StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]
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750    JANUARY 2, 2011:   Cold Hands, Warm Heart
It’s January, and my body feels more like it wants to move to Florida or southern California. No matter how cold it gets, my fingers must always be lightly wrapped because when I observe, I’m lifting a telescope into place or adjusting the tension on a screw or the focus of my camera. Mittens or thick gloves don’t allow for the dexterity of completing these types of actions efficiently, although I’m very aware that astronauts are handicapped by even less flexible gloves, yet manage with years of training to manipulate tiny screws into place to repair satellites like the Hubble. Have you ever felt a seven thousand dollar telescope slip from your mitten clad hands to hit the frozen pavement? Me neither. That is why I will continue always to have reasonably cold hands whenever I am observing in winter. No mittens for me. Speaking about the cold, the winter solstice total lunar eclipse will have to go down in my record book as being one of the nastiest mornings on record. Part of that situation was my fault for not having overdressed for the event. The other part was simply the wind which became very gusty for the last half of the eclipse. To tell you how cold I was, when I finally came in around 5:20 a.m. I was starting to shake. I took a steamy shower, then slept under warm covers for the next six hours, and still I was cold. It wasn’t until the next day that I began to feel cozier. The eclipse, however, was beautiful to behold and worth the pain—a reddish grey disk for the most part blending into a dark rust colored crescent towards the boundary of Earth’s shadow, with a brighter white-pink edge. This translated into photos with yellows and red-orangey hues that were breathtaking, one of the best astrophotography experiences of my life. My lunar eclipse picture gallery can be found at Please feel free to download my images as your souvenirs of this fantastic event.

Winter Solstice Total Lunar Eclipse
Click on the image above to be taken to the gallery highlighting the winter solstice total lunar eclipse of December 21, 2010. Viewers may download images of their choosing as souvenirs of this event. Gary A. Becker images from Coopersburg, PA...

751    JANUARY 9, 2011:   Morning Sky Still Looks Christmassy
Hooray, the 12 days of Christmas are now officially behind us with the arrival of the Wise Men in Jerusalem to visit the Christ Child. Epiphany occurred last Thursday. Alright, it’s not that I really hate Christmas. I just dislike the 75 days of nonstop commercialism that lead up this one celebratory moment which is really about love and hope. However throughout this past Holiday Season, there was one very Christmassy aspect to the sky which I saw every clear morning when I padded outside into the frigid air to grab the morning paper. It was that huge, brilliant, slowly twinkling, white “star” suspended low in the southeast. It was also the most frequently asked question that I have received about the sky during the past several months. It’s still unmistakably there in the dawn and predawn sky, if you care to look and brave the cold, and it is Venus. Venus orbits the sun in a period of 225 days, but because the Earth does the same in just over 365 days, it makes Venus change its position slowly against the backdrop of the local landscape of your back or front yard. In fact, it takes Venus about 584 days to repeat its same configuration with respect to the sun. This means that Venus will be west of the sun by approximately the same angle during the spring of 2012 and not a very fitting Star of Bethlehem during the fall and early winter of 2011. But by late 2018, Venus will be making its climb into the late fall and winter sky just like it did during this past year, another very fitting Star of the Magi. Depending upon when your workday begins, you can catch bright Venus in the ESE starting about 5 a.m. By 7 a.m., Earth’s rotation has carried her into the southeast, not quite one third of the distance from the horizon to the zenith. That’s about when I send my wife off to work, waving good-bye to her and giving a nod to gorgeous Venus flickering behind the branches of my neighbor’s swaying maples.

752    JANUARY 16, 2011:   A Sentient Universe
We live in a universe that is composed mostly of dark matter and dark energy. What we can see, about four percent, is made up of mainly hydrogen, a light, colorless, odorless gas, that given enough time, can turn into people. The storyline is a complex series of twists and turns that has been occurring for billions of years. The universe started with a pop, still called the Big Bang, the rifting of dimensions 14.7 billion years ago from some pinhead-sized blob—a burst of pure energy which a second later boasted all of the laws of nature that we know today. Energy rapidly morphed into hydrogen, helium, and a tiny bit of lithium. In the turbulence of the primordial mix, denser structures began to form galaxies which had as their basic luminous component, stars. One of these structures was the progenitor of our own Milky Way. Galaxies clustered and grew as they cannibalized each other, moving outward in an ever expanding and accelerating universe. Within our own local area, our Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies became dominant. Hundreds of billions of stars lived and died since our galaxy’s beginning, stars that have changed their hydrogen and helium into heavier elements through thermonuclear fusion. About one star in a thousand has gone supernova, producing in its catastrophic wake all of the naturally occurring elements and seeding the galaxy with its stardust—dust that in one case mingled with more hydrogen and helium to form an average star with its planets and moons that today we call our solar system. On the third planet, those atoms created in the dying bellies of stars were able to organize into replicating units about four billion years ago and evolve over eons of time into people Humanity has a tremendous responsibility to understand the soul of this universe that has given so much of itself to create us.

Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula has some of the newest star in the Milky Way Galaxy. In the center of the gas and dust cloud where it is brightest on the picture lies a cluster of stars called the Trapezium, where the age of the luminaries may be as little as 100,000 years. A Canon 60D imaged this 30 second prime focus photo at ASA 1000 using an 8-inch, F/4 Meade Schmidt-Newtonian reflector on a Vixen German equatorial mount. The night was hazy. Gary A. Becker image from Coopersburg, PA, January 3, 2011...

753    JANUARY 23, 2011:   Seeing Young Moons
Between February and May of each year is the best time to view the moon as a very thin crescent in the west. These young moons are witnessed over several evenings at the very beginning of their phase cycle after the moon is new. Because young moons are almost in the same line of sight as the sun, they are difficult to spot and always in close proximity to the western horizon after sunset. The youngest moons may become visible in twilight, only to set before complete darkness occurs. If the sky is transparent enough, these fragile silvery slivers will show copious amounts of earthshine, sunlight reflected from a nearly full Earth and then reflected back to us from the moon’s nighttime surface. It is a delicate and eerie sight to see, a gossamer bluish glow which completes the lunar disk, just slightly brighter than the darkening sky. Seeing a young moon depends upon the angle of the moon’s orbit to the horizon. All astronomical objects rise and set at the complementary angle of the observer’s local latitude. This rise and set angle equals 50° for 40° north latitude. The moon orbits the Earth at an angle which is tilted +/- 28° to the local rise and set angle. At 40° north, a young moon’s orbital path in the spring can be tilted as great as 78.5° to the local horizon. This means in the days following new moon, the thin crescent rapidly shoots up into evening sky and can, if all conditions are optimized, be seen just one day or less after its new phase. In the fall, just the opposite is true and young moons hug the western horizon unseen, setting very close to the time of the sun. An illustration can be found in the web edition of this article. Feb. 4-6, Mar. 5-7, Apr. 4-6, and May 5-7 are young moon nights. A clear sky and a good western horizon are a must. Start viewing about a half hour after sundown. Binoculars will help you spot the moon and make the earthshine easier to see.

Cause of Young Moon
Young Moons: During the spring the moon’s orbital plane is inclined at its greatest angle to the horizon (as great as 78.5° for 40° north latitude). This makes Luna shoot up from the horizon like a rocket after its new phase. Stars, planets, and the moon rise and set at angles which are equal to 90° minus the latitude position of the observer. For 40° north, that computes to a rise and set angle of 50°. That is the angle which the celestial equator is tilted to the horizon. During the fall from 40° north, the moon’s orbital plane can be tilted as little as 21.5° from the horizon, causing Luna’s path to hug the horizon after new moon and making young moons virtually impossible to spot. Graphics by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's The Sky...

The Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms
Young Moon with Earthshine in Early January: Thin waxing or waning crescent moons with plenty of earthshine have always fascinated me. This very slinky 2.5 percent waxing crescent imaged on January 5 fooled me. I anticipated the earthshine, the light reflected from a nearly full Earth reflected back to us from the part of the moon still in night, would be more pronounced. But the evening was hazy and the effect was not as bright as expected. The thin cirrus cloud helped to add some drama to the scene. No matter how many times I have photographed the “old moon in the new moon’s arms,” the scenes are always different and sometimes unexpectedly pleasing like this one was. This 6 second image was taken with a Canon 60D camera piggybacked on an equatorial mount, at F/13 (Oops), ASA 400, EFL 640mm. Gary A. Becker photography near Coopersburg, PA…

The Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms
The Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms: It becomes more difficult to show earthshine as the moon waxes. The ashen light from a waning gibbous Earth illuminating the part of the moon in night becomes less, and the contrast between the day and night portions of the moon increases dramatically several days after the new moon. To capture earthshine effectively on this 3.5 day old crescent photographed on January 7, parts of three images were used to subdue the brightness of the sunlit portion, while a fourth image highlighted the earthshine. A fifth picture with a longer exposure revealed the two stars. Thank goodness for digital photography. With regards to the two stars in the picture, the one closer to the moon is SAO 145698 (+6.54), while the other is SAO 145718 (+7.20). I used the latter to obtain a tight focus. The stars’ positions with respect to the moon also told me that my camera clock was off by a considerable amount. Composite photography by Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg, PA...

754    JANUARY 30, 2011:   I Knew Someone Who Knew...
When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, a western correspondent and filmmaker, Julien Bryan made his way to Warsaw to record the German blitzkrieg. Arriving in early September and given open access to the city by Warsaw’s mayor, Bryan filmed nonstop for two weeks, documenting the devastation on the Polish people as Germany’s war machine advanced. Bryan’s historic 10-minute film, Siege, depicting the German attack was the first non-Nazi film seen in American theaters about the Polish invasion. During WWII and until his death in 1974, Bryan continued to make documentaries about the people and customs of the countries that he visited. He and my father were friends. My dad, Earl A. Becker, ran the Curriculum Materials Center for the Allentown (PA) School District and was responsible for buying media for the ASD. He purchased many Bryan films and also brought him home for lunch one summer’s day. As a teenager of 14, I was enthralled by his travel stories and this one in particular. It was the early ‘50’s and Bryan had returned to his Princeton home from filming in Eastern Europe. Bryan, seeking comments and advice, invited a friend to view the raw footage. Several days later, his friend called back asking permission to invite an acquaintance. Bryan emphatically said, “No,” but his friend just would not give up. Again he asked, and Bryan responded again with the same answer of “No.” Finally sensing that his friend’s companion was going to be there whether Bryan wanted him or not, Julien acquiesced, but indicated his annoyance, stressing again the unedited aspects of his film. When the “big” night finally arrived and Bryan heard his friend knocking, he walked over to the door with some trepidation. Grasping the brass doorknob firmly, he opened his entryway and looked up. There was his friend with Albert Einstein.

Julien Bryan (1899-1974)
Julien Bryan in 1939 in Warsaw, Poland filming Siege. The 10 minute documentary can be viewed at Bryan described his evening with Einstein as one of lively but relaxed conversation. Julien Bryan also noted that Einstein showed genuine interest in his recent filming sojourn to Eastern Europe, but that his demeanor was more like “just one of the guys.” Wikipedia image...

[January Star Map]

[January Moon Phase Calendar]