StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  2017


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

[Moon Phases]
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Status Current Moon Phase
1072    MARCH 5, 2017:   An Explosion of Light
We are on the verge of an explosion. The warmer weather that we have experienced during the past several weeks has caused my maple trees to spring into life with buds that look like they are ready to flower. Make no mistake; it isn’t spring yet, but the process has begun. From March 5 through April 5, with the first day of spring squarely in between, we will be proceeding through a metamorphosis. On March 5 the sun in southeastern PA rises to a noontime (due south) altitude of 44 degrees. By April 5 the sun’s due south altitude, which is the greatest angular distance above the horizon that the sun can achieve for that day, is 56 degrees. That is a change of 12 degrees. Compare this to the difference in the sun’s summer/winter solstice altitude during the same 31 day cycle, which is less than one degree, and you may understand why I am so excited. Although May is the transition period between cool to warm because the Earth continues to absorb far more energy than it is reradiating back into space at night, it is this 15-day period before and after the equinoxes that the sun makes its greatest gains or losses in altitude for the year. Likewise, the amount of time that the sun is above the horizon also explodes as we move from 11 hours, 29 minutes of sunlight to 12 hours, 53 minutes that Sol is visible, an increase of 1 hour, 24 minutes in just one month. Add the commencement of Daylight Saving Time early on Sunday morning, March 12, and sunset will occur one hour later on that same day. The sun will also rise an hour later tricking us into believing that the amount of daylight has yet again exploded. It feels that way because many of us are still asleep at the time of sunrise Sunday morning so we only notice the extended time of sunset. What a difference that makes in the way I feel, even though air temperatures are still cool for the most part. So why go to Florida, the land of snakes and swamps, on Spring Break when in just 30 some days the tanning rays of the sun will be just as effective here? I never could figure that out—wink, wink!

1073    MARCH 12, 2017:   BloomSky for Everyone
Yes, the sun is rapidly climbing, its warming rays becoming a little more direct each day; but Mother Nature seems to have other plans for the immediate future, including a significant cool down and the possibility of a major winter storm. My prediction is that all local schools, including Moravian College, will be closed on Tuesday. You now can watch the weather unfolding right from the Collier Hall of Science’s Sky Deck by downloading a free application on your smartphone called BloomSky, and then searching for “Moravian College” to observe the weather right from North Campus. The nearly all sky camera takes a picture every five minutes or so from dawn to dusk and gives temperature, humidity, and dew point readings 24/7. The unit came to Moravian via a circuitous route: BloomSky, a California company, sent a unit to Ronald J. Shawley of Johnstown, PA, who then sent it along to David Fisherowski in Boyertown. Both individuals already had a BloomSky system, so Dave contacted me and offered it to Moravian College with the proviso that patience was the byword to getting the unit operational. I eventually got it working in my backyard and began producing daily YouTube videos under the name “Moravian College Wx1,” but it was the Herculean efforts of Moravian’s IT gurus that made it succeed on Collier’s rooftop. Thomas Mondschein, assisted by David Brandes, Chris Laird, and Scott Hughes brought it all together, first by having Mike Sanderson from Sanderson Communications install an access point on the Sky Deck. After about one week of experimentation, Tom, Chris, and David finally got the unit to connect successfully with the BloomSky “Mother Ship,” the most difficult part of the initiation procedure. Now it’s BloomSky for everyone. Download the BloomSky application to your iPhone or Droid system. Search for Moravian College, and you’ll be taken to our site. See daily video compilations on YouTube at Moravian College Wx1, and watch it snow—snow—snow on Tuesday. Look for whiteout conditions when the unit finally gets covered with snow.

[BloomSky on Sky Deck]
Above, the BloomSky weather station on Collier’s Sky Deck with the new access point (flat box)… Below, from left to right: (A) Tom Mondschein photo bombs BloomSky while checking it in his office; (B) Walking the functioning BloomSky unit from the IT office on Greenwich Street to the Collier Hall of Science; (C) Chris Laird can’t escape BloomSky; (D) First night under the Moravian moon. First image by Gary A. Becker; composite images by BloomSky.
[BloomSky on Sky Deck]
BloomSky Weather Loop
BloomSky records the snowfall of March 10, 2017.

1074    MARCH 19, 2017:   The Sky Does Not Lie
All of the weather models fizzled. The big storm of March 14 predicted to move up the East Coast about 75 miles east of New Jersey made landfall over NE Virginia. It hugged the coastline close to shore, feeding too much warm air over southeastern PA which changed the rain aloft to sleet and freezing rain and in Jersey to just plain rain. The day’s events were recorded by Moravian’s BloomSky weather station and can be accessed by going to YouTube and searching for Moravian College Wx1 or from this link, Even better, you can download BloomSky on your iPhone or Droid smartphones, search for Moravian College, and make it a “favorite.” You can see the weather live from Collier’s Sky Deck at anytime from dawn to dusk. Although conditions may feel more like winter, the sky does not lie. Standing straight up in the NE just after dark in perfect spring posture is the Big Dipper, cup up and handle down. You can take the highest two Dipper stars, the pointer stars, Dubhe and Merak, and follow them left, straight to the North Star, a much better indicator of north than a simple compass. While turning around, you can trace a line with the pointer stars in the opposite direction, bisecting Leo the Lion. Leo’s head is marked by a backwards question mark, known as the sickle. Where the dot of the question mark should be placed is Leo’s heart, the star Regulus, from the Latin meaning “the little King.” To the left of the sickle are three stars that form a small but obvious right triangle which marks Leo’s rump. Extending two line segments towards the head from the triangle’s stars closest to the sickle discloses Leo’s body. If you put it all together, you’ve got a lion, lying in the grass or a nice example of the great Egyptian Sphinx at Giza, near Cairo. Wait a few hours until the Dipper’s handle has swung up higher into the sky, and follow its arc eastward to reveal the bright orangey star, Arcturus. Continue onward to spike Spica, the blue supergiant and alpha star of Virgo the Virgin. Above Spica will hang the King of the Gods, brilliant Jupiter.

BloomSky Weather Loop
BloomSky records the "blizzard" of March 14, 2017.


1075    MARCH 26, 2017:   Smiley Moon This Week
There is a curious lunar observation that is best seen in the spring, nearest to the vernal equinox. I call it the “smiley moon.” I first heard the phrase about seven years ago from a quip made to me by a woman from church who had seen one several nights previously. My conversations with acquaintances are often laced with comments about odd things that they have observed in the sky when they discover that I teach astronomy. I need to explain that I actually enjoy these types of dialogues because many times I get the opportunity to explain the observations, and sometimes buried within what was seen is the discovery of a real “diamond in the rough.” Such was the case with the smiley moon. Later that evening, my wife, Susan, and I were catching a program on TV. Our living room window faces west and through the gauzed curtains, I could see a horned moon that had a wide grin just like a Halloween pumpkin. I made two imaginary dots above it, and voila; there it was, the smiley moon about which I had just heard. I remember getting up and simply going outside, just a little bewildered, thinking something like, “You’ve been watching the moon all of your life, Gary, and you never put that together?” The explanation is really very simple. In the spring, the plane of the Earth’s orbit, which represents the sun’s yearly path against the stars and very nearly the moon’s monthly orbital path in the sky, is tilted at a steep angle to the western horizon. As the moon pulls up and away from the sun after its new phase, the crescent which forms from the sun’s light reflecting from the moon’s surface is nearly parallel to the horizon, creating the smile. On Wednesday, March 29 about 45 minutes after sundown, look for a thin smiley moon near to the horizon, about 10 degrees to the left of Mercury. On Thursday the smiley moon will be higher and next to Mars. Binoculars will make the view more enjoyable. During the several days that follow, the moon will appear higher in the sky with an even bigger grin until it reaches first quarter on April 3. Have some smiley fun with the smiley moon! It’s a real hoot!

[March Star Map]

[March Moon Phase Calendar]