StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

JUNE  2019


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1189    JUNE 2, 2019:   End of "The Big Bang Theory"
Twelve years in the running and no one ever detected a mathematical error in Sheldon Cooper’s calculations on the many whiteboards that his markers touched. David Saltzberg, professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, served as technical advisor for the popular series which was followed closely by a small group of physics “nerds” bent on finding errors. I was introduced to the program by my high school students and watched it on and off during its tenure as time permitted. I was always fascinated by the introductory song which started with, “Our whole universe was in a hot dense state…” partly because I never caught all of the words and partly because I wanted to know if it was scientifically correct. So with the last episode behind me, and Amy and Sheldon having received the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking fictional theory on “super asymmetry,” I decided to take a look. You can see the entire lyrics here at Line 10 says “As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song,” was baffling to me since galaxies have been evolving since the very earliest days of the universe. However, within a second of the big bang, or as I tell my students, the “big pop,” all of the laws of nature that govern today’s physical universe were laid down, sequencing the evolution of the cosmos, including the galaxies that we observe today. So maybe I can give song writer, Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies, an all guy band, a mulligan for that line, however, it was the bridge between verse two and three that really contained a blooper. Referring to the universe, Robertson penned, “It’s expanding ever outward but one day/It will pause and start to go the other way/Collapsing ever inward, we won’t be here, it won’t be heard/Our best and brightest figure that it’ll make an even bigger bang!” The song was written in its final form in 2007 and performed by the BnL on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on the evening of the final episode, and with The Big Bang Theory cast members present. That part of the song was really hyping the extinct oscillating universe theory which proposed that the cosmos possessed sufficient mass to one day stop expanding and eventually collapse upon itself, maybe just maybe, initiating another big bang. No astrophysicist, however, could commit to the rebirthing of the universe through another explosion. In 1998, nine years before the song was written, it was announced that the 13.8-billion-year old universe was not only expanding, but that it was actually accelerating, a process that had begun about six billion years earlier. No collapse would ever occur. This led to a real Nobel Prize for its discoverers, Paul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Reiss in 2011, and to the realization of the elusive concepts of dark matter, and particularly dark energy, to explain the concept. DM and DE remain as mysterious today as they did in 1998. Where was David Saltzberg’s checking prowess with the theme song that he exemplified in the meticulously edited scripts which he oversaw for their scientific integrity? To his credit only the first verse was used in the TV sitcom, so Saltzberg has to get a mulligan on this point too. Having said all this, I really need to congratulate the same people about whom I am writing because The Big Bang Theory highlighted science in a positive manner, creating through humor that it was acceptable to be nerdy, cool to like science, and perhaps even cooler to be a male or female scientist, just like Star Trek and Star Wars propelled earlier generations to look up and reach for the moon and the exploration of space. Life really does imitate art.

1190    JUNE 9, 2019:   As Constant as the North Star?
“I am constant as the northern star,/Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament.” That statement was made on a bad day for Julius Caesar, moments before he was assassinated in the Curia Pompeia. When William Shakespeare wrote those lines in 1599, our guide star, Polaris, was nearly three degrees from true north, the pivot point of the Earth’s axis. It inscribed a six-degree ring around the north celestial pole as the Earth rotated each day. Caesar saw the Pole Star about 12 degrees from its present location, a little larger than an angle created by a fist held against the sky at arm’s length, not a very good indicator of true north if you are just eyeballing the sky. Today, Polaris is about 1.5 lunar diameters (43 minutes of arc) from true north, and as the 22nd century dawns, that angular distance will shrink to approximately a single lunar diameter or one-half degree. After that, the North Star will begin to become a less accurate guiding light. This positional change is not the result of Polaris’ own motion through space, but rather the wobbling of the Earth’s axis in a nearly 26,000-year cycle called precession. During this period, the Earth’s axis points to a succession of different positions along the circumference of a 47-degree in diameter circle. Thuban, in Draco the Dragon, was the pole star of Old Kingdom pharaohs in Egypt (2500 BC), while Vega, in Lyra the Lyre, will assume that position 12,000 years into the future. Going back to Roman or Greek eras, records are not in evidence for Polaris being the North Star, although the center of its arc made around Earth’s axial pivot point could have been easily determined through observations. The first mention of Polaris as a northern marker dates to circa 850 AD in an Anglo-Saxon poem when the “North Star” was about seven degrees distant from true north. From that point onward it seems to be recognized as a source to be used for navigation. Polaris was also used as a reference for measuring the brightnesses of other stars until it was discovered that it pulsated. It is a Cepheid variable, an aged star which is having issues with its energy production in its now helium fusing core. Most Cepheids are exceedingly consistent, the rate of pulsation related to their luminosity. By knowing a Cepheid’s period, astronomers can determine how bright the star is in reality, allowing it to be used as a standard candle to calculate the distances of other Cepheids to a range of approximately 200 million light years from the sun. Polaris, however, is a weirdo. Its pulsation period is dependable, but its luminosity has been increasing over the centuries. Astronomers use a system called magnitude to measure the brightnesses of stars. Each magnitude is separated by an intensity difference of 2.51, and the more negative the number the brighter the object. Keep in mind that one is a more negative number than two even if both numerals are positive. The Greek philosopher Ptolemy (140 AD) measured Polaris to be about +3.6, while Al-Sufi (964 AD), the great Persian astronomer, noted the brightness of the North Star at +3.3, an increase of about 30 percent in intensity. By 1795 Polaris was measured at +2.35 almost 2.5 times brighter than Al-Sufi’s estimate. The latest photometric evaluations of Polaris’ brightness place the star at +1.95 magnitude, another increase of about 45 percent from the late 18th century values. Remember the Drinking Gourd song where antebellum slaves in Alabama were taught to follow the stars of the Big Dipper northward to freedom in Ohio? The whole story is based on a house of cards, but let’s say that some aspects of it are true. Why were slaves not simply taught to follow Polaris? Maybe back then, a dimmer, fainter Pole Star was a contributing factor in the reasoning. Astronomers are truly baffled by the brightness changes of our Pole Star which in no way has shown any consistency during the last two millennia. Inspiration for this article was adapted from “Secrets of Polaris,” written by Camille M. Carlisle in the March 2019 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

1191    JUNE 16, 2019:   Robotic Observatory: Working Beautifully
This was my seventh trip to the badlands of Utah near Hanksville to visit the Mars Desert Research Station and participate in the summer astronomy refit program coordinated under the capable leadership of Peter K. Detterline. These adventures always have the earmark of uncertainty as highlighted by last year’s refit. Upon arrival we had no refrigeration, no cooling system, and no water, the latter two because of a malfunction of the batteries in the solar powered facility. The refrigerator was just plain broken. When the backup generator failed on the first evening, I remember thinking, “Why am I here?” Within a day, however, most of the systems were limping along except for the swamp box which cooled the habitat. I recall one night where the midnight temperature inside the tin can-shaped habitat dropped to a tepid 98 degrees Fahrenheit, great sweating “weather” even after a cold shower. This year, however, everything was running smoothly, with a new refrigerator, plenty of water, replaced batteries in the solar powered electrical system, and an earlier arrival date which made for pleasant daytime temperatures and one evening sleeping under blankets wearing long johns. We even had hot showers. This was also the third year that improvements were made to the MDRS Robotic Observatory to which Moravian College has a 25 percent time-share and the second time that a Moravian student accompanied our group. This year, Junior, Peyton Zankel, a physics major who plans to pursue graduate work in astrophysics, traveled with our cadre, while Peter brought along Sophomore, Cole Armstrong, an astrophysics major at Penn State University. The two hit it off very well, learning imaging techniques using the (Elon) Musk Observatory which supports a large 90mm Lunt refractor that observes the sun specifically in one wavelength of visible light, hydrogen alpha, allowing unprecedented detail to be visible on the sun’s chromosphere and prominences projecting from the sun’s limb. This observatory is not robotic. The MDRS Robotic Observatory which is comprised of a wide-field 70 mm Stellarvue refractor donated by Moravian supporter, David Fisherowski, and a state-of-the art 14-inch Celestron Edge Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector dedicated for research were cleaned and tweaked to their full potential and more during the seven-day refit. Ed Thomas of Deep Space Products, who designed the system supported by a 10 Micron GM2000HPS equatorial mount housed in an Astrohaven clamshell dome, joined our group for four nights. The system was put to the test imaging the Pillars of Creation at prime focus for 20 minutes in a single photo without evidence of star trailing. This type of tracking accuracy is necessary for research purposes and image stacking as evidenced in Peyton Zankel’s color digital photo of the Leo Trio, three galaxies in the constellation of Leo the Lion, taken with the Fisherowski 70 mm. Two onsite weather stations are now cooperating to ensure maximum safety of the mount and main telescope which are owned by Moravian College. A third (BloomSky) weather station monitors the observatory visually. All systems are “a go” for the fall semester. Photos of the refit can be found at

[MDRS Robotic Observatory]
The 14-inch research telescope of the MDRS Robotic Observatory peeks from its clamshell enclosure on a recent moonlit night at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. To the left on the post are two of the three weather stations supporting the facility. The third and main monitor is positioned closer to the observatory. To the right is the HughesNet high speed Internet dish which is dedicated to the observatory's data stream. Gary A. Becker image...

[MDRS-Sun's Chromosphere/Leo Trio]
The suns’ chromosphere, the thin middle layer of Sol’s three tiered atmosphere, is imaged by Penn State sophomore Cole Armstrong using the MDRS solar telescope, while Peyton Zankel, a Junior at Moravian College using the robotic observatory, photographed the Leo Trio, a small group of spiral galaxies in Leo the Lion about 35 million light years from the Earth.

[Solar Astronomers/Cleaning Robotic Observatory]
Astronomers, Cole Armstrong—Penn State (left) and Peyton Zankel—Moravian College pose while processing solar images in the Musk Observatory while Peter K. Detterline (left) and Gary A. Becker clean the MDRS Robotic Observatory. Images by Peter K. Detterline (left) and Cole Armstrong (right).

[M16:  Eagle Nebula/Pillars of Creation]
This image of the Eagle Nebula, M16, the 16th object cataloged by the French astronomer Charles Messier, holds within it the Pillars of Creation made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope. The photo was a 20-minute unguided exposure demonstrating the accuracy of the of the 10 Micron mount being used to support the telescopes and instrument packages of the MDRS Robotic Observatory. The mount was purchased from Ed Thomas of Deep Sky Products located in Phoenix, Arizona. Photography by Peter K. Detterline...

1192    JUNE 23, 2019:   NCL Outbreak
They are called NCLs for short, noctilucent (noc-ti-lu-cent—luminous in the dark) clouds, blue-white, iridescent, rippling waves of frozen water reflecting sunlight that are visible long after sundown or before sunrise when regular clouds become dark, silhouetted against the brighter horizon. They are more of a phenomenon of far northern latitudes, but over the past several decades, they have been creeping southward, perhaps, as some climatologists cite, a direct indication of our globally warming planet. Our ocean of atmosphere above us is basically a four-tiered structure, governed by increasing or decreasing temperatures. In the troposphere, where all weather occurs, temperatures fall with altitude up to about seven miles at mid-latitudes. If you were ever sucked out of a jet aircraft, besides dying of asphyxia, you would be also be exposed to a -40 to -80-degree Fahrenheit chill. The reason that lower temperatures are related to altitude results from the air expanding with height because less atmosphere is pushing downward, and why if you are standing at the summit of a tall mountain, the air is cooler. Expansion of a liquid into a gas is the principle governing virtually all cooling systems. Temperatures warm in the stratosphere because ultraviolet radiation is being absorbed by ozone molecules (O3), breaking them apart into O2 and O; but it is no beach weather either, with temperatures warming to just below freezing by the time that Earth’s third atmospheric layer, the mesosphere is encountered. Here again, the incredibly thin air continues to expand with little or no absorption of solar energy, reducing temperatures to nearly -200 degrees F. before the thermosphere is encountered where temperatures once again begin a rebound because of absorption of X-rays and ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The thermosphere is also where auroras occur and most satellites, including the ISS, orbit Earth. Above that lies the exosphere. Keep in mind that between 16,000 and 20,000 feet, depending upon the season, half of all Earth’s atmosphere lies below you, so do not consider that any of these layers above the troposphere are habitable. In fact, the death zone for Mt. Everest lies at about 26,000 feet (8000 meters) where climbers are advised not to remain any longer than 16-20 hours. Noctilucent clouds occur in the upper mesosphere, not quite 50 miles above Earth’s surface, and therefore, can continue to reflect the light of the sun much longer after sundown or earlier before sunrise than regular tropospheric clouds. What causes them may be less of a mystery than a firm warning that the Earth’s atmospheric layers are becoming more turbulent due to global warming, driving water vapor to higher altitudes. In order for NCLs or any cloud formation to occur, the water or ice must form around a small particle, a condensation nucleus, typically 0.2 microns in size. One micron equals 1/1,000,000 of a meter. One meter is equivalent to 39.4 inches which is a little bigger than a yard. The colder, thinner air doesn’t just “squeeze out” the water to form vaporous clouds. It condenses into a liquid or frozen state around these tiny particles. In the mesosphere, the condensation nuclei are thought to arise from ablated fragments of meteoroids which were ripped apart during their rapid plunge to oblivion. Air molecules are ionized or excited during this process causing the atmosphere to glow, creating the meteor phenomenon which we observe from the Earth’s surface. So if the day is sunny, keep an eye on the eastern or western horizons before or after the sun’s visibility for these bluish-white iridescent clouds that have been seen as far south as Joshua Tree, California, just over 34 degrees north latitude. If they are being observed that far south, places like the Mid-Atlantic stand an even better chance of witnessing one of the most elusive meteorological phenomena in what may be the biggest breakout of noctilucent clouds ever.

[Noctilucent Clouds]
At a hometown concert in Fort Dodge, Iowa on June 10, 2019, Joshua Knutson photographed noctilucent clouds with just a cell phone. Fort Dodge is located about 70 miles to the north, northwest of the capitol, Des Moines, at a latitude of 42.5 degrees north. Photo source,

The mesosphere, home of noctilucent clouds and the debris from meteoroids around which they form. Image source, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

1193    JUNE 30, 2019:   BloomSky Weather Monitors Observatories
Whenever I’m near Hanksville, Utah (population 202) at the Mars Desert Research Station, I marvel at the weather conditions which are a part of life’s routine in this nearly uninhabited region of the US. There is a price to be paid for truly dark skies—very few amenities. You are in a state of always feeling a little grimy, too hot or too cold. Gusts of wind can change a placid landscape into hazy, swirling clouds of dust in a matter of moments, and when it rains hard, the ground becomes mucky, covering boots in mud which dries with the hardness of concrete. Even four-wheelers find difficulty in locomotion. I know that in my seven trips to MDRS as a member of the astronomy team, I have only witnessed a small part of the story regarding life in the badlands, but it’s been enough to make me understand that it takes a special type of resiliency and community for people to be successful in such a beautiful but unforgiving environment. The same synergy will be needed to exist when we travel to the real Mars in a decade or so. It is in this stark and arid setting that Moravian College has its 25 percent time-share in the MDRS Robotic Observatory. Three weather stations operate to ensure that mistakes are not made when using the telescopes during an evening’s observing run. Cloud cover, humidity, and wind are all continuously monitored before the dome is opened or automatically closed if conditions change during the night. Two of the weather stations compare data with each other, while the third, a BloomSky unit, is independent, operating with a widefield camera between dawn and dusk with its lens “eyeing” the observatory and a large portion of sky that lies overhead. Moravian astronomy has been operating successfully another BloomSky station from the Sky Deck atop the Collier Hall of Science for almost a year. Both units were obtained through the generous support of David Fisherowski of Boyertown, PA. The exciting part about the BloomSky system is that after a day’s worth of photography, the company produces a time-lapse video of the day’s weather which runs about 19-26 seconds depending upon the season. They are fascinating to watch. Go here, and link to the two sites or download the BloomSky Weather application on your Droid or iPhone. To set up the app, you will be asked to enter your name (e-mail address) and pick a password. When you connect, scroll to the bottom center of the screen and tap on the “Explore” icon. A Google map will appear with a blue dot indicating your location. Move the map to Bethlehem with your fingers. The map is expandable or it can be reduced in size with your fingers to make navigation easier and faster. When Bethlehem has been found, expand the map. Two locations with BloomSky stations should appear. Bull Dog Hill is close to Rt. 22. Moravian College is closer to center city. Tap on the Moravian College circle containing the current temperature, and a small image of the view from the Collier Sky Deck will appear in the lower left corner along with the name of the site. If you have picked the incorrect circle, go back and try again, enlarging the map. Tap on the picture and it will be expanded to fill the screen. Below the image will be seen the extended forecast and the time-lapse loops for the past five days. Below that, you should see a star on the right with the words “Favorite this BloomSky.” By tapping on the star and favoring the site, it will be brought up each time you visit the BloomSky app. Follow the same procedure to find the MDRS Robotic Observatory located near Hanksville, Utah. It will be the temperature circle closest to south central Utah. Good weather watching at Moravian’s two astronomical sites! You won’t be disappointed!

[Moravian's Two BloomSky Weather Stations]
BloomSky Weather Stations keep watch over Moravian astronomical sites during the evening of June 19, 2019. The image on the left was taken at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah at 7:24 p.m. MDT and corresponds to the same minute two time zones to the east, 9:24 p.m. EDT, where the Collier Sky Deck of Moravian College's main campus in Bethlehem, PA is located. About an hour after sundown the cameras shut down, but temperature, humidity, and air pressure are still transmitted. Check on the current conditions at these stations here.

[Moravian's Sky Deck BloomSky Weather Station]
Moravian’s Collier BloomSky Weather Station keeps its eye to the sky towards the west while the Hanksville, Utah unit also monitors the robotic observatory to ensure that the clamshell dome is completely closed during the day. Image by Gary A. Becker...

[June Star Map]

[June Moon Phase Calendar]