StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MAY  2000


193   MAY 7, 2000:     Astronomy on the Go
If youíre taking a trip this summer and New Mexico happens to be on your travel itinerary, you might want to investigate some of the astronomical delights along I-25 south and northeast of Albuquerque. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, better know by "Contact" fans as where ET first found home, is an easy two and one half hour drive south of town. Exit onto Route 60 at Socorro and travel about 65 miles west until you see the dishes sprouting like inverted mushrooms. The view is unexpected as the road gradually begins descending onto the Plains of San Augustin which is also home to some of the largest pyrotechnic displays on the continent. The 27 dishes, each 82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons apiece are positioned in a "Y" configurations and can operate as one large radio telescope with a variable diameter up to 26 miles. Guided tours are available on weekends from June through mid-August. At other times the tours are self-guided, but visitors are permitted to walk right up to a line of dishes which is very impressive. Call 505-835-0424 for more information. Four hours northeast of the NRAO, near Sapello, NM is Star Hill Inn, an amateur astronomerís retreat in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Exit at Las Vegas, NM and head north on Rt. 518 for about 12 miles. The several hundred acre hideaway features eight cabins, which are anything but rustic, and absolutely no TVís, radios, or phones to distract one from its main enticement which are the celestial wonders to be seen at night. You can rent a telescope or be guided around the heavens via a computerized celestial tour by star man, Phil Mahon. Advance reservations are required. Phone 505-425-5605.

194   MAY 14, 2000:     Hidden Conjunction
Over the past several weeks the great invisible planetary conjunction of 2000 has been moving through its paces amidst the glare and brilliance of the sun. On May 3-4, the sun, moon, and all five naked eye planets could be found within a span of 27 degrees of each other. Over the past week and a half, the moon has left this grouping and traveled in its orbit around the Earth to nearly the opposite part of the sky. It will be full on Thursday morning at 3:34 a.m., causing the evening sky to be bathed by its bright light. This week really seems to be a no-win situation for skywatchers. To add insult onto injury, Venus has been slowly catching up to Jupiter. On Wednesday morning around 6:28 a.m. EDT, the two planets will be separated by only 39 seconds of arc. Keep in mind that there are 360 degrees in a circle and each degree can be divided into 60 minutes, and each minute can be divided into 60 seconds. The separation of Venus from Jupiter will be about 1/100th of a degree. A telescope would be necessary to separate easily these two objects. A closer planetary conjunction will not take place until March 22, 2013 when Mars and Uranus meet. And if your thinking pessimistically, keep the thought, for this event happens only seven degrees from the sun. It will also be invisible to the eye. Here the separation will be only 37 seconds of arc. While Venus is passing Jupiter this week, Jupiter will also be creeping up to Saturn. These two planets will be only slightly greater than one degree apart on Sunday, May 28. By mid-June, however, they will emerge into the morning sky and be easily visible just before dawn. Their separation will be just over two degrees, providing some slight reprieve for these past two weeks of spectacular, but hidden events.

195   MAY 21, 2000:     The 100-Billion Mile Telescope Sale
An ad touting the sale of "Super-Powerful 100-billion miles Deep Space Telescopes" in last Thursdayís paper, D2, was the inspiration for this weekís article. The price of the telescope was only $29.95, reduced from $199.95, and it offered to bring "the moon, Mars, Venus, etc. right into your living room." Continuing, the promotional said that the telescope could "track comets streaking across the heavens." Comets donít streak or run. They donít even skip or hop. They move slowly against the background of more distant stars as their positions change and our observing platform Earth revolves around the sun. "See meteors flame through the skies..." Meteors can streak, flame, and sputter, but their rapid motion makes them impossible to follow through a telescope. Then came the real eye opener. "Be absolutely spellbound in your ringside seat as asteroids collide in fiery explosions..." There has never been a single real time observation in the history of astronomy which has detailed the collision of two asteroids. In July of 1994 telescopes were trained on Jupiter as 20 fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fell into its atmosphere. This telescope may have barely seen the largest dark splotches made by the icy fragments, but the impacts were only visible through satellites that could image the nighttime hemisphere of the planet. Itís sad to think that telescopes are still being marketed with this old-fashioned type of hype. The ad ended with a disclaimer that "results vary depending upon weather and eyesight." Results will be disappointing regardless of how good your eyesight or the weather conditions are. Caveat emptor is the rule here!

196   MAY 28, 2000:     Telescopes in the Rose Garden
For the past 11 years a group of Valley enthusiasts have been creating and executing a marvelous annual kidsí event called the Rose Garden Childrenís Festival. It is suitably located at Bethlehemís Rose Garden, next to Nitschmann Middle School at Eighth Avenue and Union Boulevard. Itís a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday arts and sciences extravaganza, culminating this year with the sciences on Sunday, June 4th. For a decade members of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society have been bringing their telescopes to the Rose Garden to give kids, as well as their parents, grandparents, and guardians, clear and safe views of our sun through properly filtered telescopes. This year will be no exception, but it will be an exceptional year for the sun. Currently speckled with an extraordinary number of spots, the sun is headed for solar maximum during the latter part of 2000 or early 2001. This means that now is one of the best opportunities for the public to take a look at our daystar, and see it with perhaps dozens of complex sunspot groups covering its face. Sunspots, which are the tops of cooler zones in the sunís light-emitting photosphere, result from increased solar magnetic activity. The auroral show that bathed Valley skies in red during the early evening hours of April 6th is hopefully just a precursor of perhaps a half dozen other Northern Lights events which will happen during the next two to three years of heightened solar activity. This enhancement in the sunís magnetic field averages 11 years between peaks, and enormously increases the visual appeal of our sun. Why donít you come see for yourself? Thatís June 4th, 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

May Star Map

May Moon Phase Calendar