StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

JULY  2004


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[Moon Phases]


410    JULY 4, 2004:   Christmas in July
As much as I often bemoan living in the humid, light polluted East and yearn for the turquoise blue skies of the Southwest, there are some pleasures that I truly do cherish about my local environment. One of them is to stride into my backyard under the gray veil of night and stand in an open area near the small creek that meanders through it. Right now, it is like Christmas in July. There are literally thousands of flickering lightning bugs as far as the eye can see, from the grassy carpet of the lawn throughout the wild multi-floral rose bushes, and nearly to the tops of the elms, maples, and chestnut trees that compose a woodsy section on the eastern and northern boundary of my property. Then even higher are the twinkling star patterns of spring and summer standing their watch. But my eyes are constantly drawn lower to the pure yellow light of the fireflies. The scene is magical like the house decorations on our block at Christmas, but totally energy efficient and completely silent. That same backyard that I trod with wheel barrel in hand earlier in the day, showed no signs of the beauty and mystery that revealed itself to me after darkness. Standing amongst the fireflies with the stars overhead gives me confidence that our universe and my plot of earth have something very much in common—hidden secrets—life. As of July 1, we have found 122 planets beyond our solar system in 107 planetary systems. Thirteen of those stellar systems have two or more planets in orbit around a single star. Closer to home, we know that Mars once possessed rivers, lakes, and even saltwater oceans. Our thoughts about Earth as the sole abode of life in the universe are fading. The fireflies are about to emerge.

[Christmas in July]
Lightning bugs create a festive July Holiday portrait in my backyard in Coopersburg, PA. This four minute digital image shows grass and trees that would not be visible to the eye. The flashes of light created by the fireflies would be easily seen. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

411    JULY 11, 2004:   Goodbye, Mr. Gorsky
“When Apollo Mission Astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, he not only gave his famous ‘one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind’ statement but followed it by several remarks and usual com traffic. Just before he re-entered the Lander, however, he made the enigmatic remark, ‘Good luck, Mr. Gorsky.’ Many people at NASA thought it was a casual remark concerning some rival Soviet Cosmonaut. However upon checking, there was no Gorsky in either the Russian or American space programs. Over the years many people questioned Armstrong as to what the ‘Good luck, Mr. Gorsky’ statement meant, but Armstrong always just smiled. On July 5, 1995 (in Tampa Bay, FL) while answering questions following a speech, a reporter brought up the 26-year old question to Armstrong. This time, he finally responded. Mr. Gorsky had died and so Neil Armstrong felt he could answer the question. When he was a kid, he was playing baseball with a friend in the backyard. His friend hit a fly ball that landed in the front of his neighbor's bedroom windows. His neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Gorsky. As he leaned down to pick up the ball, young Armstrong heard Mrs. Gorsky shouting at Mr. Gorsky, ‘…Sex! You want …sex? You'll get …sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!’ True story.” As Americans celebrate the 35th anniversary of humankind’s first footsteps on the moon, July 20, understand that the Gorsky story is an urban legend. It never happened. The full NASA transcripts can be found at At 111:37:32 into the mission, Armstrong pulled himself up onto the ladder. “Okay” (111:37:15) was his last comment from the lunar surface. Goodbye, Mr. Gorsky.

412    JULY 18, 2004:   Lyra, the Harp
Climbing higher into the eastern sky each evening is the Great Summer Triangle composed of the three brightest stars of the constellations of Cygnus the Swan, Aquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp. Leading the pack is the brightest star of the triangle, Vega, in Lyra, a blue-white luminary that is only 26 light years away and the true “star” of the movie, “Contact.” The other five stars that go into forming the harp are much fainter. Four of them create a small parallelogram that can be easily observed within the field of view of 7x50 binoculars. Below Vega is another faint star, Epsilon Lyrae, which to the unaided eye appears to be single. Observe it with binoculars and you’ll see two stars that are in mutual revolution around each other. Small telescopes will reveal that each of these stars can also be split into two other stars, giving Epsilon Lyrae the nickname of the double, double. The lyre was the invention of Mercury who strung strings of gut across a dried tortoise shell. The lyre was presented to the sun god, Apollo, as a gift, who in turn gave it to his son, Orpheus. Orpheus learned to play the lyre with such sweetness that even wild beasts became tame. When Orpheus’s wife, Eurydice, died from a poisonous snakebite, Orpheus’s music lulled Pluto, god of the underworld, into releasing Eurydice, provided that Orpheus not turn around as he led her from Pluto’s cave. All went well until they approached the entrance, and Orpheus could no longer hear his wife behind him. Concerned that he had lost Eurydice, Orpheus turned around only to see a huge rock drop between them. Orpheus continued to play the lyre in memory of Eurydice until he was killed by a horde of angry maidens whose love he had rebuffed.

[Great Summer Triangle]

413    JULY 25, 2004:   Blue, Blue Moon
Listening to an early Elvis Presley CD, my attention was jolted by two songs, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and then the more famous Richard Rodgers’s, “Blue Moon.” I was literally getting ready to write this column about July’s blue moon that occurs on the 31st. Of course in the Presley songs, Elvis is pining about lost or future loves. Astronomically, the blue moon represents the second full moon of a month, a condition that occurs once every two or three years and twice in a single year when a blue moon falls in January, and then again in March (1999). Since it requires 29-1/2 days for the moon to complete its cycle of phases, no blue moon could ever occur in February, since even in a leap year there would be only 29 days. But it wasn’t always that way. The origin of our modern concept of a blue moon really occurred as a mistake made in a 1946 issue of “Sky and Telescope” magazine. Information garnered from the “Maine Farmers’ Almanac—1937” was interpreted incorrectly and became our modern definition. In a normal year, there are 12 full moons, but every couple of years, there is an extra full moon. The “Maine Farmers’ Almanac” divided the year into four lunar seasons with each moon having a name. The first full moon of year was called the Moon after Yule, followed by the Wolf Moon, and then the Lenten Moon. Put a fourth moon into a three moon season and suddenly the full moon names would no longer correspond to the seasons. If the fourth full moon always occurred in the same season, it could have a specific name. But it didn’t happen that way, so the generic term “blue moon” was coined by the almanac for the third full moon in a four full moon season. Years ago, February could have had a blue moon.

July Star Map

July Moon Phase Calendar