StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



[Moon Phases]


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1429    JANUARY 7, 2024:   Winter's Brightest Asterism, the "Heavenly G"
One of the perks of pushing into the New Year is that the sun is beginning to move slowly upward in the sky. Sol is sinking below the west, southwestern horizon about 20 minutes later (4:54 p.m.) than its earliest setting time, December 8 (4:35 p.m.). Likewise, the sun is rising earlier each morning. The latest sunrise occurred on January 5 (7:22 p.m.). The change here is about one minute earlier. We are still dealing with 14.5 hours of solar downtime and about 70 days left until the vernal equinox when day and night will essentially be equal. * Another perk about longer nights is that the starry realm can be observed long before bedtime and in conditions that are generally less frigid for the season than much later in the evening. By 9:30 p.m., some of the brightest stars in the sky are front and center in the south, southeast. With a bit of imagination, you can connect them to form a gigantic "G," often designated as the asterism of the "Heavenly G." Asterisms form pictures but are not officially recognized as star patterns by the International Astronomical Union. The "G" which circles the brightest stars of six constellations starts with the star Capella which lies above one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky, Orion, the Hunter. He is in the SSE at 9:30 p.m. Find Orion first. Its three blue-white belt stars, Mintaka (top), Alnilam (middle), and Alnitak, form a close-knit, straight line, which is very obvious in the night sky. * Begin with Capella, the sixth brightest star of the night, high above Orion. Stretching a line segment upward from Orion's two brightest stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, will bring you slightly above two bright stars that are relatively close together. You have come across the heads of the Gemini Twins, Castor (right and above) and Pollux. Pollux is the 17th brightest star of the night, while Castor is the 23rd. Start your arc that forms the "G" with Capella and proceed to Castor and Pollux. * Nearly straight down from the Gemini Twins will be the bright and solitary star, Procyon, the principal luminary of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. It is number eight on the brightness scale. Continuing below Procyon and to the right dazzles the brightest star of the night, Sirius, the alpha star of Canis Major, the Big Dog. Move right and upward to the brightest star of the Hunter, blue-white supergiant Rigel (Orion's knee and seventh brightest), and again upward and towards the right to discover Aldebaran of Taurus the Bull. You can independently confirm Aldebaran's location by rocketing upward from the three belt stars of Orion to this yellowish star. Soaring downward from the belt stars locates Sirius. * From Aldebaran, proceed left and downward to the top right star of Orion's shoulder, Bellatrix (26th brightest), then across to the left shoulder, finding orangey supergiant Betelgeuse (tenth brightest). This completes the "G." You can see a map outlining the stars of the "Heavenly G" below, but a few words of advice. When viewing the map, this asterism is obvious as a "G." Observers attempting to locate it in the sky will have to change the orientation of their heads because the "G" is just too big to be seen in one field of view. Good "G" hunting! Ad Astra!


1430    JANUARY 14, 2024:   Travel Wisely to See April's Eclipse
If you are traveling to witness the April 8 total solar eclipse and staying at a specific location to observe it, make sure that you are booking lodging within the path of totality warns Jamie Carter of He notes two places planning eclipse venues for guests where viewers will be highly disappointed: Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, with 99.02 percent coverage at maximum eclipse, and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Arkansas (99.4 percent). Yes, the sky will look very dusky, and the area from which the shadow is passing will look much darker, but participants will miss the wondrous scenes, such as the diamond ring, Bailey's Beads, prominences, and the magnificent corona (sun's outer atmosphere). If a full moon highly restricts what can be seen in the sky during the night, then the sun, which is 436,500 times brighter, masks everything until about 10-15 seconds before totality. * Jon D. Miller, a public science literacy advocate from the University of Michigan, estimated that 19.8 million American adults traveled in 2017 to view the August 21 total solar eclipse from inside the path of totality. He notes that many of those individuals would have seen a total solar eclipse from their homes but ventured deeper into the shadow zone to make the period of totality last longer. I have enclosed a link allowing readers to experiment using computers and smart technology with positions that are located on or off the path of totality. The different moments of the eclipse are noted in Universal Time, i.e., Greenwich Mean Time. Subtract four hours from UT to obtain the Eastern Daylight Time and five hours for Central Daylight Time. The different events are offered in a 24-hour clock format. For example, 1 p.m. equals 13 hours; 2 p.m., 14:00 hours; 6 p.m., 18 hours, etc. * Once eclipse enthusiasts have reached the path of totality, all of the phenomena related to total solar eclipses are waiting to be enjoyed. At the northern or southern limits, totality is instantaneous, but just traveling 15 miles into the 110-mile-wide shadow path as it crosses Pennsylvania near Erie, increases totality from instantaneous to 2 minutes, 50 seconds. Double that distance to 30 miles, and the length of totality to be experienced is approximately 3 minutes and 33 seconds, an increase of 43 seconds. On the centerline, which passes about 15 miles to the NW of Erie, over Lake Erie, an additional 15 seconds of shadow time will occur. * Keep in mind that most enthusiasts traveling into the moon's primary shadow and darkness are most likely headed for the centerline. However, locating yourself 10 or 20 miles from that position for this event will allow you to witness the eclipse in near-centerline conditions but in a less congested locale. You may even find yourself entertaining the local neighbors as my friends and I did in Osceola, North Carolina, for the 1984, May 30 annular eclipse. The Rumley family even gave us bathroom privileges before we left. Not a bad way "to go…" Ad Astra!

1431    JANUARY 21, 2024:   Don't Scream at the Clouds
At the meeting a day before the April 20, 2023 Australian eclipse, our group from Sky and Telescope gathered in the spacious theater of the Pacific Explorer for a final briefing regarding the weather. When we started the cruise two days earlier, the forecast for the North West Coast had been ominous, partly to mostly cloudy for the 20th, but with each passing update the prognosis had improved for Oz's Sun Coast. On eclipse eve, everyone in the know was confident that we would see it, and indeed, on E-day the sky was clear. * Eclipse chasing does have a stressful component attached to it. I don't know how to get around that fact, but by adding other activities into the itinerary and even having a battle plan if conditions are overcast, a cloudy eclipse will not spell doom and gloom for the entire journey. * As one of our post eclipse activities, Peter Detterline and I rented a house about four hours to the southeast of Perth, Western Australia, where we spent six nights photographing the Southern Hemisphere sky. We had two mostly clear nights, two partly cloudy nights, and two evenings that were cloudy, one with rain. We both agreed that this part of the expedition was the most satisfying and relaxing. The cloudy nights allowed us to regroup so that the usable evenings were put to the greatest advantage. * On average a total solar eclipse happens about once every year-and-a-half. Many paths traverse hard-to-reach and sometimes politically dangerous destinations, so it might be several if not many years between eclipse adventures. Chasing can also be expensive too. So what happens if the clouds roll in? * When my interests in astronomy burgeoned while in high school, sometimes I actually screamed (mentally) at the clouds. My parents said that I could be morbid for days, sulking around the house because I had missed an astronomical event. * Of the ten central solar eclipses that I have witnessed, clouds ruined only one. That was on Canada's Gaspé Peninsula near the town of Matane in 1972. I had just graduated from Kutztown University, secured a teaching position with the planetarium in the Allentown School District, so screaming was out of the question; however, my disappointment was truly great. I did manage to secure one thin crescent, partial eclipse photo when breaks in the clouds occurred several minutes before totality. Squeezing some more lemonade from this sour situation, I then regrouped and photographed the lights of Matane on the St. Lawrence River. The moon's shadow engulfing the cloudy sky made the scene appear as dark as night, an experience I could relate to my future students, so all was not lost. * Because approaching weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere generally have a northeast to southwest slant, the entire path of totality could be clouded over for this eclipse. I witnessed such as dire situation on satellite images recorded on April 5 through 7th of last year. Then on April 8, as the system crawled eastward, most observers along totality's path would have seen the eclipse. * Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. With respect to good weather conditions and the duration of totality, Texas is the sweet spot for this eclipse; however in 2023, clouds would have marred the view. Having said this, if you wind up under gray or damp conditions, have a plan to record the ground events so that all is not lost. Guaranteed, you won't be completely disappointed. Go below to see cloud conditions on April 8, 2023. Ad Astra!

[Weather and the Path of Totality]
Weather is what you get, climate is what you expect. Based upon the weather conditions of April 8, 2923 most observers would have seen totality. This is not a prediction for 2024. Images: top, National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch; bottom,

1432    JANUARY 28, 2024:   Oh No, Groundhog Day, AGAIN?
My wife and I have three rabbits as pets: Fynn, Stella, and Sagan. My favorite is Fynn, a male Mini-Dutch who enjoys reclining on my lap to receive my infamous "chiropractic" bunny massages. With a body temperature of approximately 102 degrees F., Fynn's evening workouts are exceptionally lengthy during the cold weather months. * Rabbits do have smarts. They have been called the ultimate evaders, designed to duck and cover, zig and zag while outrunning or outsmarting their predators. Fynn knows a lot about that. He was rescued from a family with a dog, and the two didn't get along. The problem was that the dog was losing, and one of them had to go. Thank goodness, the family chose Fynn, and we obtained him about eight years ago from an animal rescue service near Easton. It took several wild and crazy months to convince him we were not his previous family. Still, once he gained our trust, he became a loving creature, snuggling on my lap or pushing his head against my hand, telling me that maybe I could do it better, but always quick to return the favor by licking me with his dry, rough tongue. * Easter is their time, a symbol of new life. Rabbits are very prolific. However, another critter, a member of the (booo) rodent family, is getting top billing right now. It's the slow-moving and even slower-thinking groundhog. They make lagomorphs, hares, rabbits, and pikas look like virtual Einsteins, compared to the waddling, fat, groundhogs who decide whether winter weather is staying or departing. No member of the Rodentia family should have to live under that kind of pressure, and indeed, they don't, getting it wrong almost every year. * The badger is the European equivalent, but in America, groundhogs were adopted as the soothsaying creatures that were given this opportunity to excel, only to fail in their forecasts about 61 percent of the time. It's all about roots and the fact that groundhogs are burrowing creatures that have the opportunity to observe how roots and tubers are growing, whether they are fattening ahead of schedule, indicating an early spring, or are falling behind in their timetable, which means more winter misery lies ahead. A highly chatty groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil and others across the country make this prediction on February 2. Phil will speak to his top hat handler in a language known as "groundhogese," a word absent from the dictionary, to convey his sentiments about meteorology. Add the sun into the mix, and the process becomes very unintuitive. If the sun is out and Phil sees his shadow, it's six more weeks of winter; if not, an early spring is at hand. A groundhog simply cannot remember something so complex. * Groundhog Day occurs on the first of the four cross-quarter days of a year, the time between a solstice, a high or a low sun, and an equinox, a mid-positioned sun. Frankly, I could care less about Phil's prognostications because I've got Fynn, Stella, and Sagan to keep me warm. Bottom line, may it be a grey Groundhog Day, February 2. I'm still looking forward to an early spring. Regardless, have a Happy G. D. Ad Astra!

[January Star Map]

[January Moon Phase Calendar]