StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MAY  2002


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[Moon Phases]


297   MAY 5, 2002:    Last Hurrah for the Big Five
About one month ago when I was observing Comet Ikeya-Zhang in the evening sky, the alignment of the planets that we are currently witnessing could be anticipated. Jupiter, about mid-sky, was followed by Saturn, and then by Mars. In early April, brilliant Venus became visible near the western horizon. The four planets were strung out like an arc of sparkling gems on a necklace, sojourners against the more familiar patterns of winter constellations. Connecting each of the planets showed approximately the plane of the solar system, called the ecliptic, which can also be defined as Earth's orbital plane projected into space. The planets wheel around the sun in a counterclockwise direction which means that their motions against the starry background are also counterclockwise. Facing west, counterclockwise is from right to left. The two closest planets to the Earth, Venus and Mars, always move faster against the background of stars because they are close to the sun and also to us. Therefore they were bound to catch up eventually to Saturn, and some weeks into the future, Jupiter. The caveat to this entire sky show has been Mercury which raced around the far side of sun to move rapidly into our evening sky to mingle with the other four wanderers. The nemesis to this whole event is our daystar, which because of Earth's motion around it, is also moving counterclockwise against the other stars. Since the sun's apparent motion on average is the fastest, each evening the sun's angular separation from the planets decreases, and the scene takes place in a slightly brighter sky. Go to web StarWatch and download a sky map for this evening. By the end of the week, Mercury will be gone and Saturn will soon be following.

[Grand Conjunction]
Last Hurrah: This will be the last week to catch all five classical planets in the sky at the same time. By the end of this week, Mercury disappears, followed by Saturn. Within one month, only bright Venus will be left gracing the western heavens after sundown. Compare this map with the May 5 photograph below.

[Conjunction begins]
Conjunction Begins: Notice how Mercury, Venus, and Mars are moving towards Saturn on the April 26 image. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

[Conjunction tightens]
Conjunction Tightens: A lot has happened since the photograph of April 26. Notice how the locations of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn have tightened as a group. Mercury is also much higher above the horizon. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...


[Conjunction triangle]
Conjunction Triangle: As the final phase of the great planetary conjunction of 2002 unfolds, Venus, Saturn, and Mars form a tight little triangle in the evening sky. The picture on the right was taken six days later from Chaco Culture National Historical Park near Nageezi, NM. Mercury is already too low to be seen from this vantage point. MDT represents Mountain Daylight Time. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

[Mercury exiting]
Mercury Exiting: On May 12 at 9:15 p.m. from Chaco Culture National Historical Park near Nageezi, NM, Mercury appears in the saddle between North Mesa and South Mesa. Lights from the Park's Visitor Center lie under Saturn, then Mars, followed closely by bright Venus. The planet to the upper left is Jupiter. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...


298   MAY 12, 2002:    Astronomy on Demand
When I was a kid just getting started in astronomy, my ultimate dream was to own a telescope. My buck-a-week allowance and the 20-30 dollars accrued at Christmas and birthdays meant that I might just get to own one somewhere around my late twenties. That was too long to wait for a 15-year old, so I ground my own mirror and bought the other parts, and with the guiding help of my father, put the whole scope together by my 17th birthday. The week that I completed it, the City of Allentown installed bright mercury vapor lamps on Jefferson St. where I lived, making observing from my home nearly hopeless. Things haven't gotten any better in the 35 years since then, and students with a passion for the heavens have even murkier skies to gaze through. That's why when 20 honor students from Boyertown Middle School wanted to view the heavens in late April, they decided to travel to New Mexico via the Global Student Telescope Network. They were participants in the latest cyber adventure which is helping kids spend some quality time under dark skies. From the Boyertown Planetarium, these ninth graders controlled, guided, and photographed the heavens, taking images from Mayhill, New Mexico, one of the best observing spots in the US. Outside, it was cloudy, damp, and light polluted, but inside it was a perfect evening and the equipment flawlessly snapped electronic images and returned them 2000 miles back to Boyertown for the students to see in just a few minutes. Check the GSTN in action at the web edition of today's StarWatch. Interested students can also link to Youth In Astronomy to find out how your school can participate. It certainly beats lugging that old reflector up from the basement.


[GSTN in action]
Astronomy on Demand: Ryan M. Hannahoe, of Leesport, PA, student founder of the Global Student Telescope Network helps Boyertown Middle School student, Kristin Ruminski, to navigate the sky to photograph a group of distant galaxies. The evening activity took place on April 19th at the Boyertown Area School District Planetarium, Peter K. Detterline, director. Photography by Gary A. Becker...


299   MAY 19, 2002:    The Outback Steakhouse Bet
This is my first StarWatch article being written from Chaco Culture National Historical Park near Nageezi, NM where I am volunteering for the National Park Service. Volunteering with me for his second year is Brandon Velivis, a former Allen High School astronomy student of mine, now at LCCC. On a 2000 mile road trip, we had plenty of opportunity to talk, and converse we did. Somewhere on the first day, possibly in Virginia, Brandon casually mentioned that there was going to be a solar eclipse visible from Chaco in June. Since BV has a history of playing practical jokes on me, I simply retorted, "Yeah, right." But the dialogue continued, and Brandon remained adamant that he was correct, always flashing that famous Velivis smile when we discussed the matter. That, of course, led me to become even more insistent that no eclipse was about to be happening. Wanting to once and for all put an end to this discussion, I challenged Brandon to put his money where his mouth was over a Grand Slam breakfast on the third morning of our travels. If I was correct, that no eclipse was going to be happening, Brandon would buy me dinner at the new Outback Steakhouse in Farmington. I’d foot the bill if I was wrong. Brandon hesitated, then reluctantly said "Yes." Triumphantly my mind retorted with a "YES!" We settled the debate about 30 minutes later, laboriously unpacking my crammed Tracker to find an appropriate reference. I can honestly say that by the time you’ve read this StarWatch article, Brandon will have fully digested his Outback steak paid for by me. This eclipse on June 10, my birthday, is a nonevent for the Lehigh Valley, but a very delightful late afternoon spectacle in the West. See Brandon ready to devour his steak at this week’s web StarWatch.

[Outback Victory]
Victory is Sweet: Brandon Velivis readies himself for an Outback steak in Farmington, NM after winning the great solar eclipse debate. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...


300   MAY 26, 2002:    Another One Bites the Dust
Watching the sky over the past three weeks has reminded me of the old Queen song "Another One Bites the Dust." The five naked eye planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, once strung out like a line of gleaming pearls after sundown, have jammed and rocked past one another until only Jupiter and Venus have been left standing low in the west about an hour after sundown. Mercury and Saturn have literally bitten the dust in the harsh glare of the sun, and Mars is just too low in the WSW to be noticed with the unaided eye. However the most luminous members of the conjunction, Venus (brighter) and Jupiter, are still playing Dominator in the west and will be pairing by the beginning of this week. Their separation on June 1 will only be two and one half degrees, about half the separation of the Pointer Stars of the Big Dipper, now high in the north, or the equivalent of five moons positioned end to end. Beautiful to behold with just the eye in a sky of deepening blue, stunning white diamonds through binoculars, a small telescope will reveal even more intricacies, even though it will not be possible to observe the pair simultaneously. A well-focused telescope will reveal Venus to be gibbous, like our moon several days before or after its full phase, but its disk will appear devoid of features. Jupiter, on the other hand, should reveal a wealth of cloud detail during brief moments of steady air. Most noticeable will be the dark equatorial belts where gases are descending and warming. Again, you may have to tweak your telescope’s focus to produce the optimal view. On June 1 the four Galilean satellites Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, discovered by Galileo in 1610, will be strung out to one side of Jupiter in their correct order. Jupiter now contains 39 natural satellites.

[Venus and Jupiter Pair]
Venus and Jupiter Pair: The boxed areas on the map represent the telescopic views of Venus and Jupiter on June 1 about 9:30 p.m. Depending upon the telescope, the image may be inverted, as well as left and right reversed.

[Planets Pairing]
Planets Pairing: It is easy to see Venus (brightest "star") approaching Jupiter (second brightest) in these two photos taken from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in NW New Mexico. The photo on the left was taken on May 16 when a school group from Durango, CO was camped near the Visitors' Center under a waxing crescent moon. The image on the right was "snapped" on May 23 under a much brighter waxing gibbous moon. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...

[Planets Pairing]
Venus Approaches Jupiter: Venus (right) and Jupiter are paired under the Gemini Twins, Castor (right) and Pollux in this May 29 image taken from Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker...


May Star Map

May Moon Phase Calendar