StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  2006


Print Large Sky Charts For 9 p.m. EST:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]
Solar X-rays:  
Geomagnetic Field:  
Status Current Moon Phase

[Mercury and the Moon]
Mercury bids adieu in this composite image taken on March 1 on the evening just before an ice storm closed all schools in the Lehigh Valley. The planet is located just above the tree line, right of center. The two-day old moon was photographed separately at a higher magnification, and then inserted into the photo to complete the image. Canon digital D20 photography by Gary A. Becker…
498    MARCH 5, 2006:   Temperature Extremes
My Allen students and I were discussing why we have seasonal changes the other week. The seasons that we experience are a result of the Earth’s axial tilt and the axis pointing in the same direction. This combination allows the amount of solar energy we receive to vary widely over the course of a year. Earth’s oval orbital path plays no role in seasonal changes. In fact, we are farthest from the sun in early July of each year. So what are the record worldwide high and low temperatures we mused? Man of a million facts, Nico Lafavore called out saying +136 degrees F. at Al’ Aziziyah, Libya in September 1922 and -128.6 degrees F. at Vostok Station in Antarctica on July 21, 1983. My numbers were slightly different, and in hindsight, I should have just acquiesced to Nico, but the discussion led me to try to find out what caused these extremes in the first place. Nico’s temperatures were indeed correct. The highest temperatures are most likely to occur in rain-parched, low-lying deserts. Near sea level, there is more atmosphere and the denser air has a greater capacity for retaining heat. The moment water is added to the mix, evaporation occurs, and this robs energy from the air. Evaporation is a cooling process as any wet swimmer shivering by a pool will attest to. Body heat helps to evaporate moisture cooling it down. Equatorial rainforests can’t hold a candle to mid-latitude low, dry deserts like Death Valley and the Sahara. The Vostok temperatures result from the station’s high 11,484 foot elevation, perpetual winter darkness, and its interior location far from the moderating effects of warmer oceans. Because air at higher elevations is thinner, it retains heat less well. An unconfirmed 1997 recording at Vostok sank the mercury to -132 degrees F. Mars, here we come.

499    MARCH 12, 2006:   UB-LIKE-PLUTO and UB-A-PLANET!
Could there be trouble brewing? Maybe you’ve heard of 2003-UB313. It is the current designation for a possible tenth planet discovered in 2003 by Mike Brown (Caltech), Chad Trujillo (Gemini Observatory), and David Rabinowitz (Yale University) and hurriedly announced in July of 2005. While the “Planet Squad” was quietly engaged in gathering data for an announcement article about their new discovery, two Spanish astrophysicists hacked into their database and claimed 2003-UB313 as their own. Now the International Astronomical Union, the world governing body for astronomers, not only has the daunting task of naming 2003-UB313, but also finalizing a definition for a planet in addition to investigating the astronomers charged with stealing its positional data. One of the problems of defining a planet has centered on whether Pluto fits the meaning. Obviously, a planet cannot generate its own energy through thermonuclear fusion like a star. There is no uncertainty here. If the definition becomes simply a spherically shaped body that accretes (comes together) in orbit around a star, then our solar system might literally have dozens of new planets including some of the larger asteroids that track between Mars and Jupiter. Brown of the Planet Squad feels that we should impose a third restriction, arbitrarily imposing Pluto’s 1,413 mile diameter as a lower limit on planetary size. Suitably, it would make 2003-UB313 the tenth planet, but it would also recognize US astronomer, Clyde W. Tombaugh’s remarkable discovery of Pluto in 1930. Brown’s suggestion also keeps the asteroids out of the mix, but allows for a new icy body classification of planets to develop. In other words, UB-LIKE-PLUTO and UB-A-PLANET!

500    MARCH 19, 2006:   Celebration!
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time that we do some serious celebrating. Tomorrow at 1:25 p.m. EST, spring begins. The sun moves north of the equator giving us a daytime period that is longer than the night. This fact will not change for the next six months. By now you must be guessing that I am a summer kind of a guy. But there is much more. This StarWatch marks the 500th week of publication for this column in the Morning Call and the second full year that StarWatch has been in syndication, appearing in about 30 other weekly publications across the US. March 2006 also commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Allentown School District Planetarium’s homepage, Finally, the 2005-06 school year celebrates the 40th anniversary of the ASD Planetarium. I have been with the ASDP 34 of those 40 years. StarWatch had its inception with former Call newsman, Pat DeFrancisco, who was looking for a more localized version of the AstroData column which ran daily in the paper. I volunteered for the task as a way of keeping the ASD Planetarium in the public spotlight. The School Board had attempted to close the facility several years earlier, but a concerned public and encouragement from the Morning Call convinced five of the nine Board members to vote for its continuance. The catch was that I had to raise the necessary capital to pay for its operating expenses. StarWatch and the Morning Call have provided me with a forum for communicating my love of astronomy to a generous public that continues to champion astronomy education in Allentown. Through your support the stars continue to shine brightly for our city kids and citizens of the greater Lehigh Valley. Thank you!

501    MARCH 26, 2006:   Disappearing Act at Lehigh Elementary
No April fooling… On Saturday, April 1 the crescent moon occults the Pleiades, one of the year’s most stellar events. The ASD Planetarium’s StarWatch Team and Dan’s Camera City of Allentown will be making this event accessible to the public, weather permitting. Lehigh Elementary, located at 800 Blue Mountain Dr. just north of Cherryville, will be hosting this free event on their beautiful hilltop campus. Dogs and sodas will be available. If you own a telescope or a spotting scope, please bring it along. Here’s why! As darkness descends, the moon will be ambling through the Pleiades, a star cluster in Taurus the Bull with well over 100 luminaries easily visible through small scopes. As the ashen lit limb of the moon approaches and then covers the Pleiades members, they will literally appear to “wink out.” The disappearances are instantaneous because the moon has no atmosphere and the stars, except for our sun, are mere points of light. Only one person per telescope will have the opportunity to witness a disappearance, so plenty of telescopes will be needed. Many Pleiades will be occulted throughout the evening, and Saturn, Mars, and other celestial gems will also be viewed. If you are bringing a scope, arrive no later than 6:30 p.m. to set up in the light, 7-7:30 p.m. if you are simply observing. From the MacArthur Rd. Exit at Route 22, take MacArthur Rd, (Route 145) north nine miles. Just after crossing Treichlers Bridge, turn right onto Blue Mt. Dr. Continue two miles to Cherryville (stop light), bearing left at the fork in the road a half-mile beyond the town. Lehigh Elementary will be just down the road. This is a weather-sensitive event. A go/no go message will be posted at the URL below by 3 p.m. April 1. Clear skies…

March Star Map

March Moon Phase Calendar