StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MARCH  2019


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[Moon Phases]


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1176    MARCH 3, 2019:   Will the Real Orion Please Stand!
The star pattern of Orion spans the southern sky as soon as darkness falls. His two broad shoulder stars, Betelgeuse (left) and Bellatrix, the three equally spaced belt stars of his narrow waist (right to left); Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak; and finally, his knees, Rigel (right) and Saiph, round out the body of the greatest hunter of antiquity. My most memorable encounter with Orion came in February of 2001 viewing the Hunter with binoculars at Siding Spring National Observatory in Australia. I followed the stars of an offshoot of the Milky Way straddling the sky above the Hunter, up towards the star clusters and nebulae that compose Orion’s sword. Down Under, Orion was upside down. The Hunter is a hotbed of stellar activity. All of the luminaries mentioned in the first few sentences will only have lifespans of millions of years, compared to the 11-billion-year life expectancy of our sun. That means that Orion’s stars are bright blue giants and supergiants, much more massive than our sun. Their cores are converting matter into energy at a “fast and furious” rate, churning out power at tens to hundreds of thousands of times the rate of Sol. Rapidly, they will evolve into red supergiant stars like the left shoulder (as we see him) of the Hunter, Betelgeuse. It has an unmistakable warmer hue as compared to the other blue stars which comprise Orion. At a distance of 570 light years, this megastar emits 85,000 times more energy than our sun and extends 80 percent of the way to Jupiter. It is a star so close to death that its supernova detonation may be travelling to us right now. The other stars of the Hunter are well on their path to becoming red supergiants, but are still primarily converting hydrogen into helium within their cores. Compared to the sun, the total luminosities of each of these stars are astounding—Bellatrix (7100 suns/252 light years distant), Rigel (85,000 suns/860 ly), Saiph (65,000 suns/720 ly), Mintaka (double star each component 90,000 suns/915 ly), Alnilam (375,000 suns/1340 ly), and Alnitak (100,000 suns/800 ly). So why are these stars not the brightest luminaries in the night sky? The answer is straightforward. Most of the radiation which these powerhouses are emitting is not in the wavelengths which can be seen by the human eye. Infrared, like the warmth emitted from a burner of an electric stove, dominates for Betelgeuse, and ultraviolet, the energy that tans us in the summer, is most prevalent for Orion’s bluish stars. If you gaze below the belt on a clear moonless evening, at first glance you will see what appears to be three stars which represent Orion’s sword. Notice that the center star appears slightly fuzzy. With binoculars you will see that it is a nebula, a cloud of gas and dust, with small projecting wings. It has a brighter condensation of four stars (actually six with larger telescopes) called the Trapezium which are causing the gases of the nebula to fluoresce (glow). You’ve just discovered the Orion Nebula, 1350 light years distant and about 24 light years in diameter, the birthing place for some of the youngest stars in the galaxy, about 100,000 to 300,000 years in age. The total star count for the Orion Nebula is about 2800. The star(s) above and below the nebula also belong to clusters, making this locality of space and its environs one of the most active star-forming regions in the Milky Way Galaxy.

1177    MARCH 10, 2019:   We Came in Peace for all Mankind
While Ted Kennedy was wrestling with Chappaquiddick, the country battling racial unrest; Vietnam embroiling our nation in antiwar demonstrations, and the Cold War continuing to sizzle; the world paused for nine days as three men, standing on backs of hundreds of thousands of other dedicated people, traveled to the moon, landed on its surface, and returned safely to Earth. While we struggled with our growing pains, the Apollo program and its predecessors, Gemini, and Mercury, brought a bold and magnificent spotlight to what a united America could accomplish and offer to the world stage. That I believe was the implicit message being driven home in the CNN documentary, Apollo 11, one that resonates again in these turbulent political times of today. The documentary is currently playing at Arts Quest in Bethlehem at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas. Contact the theater at 610-297-7111 for specific showtimes. Reliving Apollo 11 fifty years after a 19-year old sat in his parent’s living room and witnessed these events live, I was still mesmerized by the sheer size of the equipment, the crawler which brought the 36-story (363-foot) Saturn V rocket to its launchpad or riding up the elevator to the top of the vehicle with the Saturn V in full view. In fact, the scope and magnitude of the equipment is so overwhelming, and the tasks accomplished so audacious, that I can even feel a small (very small) amount of pity for those individuals who claim that nothing this grand could have ever been accomplished by humanity so long ago. WELL, IT DID HAPPEN!!! I lived through it. Apollo 11 also brilliantly captures the intensity of the moment, particularly early in the film when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins are suiting up in preparation for the launch. The reduction of years of training now focused on this moment in history, coupled with the excitement of great expectations, tempered by an unknown outcome was evident on the faces of all three men. Emerging to a waiting crowd for the 8-mile ride to the launch pad, the three astronauts clad in their white pressure garment assembly suits, waved and smiled to the public, but I cannot imagine that in their hearts there was not some tiny amount of trepidation. The film showed in detail the sequence of events necessary for launch in a well-paced manner, keeping the countdown fresh, lively, and intense—all this happening against the backdrop of the repair of a liquid hydrogen leak at the 20-story level of the rocket. Then there were the people, the hundreds of engineers and technicians at both Kennedy and Houston Space Centers, row upon row of huge computers, and the public—nearly a million of them—camped out, some on the rooftops of their trailers sipping their morning coffee while others were in sleeping bags lying on the ground. In every aspect of the launch to Earth orbit, the translunar injection, life inside the command module, the lunar landing, the first step, the extravehicular activities on the moon, the liftoff from the moon to lunar orbit, and the fiery return to splashdown in the Pacific, footage was shown that I had never seen before. Another aspect of the film that peeked my enthusiasm was the telemetry data that was shown to the viewers. It was simple and unobtrusive to the film’s visuals—you could ignore it if you wanted to, but it kept the audience in step with the events that were transpiring in the film. On the moon, a time-lapse film camera recording events from the Lunar Module was shown next to the video camera capturing the same scene on the surface. It was a unique dual perspective. One final aspect of Apollo 11 which I cannot ignore and which shows positive growth during the last 50 years is America’s increased acceptance of diversity. I only saw only one female NASA technician and only one person of color in the entire film. America’s opportunity for improvement is still great, but we have come a long way since Apollo 11. Don’t expect the flashy cornucopia of visual effects seen in Apollo 13 or more recently in First Man. This was 50 years ago; but sometimes the real deal is just as commanding, sweet, and exciting!

[Apollo 11 Trailer]
The CNN documentary, Apollo 11, highlights the the types of aspirations that make a nation great. NASA image.

1178    MARCH 17, 2019:   Spring has Sprung, Finally!
I have a kind of woodhenge in my backyard. Lots of bare-branched trees near the house and another stand of trees about 100-yards away on an adjoining neighbor’s property, including a conifer that sits in a very strategic location. Once the leaves have dropped in late October, all of those trunks and branches act like a calendar, allowing me to witness the southward progression of the sun during late fall, until Sol pauses for several weeks at its winter solstice (sun still) position. Then the sun backtracks and begins to move northward, very slowly at first, in and out of the skeletal framework that graces my east. As January blends into February, and February into March, the sun’s northward movement grows faster and faster, maximizing on the day of the vernal equinox, the first day of spring which this year occurs on March 20 at 6:01 p.m., EDT. A day or so before the equinox, the sun rises behind that distant pine tree, almost like a predictive marker, to herald the first moment of spring. From the winter solstice to the vernal equinox, the sun has moved from being directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere to being overhead on the equator. As the sun continues to move northward and Sol climbs higher into the sky each day, its more direct energy will rebirth another spring. The first enactment of this process was purely human-made and psychological when we switched seamlessly from Eastern Standard Time to Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday, March 3, our clocks leaping forward as we slept from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. During that moment it appeared as if we gave ourselves an extra hour of daylight, but we really didn’t. Through this little maneuver we simply shifted the daylight hours more to our waking hours. The second act, the sun crossing the vernal equinox (equator), is real. After the vernal equinox, Sol will rapidly favor the northern hemisphere, exploding the amount of daylight hours against a shrinking night. At 40 degrees north latitude we have already gained three hours of daylight from the winter solstice on December 21 to the vernal equinox on March 20th. The increase in daylight from the first day of spring to May 1 will be one hour, 48 minutes, giving us a period of nearly 14 hours where the sun will be above the horizon. That is in comparison to 12 hours of daylight at the time of the vernal equinox and 9 hours on the date of winter solstice. Since the winter solstice, the sun has been moving northward, climbing higher into the sky each day. The length of the path of the sun from sunrise to sunset has increased every day since then, but the Earth has continued to rotate at a constant rate causing the sun to be visible for a longer period of time as the months have rolled along. What gets the credit for all of this change? It is the 23.5-degree tilt of the Earth’s axis, the imaginary line about which the Earth rotates (spins) to the perpendicular of its orbital plane. Each season the sun changes its noontime altitude by the number of degrees in its axial tilt, upward 23.5 degrees from winter solstice to the vernal equinox, and upward again by 23.5 degrees from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice, a total of 47 degrees from its lowest noontime altitude of 26.5 degrees to a summer solstice high of 73.5 degrees (40 degrees north latitude). To complement this drastic altitude change, the sun’s rising and setting positions must also change, affecting the length of time which the sun remains above the horizon. For the next six months it will be our time to bask in the glory of a more potent sun because its energy will fall more directly upon us. The sun has returned to the northern hemisphere. Spring has sprung, FINALLY!

1179    MARCH 24, 2019:   Apollo 11: Celebrate the Success
This reflection about the feature film, Apollo 11, was written by my wife, Susan Becker. The documentary is playing currently at SteelStacks, a venue of ArtsQuest in Bethlehem at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas. Contact the theater at 610-297-7111 for specific showtimes.

The CNN film, Apollo 11, is a testament to humankind’s ability of resourcefulness when creativity and engineering, co-operation and perseverance, courage and expertise, foster the realization of a common goal. Realty and fantasy wed to birth an extraordinary event. I was again gripped with the wonder and pride of what our nation had accomplished. It was a privilege to be alive for this historical event. Then as now, I have to wonder how NASA accomplished this feat. Just leaving the planet is an remarkable endeavor; and this is not mentioning all of the details that are necessary to bring it to fruition, like figuring out how to get there mathematically, how to dock the two spacecraft, the Columbia and Eagle, how to maintain all of the protocols that would guarantee that the astronauts would return safely, and then all the myriad of procedures to execute once they were in lunar orbit and subsequently, on the moon. All scenarios had to be imagined and their solutions resolved. The space program was not for the fainthearted; mistakes were likely to be fatal as witnessed in the Apollo 1 fire. Then there was leaving their families and friends, wondering if they would ever see them again and all that they held so dear. It made me think that they must have thought, “Do we have the requisite knowledge for this?” Participating in a small way by seeing the movie gave me an understanding of what it meant to have vision and self-sacrifice. It takes a special person to be an explorer; how can you prepare for what you don’t know? Ironically, the movie provided suspense with the actual landing, even though I knew that the mission would be a success. Neil Armstrong’s famous words, the first step on the lunar surface, the contrast of our Earth with the moon and its black and white composition of valleys, mountains, and ray-haloed craters made me wonder anew how utterly alone they were on that flat surface. Seeing the Earth hang like a Christmas ornament, blue seas and wispy white clouds, renewed in me the fact that we are all part of this fragile world. Our fates are interwoven with this planet; we are stewards of it. We need to realize how precious it is, especially since the moon is so stark and barren and devoid of life. The orange landing strut of the Lunar Module was the only color to be seen. The American flag was planted on the surface; what a glorious sight! We were there! The experience is now part of our collective DNA. The choreographed dance of the ship, the moon, and the Earth was executed flawlessly. To me it proves what heights we can accomplish when we are united in a common goal. I was proud to be an American, proud that my country could do this, proud that the men and women who worked on this project took President Kennedy’s mandate to heart. Salute this titanic achievement and the pioneers who were brave and courageous in seeing their hopes and dreams become a reality. I recommend seeing Apollo 11 and reveling in this journey that humankind has made and will hopefully make again. Celebrate their 50-year success!

[Neil Armstrong]
This rarely viewed photo of Neil A. Armstrong taken shortly after his historic walk on the moon, July 20, 1969, highlights many rare scenes that play out in the brilliantly conceived documentary Apollo 11. The discovery of undeveloped 70 mm canisters of Apollo 11 footage in NASA archives made this CNN documentary adaptable for IMAX theaters. Photography by Buzz Aldrin.

1180    MARCH 31, 2019:   Got to Go—in Space!
The thought of become an astronaut and spending a good chunk of your life living dangerously—always on the edge, being poked and prodded medically, including the physicality and mental exhaustion of the practice routines just wasn’t for me. Then there were the cramped quarters of a spacecraft and a spacesuit which would have caused my slight claustrophobic tendencies to flare. I could have omitted those first two sentences by simply saying that NASA was not interested in candidates who were nearly 6 feet, 4 inches in height, and legally blind without their glasses, but it’s true; for me, going into space was not a life goal. That got me to thinking about my teaching tens of thousands of elementary pupils in Allentown about the moon and the Apollo program. You might guess that one of the more popular questions that I was continuously asked was how the astronauts went to the bathroom? A wave of giggles would ripple through my audiences of 60 to 90 children. Well, let Valerie Neal, a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. tell you about the indignities of being an astronaut in the Apollo program. “On Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, the crew members practically wore the [space] capsules. They lived in their seat[s], and everything that was personal they did in their seat[s]. They ate there, and slept there, and urinated and [did] everything else there. Urine was collected in a receptacle that attached to the body with a condom-like pouch that came in ‘small,’ ‘medium,’ and ‘large.’” The liquid was transferred using hoses and valve systems, the flow created by differences in air pressure between the spacecraft cabin and an over pressurization of the pressure garment urine receptacle assembly which was capped. The collected urine flowed into a stowage area of the Command Module and was dumped eventually into space, creating a starburst of shimmering crystalline lights as thousands of tiny droplets of frozen liquid reflected and refracted sunlight back through the windows on the Command Module. After Apollo 11, the urine collection system did not require intimate contact of the crewman during the collection of urine. Valerie Neal continues that “for bowel movements, the astronaut would first [have to unfasten the pressure garment assembly and remove several layers of undergarments, then] tape a plastic bag to his buttocks. When he was done, he would seal the bag, then knead it in order to mix a liquid bactericide with the contents.” Richard L. Sauer and George K. Jorgensen who coauthored an article on the waste management system on Apollo wrote, “Because this task was distasteful and required an inordinate amount of time [to accomplish], low residue foods and laxatives were generally used prior to launch. During flight, in addition to low residue foods, some use was also made of drugs to reduce intestinal motility [movement in the digestive track] (NASA-SP-368).” The bags of fecal material were then stowed in a container on the Command Module to further reduce odors. This did not address elimination in the space suit while participating in an extravehicular activity on the moon’s surface. All of this was explained much more simply and delicately to third and fourth graders; however, I never came across an elementary class that didn’t understand the difference between going number one and number two. The bag stuck to their buttock really blew their minds. Maybe that was an advantage of teaching in an urban school environment or actually giving a realistic response to what some students thought would be a question that would go unanswered. No question is inappropriate if asked honestly.

[March Star Map]

[March Moon Phase Calendar]