. I discovered that it was a natural form of light pollution caused by the fluorescence (glow) of oxygen atoms in the night sky. With the moon rising later each night this week, you’ll have ample opportunity to experiment under moonless or moonlit skies. You’ll need a tripod to steady your camera and some patience. Set your camera to manual mode, and increase your chip sensitivity to the highest ASA possible. Then shoot! If your image appears white or bleached, you’re overexposed. First, decrease the ASA of the sensor, then the length of the exposure. For images that appear too dark, increase the exposure length. Start with evening twilight in the SW about 30-45 minutes after sunset. The results will surprise you.

[Bryce at Night]
Self-portrait under the light of a nearly full moon at Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon National Park in SW Utah... A Canon 20D camera was used with a 10-20mm ultra wide-angle lens for this 30-second, F/3.5 exposure at ASA 1600. Gary A. Becker image...

[Bryce Canyon Summer Milky Way]
The summer Milky Way arches across the sky from Paria Point at Bryce Canyon National Park in SW Utah. A Canon 20D camera was used with a 10-20mm ultra wide-angle lens for this guided, 5-minute, F/3.5 exposure at ASA 800. Gary A. Becker image...

492    JANUARY 22, 2006:   Saturn at Opposition
This coming Friday, the planet Saturn is at opposition, opposite in the sky to the sun, and visible all night. It rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. From Friday onward, Saturn’s visibility biases itself towards the evening sky, rising about four minutes earlier each day, and likewise setting approximately four minutes earlier each morning. By 7 p.m. you find Saturn about two fists high in the east. Hold out your fist at arm’s length, thumb up. Your arm will be parallel to the ground. The second fist will be “placed” on top of the first fist and so on. Above Saturn, about four fists in height will be the two bright head stars of the Gemini Twins, Castor (higher) and Pollux. Both will be considerably fainter than Saturn. To Saturn’s right lies Procyon, the brightest star in the constellation of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. Procyon will also be fainter than Saturn. To Procyon’s right will be the brightest luminary of the night, Sirius, the Dog Star of the star pattern, Canis Major, the Big Dog. Sirius will be over twice the brightness of Saturn. All of these luminous, winter stars will be twinkling, but Saturn will be shining with a steadier light, a dead giveaway that it is a planet. An online map is available at the URL given below. Between now and Valentine’s Day, Saturn lingers within about one degree of the famous open cluster called the Beehive, and during the first few days of February, this distance shrinks to about one-half degree. This means that the Beehive and Saturn will be visible telescopically in the same field of view at low magnifications. The view is surely to impress through binoculars too. As winter changes into spring, look for Saturn in the south after evening twilight. By late June 2006, Saturn will be low in the west at dusk.

[Saturn visible in early evening]
Saturn can be easily located in the east at 7 p.m. The ringed world is under the bright stars Castor and Pollux of the Gemini Twins and to the left of Procyon and Sirius. Sky IV map by Gary A. Becker...

493    JANUARY 29, 2006:   Venus Brightens Dawn Sky
Linda Hutter emerged from the Cedar Street Office at Dieruff High School to open the door for me, an almost daily ritual upon my arrival at the ASD Planetarium. “Did you see that huge bright star in the east this morning?” she excitedly exclaimed. I hadn’t, but I knew that it had to be Venus emerging into the dawn sky. Just last month, it was curtains for the Goddess of Love as the planet moved between the Earth and the sun, a position or configuration which is called inferior conjunction. As Venus’s elongation or angular distance from the sun widens, the planet will move ever higher into the morning sky. By March 25 Venus will have reached its greatest western elongation, 46.5 degrees from the sun. After this point it will begin to trek very slowly back towards Sol as we watch it head to the far side of its orbit. As the months plod forward through the baking heat of summer, Venus’s elongation from the sun will shrink, and it will finally disappear from the dawn sky sometime in mid-September. Venus reaches superior conjunction, in line with the Earth and the sun, but on the opposite side of Sol, on October 27. By mid-January of 2007 brilliant Venus will reemerge low in the southwest about 30 minutes after sundown. You can go online at to this issue of Web StarWatch to see all of the various planetary configurations that we witness from the Earth as we watch the planets go through their various dances. While you are checking on Venus in the morning sky, don’t forget about reddish Mars, currently high in the south right after dark and, at the same time, Saturn low in the east. Jupiter doesn’t become prominent in the southeast until after 2:30 a.m., but it is well-positioned in the south by dawn.

[Planetary Configurations]

January Star Map

January Moon Phase Calendar