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JANUARY 2, 2022: The View in 2022
There are four major events that occur during 2022, and I’d like to introduce them to you. There will be much more to say in future StarWatch blogs when each of them transpires. Two total lunar eclipses grace North America during 2022, one on May 16 and the other on November 8. These eclipses occur when the full moon intersects the Earth’s shadow as Luna passes through the Earth’s orbital plane. Unlike the partial phases of solar eclipses which are dangerous to observe without the proper filtration or projection techniques, lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to watch at all times. If you can observe the full moon without filtration through binoculars and telescopes, then you can watch the full moon travel into the shadow of the Earth. In addition, lunar eclipses can be very colorful events with reds, oranges, yellows, browns, and even occasionally small areas of blues visible on the moon’s surface. • By far the eclipse that will rob you of the least amount of sleep is the Monday into Tuesday, May 16/17 event. The eastern half of North America and all of South America get to participate in all aspects of this happening. The moon enters the main shadow of Earth at 10:27 p.m., totality begins at 11:29 p.m., and ends at 12:54 a.m. on May 17. Luna is completely immersed within Earth’s shadow for 85 minutes, with the high north polar regions of the moon passing through the center of the shadow, something I have not experienced in decades of lunar eclipse watching. The gradation of colors could be spectacular. • It had better be clear for this eclipse and the one that follows on Election Day, November 8. Here you will need to brace yourself for an early rising, for the moon does not begin to pierce Earth’s main shadow until 4:09 a.m. Totality commences at 5:17 a.m. The moon sets just as totality is ending, and the sun is rising over the Lehigh Valley at about 6:46 a.m. You’ll need a good WNW horizon for this eclipse, for when the moon first makes contact with Earth’s primary shadow, it will only be 27 degrees above the western horizon. When totality commences at 5:17 a.m., Luna will have descended to only 15 degrees atop the horizon. By 5:50 a.m. the western sky will be filling in with deep twilight, but that could make for some interesting photography, especially through telescopes and telephoto lenses, imaging the totally eclipsed reddened moon against a deep lapis sky background. • The other two events involve the planets, all of them including dwarf planet Pluto, strung across the sky like a loosely beaded necklace. These are events that occur over several weeks and also involve the moon too! Starting around the second week in June through the month’s end, all of the planets will be positioned in the morning sky about 30 minutes before sunrise. The same will be true for the evening sky, starting in mid-December through the end of 2022. You’ll need binoculars to view Uranus and Neptune and a good-sized telescope to see Pluto, but they will all be there in the sky at the same time. In both cases the moon will be jogging through the scene too! A happy, healthful, and productive New Year to everyone. Keep looking up. Ad Astra!
JANUARY 9, 2022: The Hounds of the Hunter
In recent StarWatch blogs, I have written about two constellations of the Winter Group, Orion and Taurus. The hunting dogs of Orion, Canis Major the Big Dog and Canis Minor the Little Dog, are also associated with this area of the sky. The hunting dogs of Bootes the Herdsman, Canis Venatici, complete the hounds of the heavens. However, Canis Venatici is a spring star pattern bordering the handle of the Big Dipper. It was created by the 17th century German astronomer Johannes Hevelius, with little to offer except confusion, while the Hunting Dogs associated with Orion are easier to spot because of their brightest luminaries, Sirius and Procyon. They form two thirds of a triangle along with Orion’s red supergiant, Betelgeuse. See the map which shows the Winter Triangle and outlines of Orion and his Hunting Dogs below. In early January by 10 p.m., both dogs are barking, fully above the horizon and ready for viewing. • Use the three belt stars of the Hunter as a sliding board and glide down towards the brightest luminary of the nighttime sky, Sirius. It is only second to the sun, but nearly 13 billion times fainter as seen from Earth. At a scant 8.6 light years distant (about 50 trillion miles), Sirius is not only dazzling because of its closeness to us, but if compared side by side with the sun, it is also 26 times more luminous. It has a white dwarf companion about the size of the Earth, but with a mass comparable to our sun. Originally, this star possessed about six to seven solar masses, converting hydrogen into helium for perhaps 100 million years. Then it flowered into a red giant near the end of the Jurassic period when dinosaurs were the dominant life-form on Earth. In the end, instabilities in the star’s core caused it to shed about 80 percent of its mass before becoming a white dwarf, destined to cool forever until it reaches the ambient temperature of the universe. Sirius represents the nose of the Great Dog, its body in a position similar to a canine jumping and begging for food before his master. Use binoculars to bring out the faint eyes of the dog which form a nearly equilateral triangle with Sirius. Then move directly below Sirius, less than one binocular field, and you will encounter M41 a star cluster containing about 100 members, 190 light years distant. Follow the backbone of his body down to his lower legs and tail near the horizon. They are often dimmed by light pollution and haze, but clearly visible on transparent nights. To the northeast of Sirius is another bright luminary, Procyon, the alpha star of Canis Minor the Little Dog. Procyon is derived from the Greek and means rising “before the Dog,” because it is often mistaken for Sirius. Four degrees northwest of Procyon is positioned a fainter luminary named Gomeisa which completes the constellation, and for me, makes this pattern simply the “Hotdog.” These are the only stars that outline all his bodily parts and represent an excellent example of the overactive imagination of some ancient astronomer who had probably consumed too much wine. Ad Astra!
Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisques's
JANUARY 16, 2022: The River of Doubt
Theodore Roosevelt was my grandmother’s (Marie Becker) favorite president, and I can understand how as a young woman his passion for life and the natural world, his patriotism for this wonderful country, and his unquenchable energy for accomplishing the difficult for the betterment of all humankind must have been very attractive to her. She was nearly 21 when he died in early January of 1919 at the age of 60. Roosevelt was a good fit for his time in American history, but he also had a darker side. After his Bull Moose Party met defeat to Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election, a despondent Roosevelt felt the need to rejuvenate himself through some physical ordeal, worthy of his public and personal persona. • When a speaking engagement in Buenos Aires, Argentina presented itself in 1913, friends suggested and planned a supplemental leisurely tour of specimen gathering endorsed by New York’s American Museum of Natural History through sightseen regions of the Amazon rainforest. However, when Theodore was presented with a more rigorous challenge to explore an uncharted river, Roosevelt enthusiastically embraced the challenge and decided to “throw in” his luck with the Brazilian Amazon explorer, Candido Rondon, who conceded to navigate the Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt, with Roosevelt, now known as the Rio Roosevelt. The river turned out to be a 470-mile rapids strewn tributary of the Aripuanã which eventually connected with the Amazon. It nearly claimed Roosevelt’s life. Kermit, Roosevelt’s son, also joined him along with 20 others, including AMNH naturalist George Cherrie. This was a serious scientific expedition that became an extraordinary adventure of survival brilliantly captured by author Candice Millard’s book, The River of Doubt, Anchor Books, 2005. It is the second tome in the last six months after Andrea Pitzer’s Icebound, “StarWatch” 1298 which I found almost impossible to put down. What makes Millard’s book particularly noteworthy was not just her vivid narrative of traversing the Rio da Duvida, but the time she makes to interweave in detail why the Amazon is such a dangerous place to explore. It is an ecosystem so infused with the living that nothing is wasted. Life has evolved to hide in complete silence and perfect camouflage under an endless canopy of towering trees and vines that create their own daily weather patterns or to creep in staggering numbers over the leached forest floor; ten percent of the Amazon’s biomass are ants. • The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition literally reminded me of a future Elon Musk mission triumphantly traveling to Mars, not just to visit, but to establish an outpost for the sustained exploration of space, and perhaps the preservation of the human species. Both the Amazon and space have the ability to debilitate the human spirit and kill quickly or slowly, depending upon the circumstances. It will take a 21st century Roosevelt and Rondon to navigate successfully its perils, to make a permanent stand, and effectively surmount its challenges. In a place where everything bites, swarms, gnaws, pricks, squeezes, stings, and poisons, the Amazon to me is just an earthly paradigm of an alien space adventure. Ad Astra!
JANUARY 23, 2022: All Jammed Up in Low Earth Orbit
Back in August of 2019 when I was in Wyoming observing the Perseid Meteor Shower, I remember being annoyed by the light of a defunct satellite. Every 90 minutes or so, it would circle around, sporadically strobing the northern sky with flashes of reflected sunlight, sometimes rivaling the brightness of Venus in intensity. • There are currently about 6500 satellites and 1500 rocket boosters orbiting Earth, in addition to over 19,000 debris fragments which are 10 cm or larger in size. If that size is reduced to 1 cm (0.4 inch), an estimated one million more particles are circling Earth. All of these fragments are in Low Earth Orbit, 600 km or less in altitude (just under 375 miles). This is about 150 miles higher than the average orbital altitude of the International Space Station. There would be about 5000 less larger debris particles if the Chinese hadn’t performed an anti-satellite test in 2007, and
had not collided with
in 2009. The right-angle collision of those two satellites was at a relative speed of 22,300 mph, a velocity where a silver dollar contains the same amount of energy as 1.5 sticks of TNT. Imagine what that would do to your Tesla. • Remember the Hollywood blockbuster,
, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, where a collision takes down most of the orbiting satellites, including the International Space Station? This is not the kind of end scenario that humanity would like to experience with a current investment in the space industry totaling four trillion-dollars. However, it may not be all fantasy either. • Although the writers probably didn’t know it, Gravity was based loosely on the Kessler Syndrome named after Donald J. Kessler, a retired senior scientist for orbital debris research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Kessler concluded that the amount of space debris in orbit would eventually reach a critical tipping point, where through additional random collisions, more rubble would be generated than could be “cleansed” by the natural deorbiting of particles by the Earth’s outer atmosphere. This would eventually lead to a cascading event that would be very bad for satellites, astronauts, and the space industry in general. • However, it is not all doom and gloom either. The military is currently monitoring about 1000 satellites to ensure their orbital safety, as well as many of those 10 cm (4 inches) or larger fragments. Rocket launches also take into consideration the probability of collision with other satellites and debris, and payloads can also be maneuvered to present as small a surface area as possible if onrushing rubble is expected to pass by. Conversely, they can be made to deorbit faster by presenting a larger surface area to the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Still with the future prospect of an additional 100,000 communications satellites designed to establish global Internet coverage in line for approval as of November 2021, collisions in space seem a more likely reality, and a problem that needs close supervision by all space-faring nations. Ad Astra!
JANUARY 30, 2022: A Life Well Spent: Carolyn Shoemaker
I’ve never been much for following obituaries, but when I came across a very long list of astronomers that was published in Wikipedia, I paused and reviewed it for stargazers that had made memorable discoveries of comets. Unfortunately, I discovered that Carolyn S. Shoemaker (1929-2021) had died on August 13. She was co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (1993) along with her husband, Eugene Shoemaker (1928-1997), and David H. Levy (b. 1948). The Shoemakers worked successfully, imaging and identifying minor planets and comets with the hopes of detecting those that might come near to or cross Earth’s orbit and be a threat to humanity. • Shoemaker-Levy 9, however, was not one of these Earth-crossers, but it was one for the record books. After its discovery it was determined that the year before, Jupiter’s gravity had broken up SL9 into a string of 21 pearl-like nuclei, each with a short, stubby tail. Even more noteworthy was the fact that the comet was determined to be in orbit around Jupiter, and furthermore, it was going to impact the planet in mid-July of 1994. With over a year before the hit, the astronomical community had ample time to prepare to study the collisions not only from Earth, but with the newly repaired Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo spacecraft which at that time was en route to orbit the Jovian world. • When the impacts occurred between July 16 through July 22, 1994, the event proved more “impactful” than anyone could possibly have imagined. The blackened strike locations in Jupiter’s cloud tops, where Shoemaker-Levy’s fragments had disintegrated, released far more energy than any team of astronomers had anticipated. • That single event started a series of multinational searches for Earth-crossing objects. In addition to the more than 500 asteroids and 32 comets that Carolyn discovered during her 40-year career in astronomy, one million more have been located by other teams of astronomers with over 28,000 (Jan. 2022) of these minor planets, mostly very small, coming near enough to Earth to be monitored for a possible collision. Almost 10,000 of them are between 140-1000 meters (460 feet to 0.6 mile) in size. Current estimates predict that there are approximately 1000 asteroids with a diameter greater than one kilometer (0.6 mile) in size that pass near to the Earth—886 discoveries of larger, more deadly asteroids have been found to date. When Comet Shoemaker-Levy was first imaged on March 24, 1993 at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, there were only 141 Near Earth Asteroids greater than one kilometer in size and less than 250 of all types of possible Earth-colliding asteroids on the record books. David Levy writes that, “Before the Jupiter impacts, a reporter asked [Carolyn Shoemaker] what would happen if all the comet’s fragments [of Shoemaker-Levy 9] were to hit Earth instead [of Jupiter]? ‘We would all die,’ she answered. The interviewer explained that this was for a children’s program, then posed the question again. Carolyn’s second answer: ‘We would all be very uncomfortable.’” See what you started, Carolyn, Eugene, and David? A life well-spent is a life that makes a difference, in this case a big difference. Ad Astra!