StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1116    JANUARY 7, 2018:   January’s Moon Gone Wild
I am not a particularly sound sleeper. If one of the neighborhood dogs doesn’t bring me to consciousness, then eventually Mother Nature will. The time is usually just before 6 a.m. Part of this routine results from the alarm having sounded at 5:45 a.m. for nearly 40 years. Both my wife and I spent a total of 77 years teaching in the public schools, Palisades (Sue) and Allentown (me). Now that I’m teaching at night and get home about 11 p.m., don’t try communicating with me until noon. Awakening at the same time throughout the year gives you a very consistent progression of the changing seasons. One of my winter views that I can observe from my bedroom are the long shadows cast by the bright moon, especially right before its full stage through last quarter, an interval of about 10 days or so; and with a snowpack on the ground, the scene is really exquisite with even the small branches of my skeletal trees casting distinct shadows on the snow. Bonnie Brooks, a former employee at Moravian College, recently brought this to my attention and reawakened this dormant, esthetic appeal created by the moon’s bright light and its shadow play on freshly fallen snow. If you don’t believe how bright the full or nearly full moon can be, try finding an area illuminated directly by the moon, but not by any other artificial lighting source. Take a newspaper or a book along with you and see if you can read it by the light of the moon. This is something my grandfather did during WWI along the Eastern Front, when he, as part of the German military, was fighting the Russians. The moon will begin to brighten up the landscape once again after January 24 when it will be at first quarter, heading towards its full phase on January 31. That brings another interesting aspect to mind about this month’s moon. Its phase period is only 29.5 days, meaning that we have already had our first full moon of the year late on New Year’s Day. January has two full moons and the second one, which will be occurring on the 31st, is called a blue moon. February with its 28 or 29 days (this year 28), doesn’t give the moon a sufficient amount of time to return to its full phase, so the next full moon must occur in early March, again late on the first to be exact. Twenty-nine and one-half days later, early on the 31st of March, the next full moon transpires which is also a blue moon. Blue moons are supposed to be rare, like the saying “happening once in a blue moon,” intervals of two to three years between them in most circumstances. However, once in every 19 years, the moon is blue in January, which automatically must make it blue in March. I’ll be a “spry 86” the next time that happens again. To make this January’s blue moon even more special, a total lunar eclipse also occurs on the 31st. Unfortunately, it’s a West Coast event. The East Coast of the US sees only the very beginning of the eclipse when it is still in the secondary shadow of the Earth and very low to the western horizon. The upper left portion of the moon will appear dusky around 6:45 a.m. That’s one eclipse I will not even have to set my alarm to witness. I’ll be up regardless of the weather, compliments of my internal and annoying alarm system. All the best in the New Year!

1117    JANUARY 14, 2018:   Proxima: A Wild Ride into the Future
I have to admit that my wife, Susan, is my source of recommendations for the science fiction books that I read. An English teacher for 39 years, she has an intuitive knack for knowing what I’ll like. My latest SF read is Stephen Baxter’s Proxima, Penguin Group, 2014. In fact, this book had so much to offer, so many twists and turns, that I read it twice and enjoyed it more the second time around. Not only can Baxter spin a good narrative with plenty of detail, but he is also “a trained engineer with a degree in mathematics from Cambridge and a doctorate in aero-engineering research from the University of Southampton.” This makes the Proxima an extrapolation of solid science facts similar to Contact and Interstellar. The book takes place between the mid-22nd and early 23rd centuries after the Earth’s population has been decimated by global warming, but saved during the “Heroic Age.” Details are lacking, but it evidently was a time of chaos. Most of Earth’s surviving population has moved north where temperate conditions are the norm. Nationalism has been replaced by two competitive groups the United Nations and former countries aligned with China. They each want what the other has. The solar system is being explored and exploited with Mercury and Venus belonging to the UN, Mars as more or less of a neutral zone, and the outer planets and asteroids having Chinese exclusivity. Although it seems as if the UN is at a disadvantage, they have discovered and developed something called kernel technology. Kernels are small, found deep within Mercury’s mantle, and encapsulate enormous energy which have allowed UN forces to build starships to expand their presence into the galaxy. Proxima c is the UN’s first destination, a habitable planet orbiting the closest star to our sun. In reality, it’s called Proxima b which was discovered in August 2016 after the book was written. Most of the first pioneers to this brave new world are some of Earth’s worst misfits, and to put it bluntly, this leads to a lot of infighting, but gradually sanity and order prevail as the continuously, sunward-facing side of the planet is explored due to the erratic behavior of M-class, red dwarf stars. There is also plenty of sentient life on Proxima c, tubular like creatures called “stems,” that don’t seem to care about the evolving human presence even if Yuri Eden, Proxima’s main character, takes note of what they are doing in order to survive. One of the biggest “Aha moments” in Proxima occurs when a time portal called the “hatch” is discovered. Passing through its three rooms leads back to Mercury where the largest cache of kernels has been discovered. Ironically, the stems intuitively know how to open it, but could not have possible built it. Did sentient life first originate on Proxima c and then make its way into the solar system? A full-scale UN immigration to Proxima c is underway and now the Chinese want kernel technology even more. In the end humanity… and the solar system… Sorry, no spoiler alerts here. You’ll simply have to read the book to find out, but I can guarantee you this. If five people peruse Proxima, there will be five different conclusions. My wife and I are still duking it out over the finer details with no consensus in sight! Discover Proxima for yourself. If you like science fiction woven from science fact, you won’t be disappointed.

1118    JANUARY 21, 2018:   The Lore of the Blue Moon
Years ago in the early days of StarWatch, I decided to write an article about the blue moon. We have one occurring this month on January 31. At that time, it was common knowledge among the astronomical community that a blue moon was the second full moon occurring within the time span of one month. Looking at the words on my computer screen, I couldn’t recall having ever seen that definition for a blue moon in print. So I pulled out one of my scores of books on Luna, blew off a little dust, and scanned through the index. No page link to a blue moon. Book after book revealed the same irony, that there was no index reference for the blue moon. Then in one tome, Survey of the Moon by Patrick Moore, I did see the term, but here actual blue moons and blue suns had been observed as a result of atmospheric scattering of sunlight passing through the smoke associated with a large forest fire in Canada (1950). I went through approximately 60 books, and there was no “real” reference to a blue moon. I literally panicked and scrapped the article for something more generic, like the constellation of the month. Little did I know that at the same time a mystery was beginning to be resolved among the editors of Sky and Telescope magazine about the same question. It turns out that the mystery of the blue moon began with the Maine Farmers’ Almanac of 1937. Full moons were named in accordance to the events happening in an ecclesiastical calendar. As an example, the March full moon was named the Paschal Moon. The problem was that every two or three years there were four full moons which transpired within a three-month period, and if the correct progression of full moon names was to be maintained, one of the full moons would have to be dropped. In order to keep the full moons in step with their religious significance, the third full moon occurring in a span of three months where there were four full moons, was called the blue moon. The Maine Farmers’ Almanac used the concept of the blue moon in a similar fashion to the use of the leap year in our civil calendar, in this case, to reset the full moons so that the appropriately named moon occurred at the correct time in the church year. The term “blue moon” was used in 1943 and 1946 in Sky and Telescope magazine articles. It was the latter citation that used the blue moon, incorrectly as we refer to it today, two full moons occurring within the time span of one month. Debra Byrd in 1980 used the blue moon in her public radio program, Star Date, giving the term national attention. By 1985, The Kid’s World Almanac gave the astronomical term another boost. The following year, the blue moon was adopted for use in the game Trivial Pursuit; however, when two full moons occurred in May of 1988, the international press spread blue moon hype far and wide. The decade of the 1980’s ended with a New Year’s Eve blue moon on December 31, 1990. And lo and behold, it came to pass that a new meaning to an old friend, the blue moon, was added to the American lexicon. Happy blue moon, January 31, to all!

1119    JANUARY 28, 2018:   Bummer Blue Moon Total Lunar Eclipse
In “Bart’s Comet,” a Simpsons episode which aired on February 15, 1995, Bart Simpson detects a comet which is headed inbound to destroy the Earth. The discovery occurs during what should have been a reprimand for Bart’s misbehavior when he pranked the key event, the launching of a weather balloon, during “Propane Explosion-Free Science Week.” A sheet tied to the balloon unravels into a caricature of his science teacher, Mr. Skinner, including a sign which reads, “Hi! I’m Big Butt Skinner.” Skinner immediately suspects Bart of the misdeed and retaliates saying, “I’m going to punish you for this Bart, and it won’t just be a simple caning this time. Because you have impeded science, you must now aid science. Yes… Starting tomorrow, you will assist me with my amateur astronomy, taking down coordinates, carrying equipment, and so forth—4:30 in the morning.” When sleepy Bart arrives at school, Skinner’s scope is already assembled and Bart asks enthusiastically, “Is this the telescope we’re going to be looking through?” Big Butt Skinner retorts, “Yes, but you won’t be looking through it. I forbid it.” That is exactly how I feel about this month’s blue moon total lunar eclipse. The blue moon is the second full moon of the month, and it occurs on Wednesday, January 31. At the same time, a good portion of North America will see a beautiful total lunar eclipse, a relatively rare occurrence when Luna passes through the main shadow of the Earth. Observers on the East Coast with an average western horizon will only see the upper left limb of the moon appear dusky in nature as it moves deep into Earth’s secondary shadow, the penumbra, around 6:45 a.m. We will miss the big show. It’s almost as bad as Bart Simpson not being able to look into Big Butt Skinner’s telescope. Think of the Earth’s shadow as a grayish, flat washer on a white piece of paper. The center, where the hole of the washer is located, is over a black dot which represents the densest part of Earth’s shadow, the umbra. Since the moon is full and opposite to the Earth and the sun, the white paper indicates where full sunlight is still reaching the moon. As the moon travels into the grayish donut region of the washer called the penumbra, that part of the moon sees a portion of the Earth covering the sun. Light falling in this locale is not as bright as full sunlight. The deeper into the penumbra the moon travels, the more diminutive the light becomes. This is basically all that the East Coast will be privileged to witness as the moon nears the western horizon on January 31. The farther west a person is located, the earlier the time will become, and these observers will have the advantage of viewing the moon drift into the Earth’s umbra, the area where if you were on the moon, the Earth would be completely hiding the sun, in other words, a total solar eclipse from the moon’s perspective. This represents being in the hole of the washer under which the paper has been painted black. Observers west of the Mississippi will view the moon move completely into Earth’s shadow with Luna taking on a rainbow of reds, oranges, and browns. It can be a breathtaking sight. Where will I be on the morning of January 31? Probably dreaming of being in Hawaii where the eclipse will be seen in its entirety and much higher in the sky… Hey, Moravian Wednesday astronomers, if I don’t show for class, you know that the dream came true. And in addition to a colorful lunar eclipse, it will be warm. Now, I’m definitely out of here—NOT!

[January Star Map]

[January Moon Phase Calendar]