StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  2011


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

[Moon Phases]
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Status Current Moon Phase
759    MARCH 6, 2011:   Mercury Says Hello
My favorite planet is Mercury. Most people would say why, with beauties like ringed Saturn and moon-graced Jupiter to behold. Then there is Venus, the third brightest object in the heavens which gleams like a brilliantly faceted diamond against the darkening evening or brightening morning sky. Copernicus, the man that reinvented the sun-centered theory of the universe about 500 years ago, probably said it best when he lamented near death that he had never seen the Messenger God. It is by far the most elusive of the naked eye worlds to witness because it is always caught in the sun’s glare low to the horizon either right after sundown or before sunrise. Forget about the mornings. I’m still numb from my late night sojourns with CNN or my nocturnal astronomy classes at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. So it is the evening encounters with Planet One that intrigue me the most. Mercury will be making its debut into the twilight zone late this week as a starlike object very low in the west and nearly as bright as the brightest star of the heavens, Sirius. Spring encounters with Mercury are always the best because its orbital path is nearly perpendicular to the horizon. This means that as Mercury pulls away from the sun, it rises nearly straight up from the horizon, maximizing the amount of time that it remains in the sky after sundown. During the next several weeks Mercury will be visible later and later into the evening. By March 23, the Messenger God will set more than one hour and 40 minutes after sundown, making it visible as a bright starlike object in a nearly dark sky. Remember that to see Mercury, a flawless western horizon is a must. You should arrive at your observing location no later than about 30 minutes after sundown. Bring along your binoculars to help you identify it. That bright star twinkling goodnight just above the rosy, western horizon will be Mercury.

760    MARCH 13, 2011:   Saving Daylight Only a Myth
If you have not set your clocks forward by one hour, spring ahead, then you either live in Arizona (except for the Navajo Nation) or Hawaii. Yes, it is that time of the year when we all begin saving daylight by shifting our clocks ahead by 60 minutes. There was no 2-3 a.m. on Sunday, March 13 which was great if you were working an eight-hour shift. It was like having an hour of overtime without the fuss unless your employer’s computers caught the gaffe. Most people think that when we go on Daylight Saving Time, yes, there is no “s” in “Saving,” the sun goes down an hour later and comes up an hour earlier. That would have to be called Miracle Magic Time. What we simply accomplish by “springing” our clocks forward by 60 minutes is to shift our daylight hours more in step with our waking hours. The sun does go down an hour later, now about 7 p.m., but it also rises an hour later, currently around 7 a.m. If I were king, I’d issue a decree to go to a double Daylight Saving Time sometime in early May through late August. Sunsets would now occur as late as 9:30 p.m., giving us an even better fit to our waking time. However, I’m happy that we have reached this mental milestone in making winter go away. The big chill will eventually be defeated by an ever increasing sun angle and more daylight as Sol moves northward towards its overhead rendezvous with the Tropic of Cancer on the summer solstice, June 21. William Willett, an English homebuilder in London, conceived and promoted the concept of Daylight Saving Time in 1907 with his publication, "The Waste of Daylight.” Although his ideas met with its Parliamentary champions, it wasn’t until a year after Willett’s death, in May of 1916, and burdened by the financial crunch of conducting WWI that British Summer Time was enacted. The US wisely made the switch two years later.

761    MARCH 20, 2011:   Cradling Newton's Baby
The Dutch optician, Hans Lippershey, invented the telescope in 1608. Galileo in the fall of 1609 became the first person to turn the refractors that he had constructed skyward, and then to publish his findings. Early lensed telescopes produced images fringed with unwanted color, a problem attributed to the fact that a single lens acted like countless prisms focusing colors at different distances behind the objective. The solution to this impediment lay in using mirrors rather than lenses to collect and bring the light to a focus. James Gregory had proposed such a design in 1663, but failed in building a working model. Isaac Newton independently succeeded six years later, and his invention of the “Newtonian” reflector was so well received that it secured his membership in London’s prestigious Royal Society in 1671. Newton’s first telescope revealed a disc-shaped Jupiter, its four Galilean satellites, and the phases of Venus. Newton not only single-handedly constructed this first telescope, but he formulated, ground, and polished the metal mirror which collected its light, and constructed specialized tools that allowed for the telescope’s fabrication. Whereas refractors were becoming huge, dozens to over a hundred feet in length to eliminate the problems of color, Newton’s telescope was compact, about the size of a breadbox. Today, the Royal Society claims ownership of Newton’s telescope which I saw in 1982 while taking a graduate course in astronomy that took my wife and me to England. Our RS contact revealed a large, stained-glass cake saver storage case which housed the reflector. After lifting the lid in a sweeping gesture, he simply walked to an adjoining room, closing the door behind him and leaving us alone with Newton’s baby. For about 15 minutes we were able to move, cradle, and photograph the world’s first reflecting telescope, one of my life’s really special moments.

[Isaac, meet Susan]
A wigless Isaac Newton examines his baby, the first reflecting telescope, or is he really looking at my baby, Susan Reisinger-Becker during a visit to the Royal Society in 1982. Actually Newton’s first reflector was much smaller and he lost it. Newton built a second larger telescope which he presented to the Royal Society in 1671 and this is the one that can be seen in the above picture. Gary A. Becker images...

[Big, Hot, Super Bright Full Moon]
Here is a picture of the hot-hot, big-big, super close, bright full moon of March 19 taken from the rooftop observatory of Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA about a half-hour after sunset. Although it was very clear, the proximity of the full moon to the horizon reddened and dimmed it considerably. The atmosphere filtered (scattered) the shorter wavelengths of light, and allowed only the longer yellows, oranges, and reds to reach the camera. The transmission tower, about three miles away, was a definite plus for scale. Honestly, this was a really-really, big-big full moon as the picture testifies. Smile... Gary A. Becker image...

762    MARCH 27, 2011:   The Big-Big Ursa Major Cluster
The sky is full of thousands of clusters of stars, aggregates of gas and dust that have been shaped by stellar winds and magnetic fields, and then drawn together by gravity to become the birthing places for families of stars. The most famous of these are the Pleiades, a juvenile group of about 1000 luminaries found on the shoulder of Taurus the Bull. They appear to the unaided eye like a tiny glowing wisp of a cloud. Viewing them directly dims the Pleiades because the cones of the eye’s central vision are less perceptive to light than the peripheral rods. To see a dim celestial object more clearly, look away from it, and try to catch it with averted or side vision. That rule also applies for viewing faint objects in telescopes too. The Pleiades are currently visible low in the NW after sundown. Next to them are the Hyades, much older and more diffuse. These stars form the V-shaped head of the Bull except for the brightest star, Aldebaran, which is not a member. Looking south to the center of Cancer the Crab, you can locate the Beehive, another cluster which resembles a swarm of bees hovering around a hive. They are barely noticed by the unaided eye from suburban locales, so binoculars will prove helpful. Towards the south is the Coma Cluster which dominates the northern part of the constellation of Coma Berenices as a large upside down V-shaped structure. It was once the tuff of Leo the Lion’s tail. If you scan across the real sky looking for these open clusters or view them on the map provided with the online version of this article, you will pass nearly a dozen stars which are part of a huge cluster which spans nearly the entire March early evening sky. It’s called the Ursa Major Moving Cluster because five of its members are part of the Big Dipper which is the brightest region of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Our middle aged sun is moving through this younger cluster of stars, but has no plans to relocate.

[Ursa Major Moving Cluster]
The Ursa Major Moving Cluster (UMMC) extends across 140 degrees of the spring sky. In this map, stars of the UMMC are noted in white while other smaller clusters visible through binoculars or with the unaided are noted in yellow. To see the UMMC in late March, you should be outside around 8:30 p.m. The UMMC extends from the western sky near to the horizon into the southeast. It is huge, and you will need an elevated location with excellent horizons to see it all at the same time. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque’s, The Sky...

[Mercury in the Wind]
A cool, spring day turned into a cold and windy evening as Mercury hung low above an unusually clear western horizon. Two 20 second images, one with the equatorial mount motor turned on and the other image with the motor turned off were merged to create this composite. A Canon 60D camera, equipped with a 70-200mm zoom lens was used to capture this image at F/5.0, ASA 800. Gary A. Becker photography from Coopersburg, PA…

[March Star Map]

[March Moon Phase Calendar]