StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  2009


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[Moon Phases]
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654    MARCH 1, 2009:   What's in a Name?
With the recent passage of Comet Lulin, C/2007 N3 (Lulin), I became curious about just how comets are designated. I was aware that control of naming astronomical objects fell solely to the International Astronomical Union, the worldwide congress of nearly 10,000 professional astronomers that assigns names and devises the rules for assigning names to newly discovered astronomical objects. Cometary discoveries are under the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature in IAU Division III. Let’s say, that I took my telescope out on the morning of March 8, 2009, and I was the first to report the discovery of a new comet to the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After further investigation which would include the calculation of an orbit and confirmation that my discovery was not simply a recovery of a previously known comet, it would be assigned a name, C/2009 E2 (Becker). Wow, would that make my day! The “C” would signify a comet with a long orbital period, 200 years or greater, or a short period comet which had not been followed through a complete orbital cycle. Later, it could receive the designation “P” if the latter case prevailed. The letters “D” or “X” could also be assigned if my comet eventually disappeared (D) or “X” if its orbital parameters were not well-established (unlikely). The “E2” would signify that it was the second comet discovered during the first half of March. January would have an A/B, February a C/D, etc. The letters “I” and “Z” are not used. My family name, Becker, standing alone in parentheses would be a real caveat because it would indicate that no one else had claimed propriety of discovery within a reasonable time after my announcement. All six pages of IAU rules can be found at cnames.shtml if you are interested.

[Comet Lulin]
Comet Lulin passes the 1st magnitude star Alpha Leonis at 1:32 a.m. EST on the morning of February 28. Although the night was clear and warm, 53 deg. F., and the entire constellation of Leo visible to the unaided eye, only blue-white Alpha Leonis was visible to the unaided eye in the frame area of this 90 second image taken at an EFL of 320mm, F/2.8, ASA 1000. Photography by Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg, PA using a Borg-Hutech light pollution supression filter...

655    MARCH 8, 2009:   The Heavens Belong to Everyone
I would like to make a suggestion to all of the governmental leaders and people who favor domination over liberty and tyranny to freedom. Visit I was first introduced to this website by my friend, Mark Balanda, many years ago, and then last year he encouraged me to begin submitting photographs to the site., the brainchild of Dr. Tony Phillips, a popular science writer for NASA, originally focused on information about the changing sun-Earth environment, and how it affected Earth’s magnetic surroundings. Over the years the website, which has a daily makeover, has expanded to include information and photos about atmospheric optics, the moon, planets, conjunctions, eclipses, comets, meteor showers, and all things astronomical. The information is precise and well written, but it is the daily parade of new and vivid astrophotos that most impresses me. They come from all over the world and can be seen by clicking on “spaceweather sightings” listed in the right column of the page. The viewer is transported to a worldwide map with pushpins that mark the locations of the 25 most recent submissions. A movable TV-like screen allows the photo to be seen by shifting the cursor over the pin. Click within the screen, and the picture is enlarged. Surprisingly, some of the best images come from the Middle East, Iran and Turkey to be more specific. Images taken from lofty mountaintops overlooking valleys and lakes, as well as urban centers, speak to me of the universality of the heavens and the fact that we all have a mutual duty to preserve peacefully and protect our fragile Earth. That is one of the subliminal messages that I think broadcasts daily to its growing audience of avid supporters. The heavens belong to everyone—why not the Earth?

[Conjunction of the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter, December 1, 2009]
The triple conjunction of the moon, Venus, and Jupiter was photographed on the evening of December 1, 2008 from Ardakan, Iran by Ehsan Sanaei Ardakani. It is hard to think of these young adults, dressed in western garb and holding hands, as part of the “Axis of Evil” labeled by the former Bush Administration. Indeed, it is obvious to me that these people are part of the solution to our Middle East problems. There is a great unifying theme in the heavens that these individuals clearly understand.

[Waxing Gibbous Moon, March 6]
The waxing gibbous moon as it appeared on the evening of March 6. Photography by Gary A. Becker using a Canon 40D camera attached at prime focus to a 3.5-inch Questar, F/14.4, 1/60 sec., ASA 400...

656    MARCH 15, 2009:   Spring: A Commotion of Emotion
I am sitting here in my study in Coopersburg, PA on March 1 contemplating how I might use tomorrow’s snow day which I am anticipating. Yesterday morning at 1 a.m., I was outside photographing Comet Lulin under clear and balmy skies. The temperature was 53 deg. F. Now on Sunday, the East Coast is bracing itself for a winter storm. National Weather Service meteorologists are predicting blustery periods of heavy snow tonight with a low of 19 deg. F. A high of only 21 deg. F. is expected for Monday with more snow and wind. All the while, the buds on the trees have been getting bigger, and the vibrant cacophony of returning migratory birds are getting louder each morning. Spring is definitely in the air. I am reminded of Pat Benatar’s 1983 hit, Love is a Battlefield, that tempest of emotion between staying or leaving, hanging on or letting go that we have all experienced at sometime during our lives. Our atmosphere also becomes a “commotion of emotion” during the spring, as the colder air of the north begins to battle with the warmer air from the south. Because of the Earth’s axial tilt, the sun is on the move, each day gaining altitude, shining higher and brighter, providing the northern hemisphere with more direct energy and increased warmth, which in turn, heats the atmosphere and drives more vigorous weather patterns. Tomorrow, it appears that we’ll be on the cold side of the battlefield, but steadily the frontlines will shift northward as the rapidly lengthening days, and even higher sun angles will drive the coldest air north. This Friday, March 20 at 7:45 a.m. EDT, while many of us are on our way to work, the sun will stand directly over the equator and then cross into the northern hemisphere. Spring will be upon us and summer only three months away.

[Snowstorm of March 2, 2009]
The snowstorm did develop but not as predicted. Coopersburg got about two inches from the main low pressure which tracked more westward than expected. Philadelphia to Boston got slammed. An upper level disturbance followed about eight hours later giving us an additional 6.5 inches. Gradually, all of school districts in the area, from east to west went to closed, but not after many of them played a “wait and see,” beginning with a two-hour delayed start, like mine in Allentown. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

657    MARCH 22, 2009:   Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the Dutch artist, has been considered to be one of the most influential Impressionists of all times. During the last quarter of his life when he began to paint, Van Gogh became intrigued with “representing night by light.” He merged Earth with sky, nocturnal urban life, and pastoral vistas at dusk or dawn with such emotional clarity that the viewer was irresistibly brought into the scene. After studying with Parisian Impressionists, Van Gogh added vibrant colors and thick, rhythmic brushstrokes to his palette to convey the emotions of the evening. “The sight of the stars always makes me dream,” Van Gogh wrote. Starry Night is considered to be his finest nocturnal canvas, and it was executed in June of 1889 while a patient at the psychiatric asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy in southeastern France near the Mediterranean. Forbidden to be outside after dark, Starry Night may have been conceived as a fanciful view that Van Gogh saw from his room. The picture is not supposedly an accurate astronomical representation of the sky over the asylum, but “rather the fusion of his keen observation of other nights in [the region of] Provence coupled with his rich, fertile imagination.” I was never satisfied with this explanation. Although the crescent moon is exaggerated its tilt towards the horizon is precise. And what about that very bright “star” near the dark flaming Cypress tree? In a computer mockup of the night sky from Saint-Rémy on June 23, 1889, the moon’s angle to the horizon, the lunar phase, and Venus can be easily linked to the two brightest objects in Van Gogh’s painting. I propose that Starry Night was completed shortly after this observation. Go to to compare and to for more “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night.”

[Starry Night Interpreted]
Vincent van Gogh was intrigued with the nocturnal. In his most famous work Starry Night (left), the canvas may look fanciful, but there may also be enough accuracy in the sky to date the composition. Van Gogh's Starry Night and Software Bisque's The Sky were used to fashion the image on the right. Read above.

[Venus Near Inferior Conjunction]
Venus, about three days before inferior conjunction (March 23, 6:42 p.m. EDT), bubbles in the turbulent atmosphere just before settling into a stand of very distant trees. Venus’s altitude was three degrees above a true horizon. The composite images were recorded at 1/10sec., F/14.4, EFL 2050mm using a Canon 40D camera attached to an equatorially driven Questar telescope. One picture was taken with the trees in focus while the other image was snapped with the telescope focused on Venus. Gary A. Becker photography, Coopersburg, PA...

658    MARCH 29, 2009:   Perigee-Apogee Moons
Most of us know that nothing is perfect, even though during a good slice of human history, philosophers have argued that the heavens were perfect and unchangeable. The planets, the sun, and all the other stars revolved around us. Only the Earth was corruptible. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler among others, helped to create a new world order, putting the Earth as a humble orbiting member of the sun’s family of planets, and demoting their paths from perfect circles to ellipses. The ellipse is an interesting geometric shape because it puts the sun off center and requires that objects travel fastest when they are closest to their gravitational source and slowest when they are farthest away. The moon’s orbital eccentricity or ovalness is only 5.49 percent, but this causes Luna’s distance from the Earth to vary from 221,000 miles to about 252,000 miles. This total change in distance of 31,000 miles or nearly 13 percent causes the moon to appear noticeable larger when closest to Earth at perigee, and smallest when farthest from the Earth at apogee. If you’d like to prove this for yourself, April might be a great time to give it a try. By photographing the moon during the early evening hours of Wednesday, April 1, you’ll be within several hours of the moon’s 10 p.m. perigee position and a half day away from the moon’s first quarter phase, half on, half off, light to the right. On Thursday, April 16 the moon will be at apogee at 5 a.m. (dawn). It will be at last quarter, half on, half off, light to the left just 28 hours later. Try an exposure of 1/30th second at ASA 400, F/16 for starters. The important factor to remember is not to overexpose the moon so you can easily compare its perigee (closest) and apogee (farthest) sizes. You’ll definitely notice a difference if you digitally splice the two photos together and compare their extreme distances side by side.

[March Star Map]

[March Moon Phase Calendar]