StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MAY  2004


Print Large Sky Charts For 10 p.m. EDT:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]


401    MAY 2, 2004:   NEAT Nears
All eyes are focused upon Comet NEAT, the next big astronomical event that will be gracing our sky. Discovered by NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program on August 24, 2001, NEAT is rocketing northward and will be at perihelion, its closest distance to the sun, on May 15. The comet should become visible low in the WSW during late twilight by May 6. Over the next week, Comet NEAT will appear higher each evening and should rapidly become visible in a completely dark sky. The big question is whether the comet’s higher nightly altitude will be enough to allow it to become an easy naked eye target. I think this will happen for suburban and rural places, but binoculars will be needed from urban locales. Comets are similar to dirty snowballs, composed of a mixture of ice and dust in varying amounts and in varying degrees of compaction. They look similar to mounds of snow piled on the sides of roads slowly blackening over the course of weeks from dirt as traffic passes. This is exactly what happens to comets over billions of years as they encounter bits and pieces of dust in their orbits around the sun. As a comet moves sunward, heat causes the ices—frozen water, dry ice, ammonia, and methane to sublimate or change from a solid directly into a gas. This happens just below the comet’s dark and dirty surface. Jets of outgassing matter propel the smaller solid dust particles into space where they scatter (reflect) sunlight back towards Earth. This produces a comet’s dust tail. Ultraviolet energy from the sun breaks apart the molecules of gas and causes them to glow or fluoresce producing the ion (gas) tail. A comet not only acts like a body reflecting sunlight, but it produces its own light, making an accurate forecast of its brightness very difficult.

[StarWatch Team at Hawk Mountain for Earth Day]
Dieruff High School's StarWatch Team is gearing up to view Comet NEAT from Macungie Memorial Park, Macungie, PA from 8:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11. The rain date will be Thursday, March 13. In the picture, StarWatch members help to entertain hundreds of people who attended Earth Day activities at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on April 24. Upper left, sophomore, Caleb Rochelle, sights the sun using the Mack 6-inch refractor. Senior, Evan Burke, (center) projects the sun using a 4.25-inch Astroscan telescope. Sophomores, Emily Plessl (left) and Sarabeth Brockley kept the sun in focus using several different telescopes at the event. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker.

402a  MAY 9, 2004:   NEAT Week--Part 1
Comet NEAT will be visible in the WSW from suburban and rural locations as a small, diffuse object with a short tail. NEAT is the brightest comet to become easily seen from mid-northern latitudes since Comet Hale-Bopp was seen during the spring of 1997. The comet has been rapidly gaining altitude in the last several weeks and is now visible in a completely dark sky. During the next two weeks NEAT will fade slowly from a naked eye object but could remain an easy binocular target for the next month. My students and other ASD Planetarium volunteers will have at least a half-dozen telescopes set up in the back parking lot of Macungie Memorial Park on the evening of May 11 (rain date, May 13) from 8:45-10:15 p.m. Comets, such as NEAT, are best seen through wide-field, low magnification telescopes. These are precisely the types of scopes that we will have available for observing. If you own binoculars, bring them along because you’ll be able to treat yourself and other participants to some memorable views while waiting in line to look through the bigger telescopes. Macungie Memorial Park is where the car club, Wheels of Time, holds their shows. From Allentown, travel Lehigh St. through Emmaus (now Chestnut St.) past Yocco’s until the road Ys at the Trivet Restaurant. Bear right onto Buckeye Rd., and travel until it intersects Main St., (Rt. 100) in Macungie. Turn right and go one block, looking for the Bear Swamp Diner and Salvatore’s Pizzeria (174 Main St.). Another right at this location will take you into Macungie Memorial Park. Greeters will provide parking instructions until 10 p.m. A go, no go message will be posted by 6 p.m. on the observation date at the URL below. Call 484-765-5557 after 6 p.m. if you are not on line. Guaranteed, it’ll be NEAT!!

[PositionsComet NEAT in May ]
Comet NEAT will brighten North American skies during the first half of May. Map by Gary A. Becker...

[Macungie Memorial Park Map]
Macungie Memorial Park:    Above is a locator map for Macungie Memorial Park where Comet NEAT will be observed on Tuesday, May 11, from 8:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. The rain date is scheduled for Thursday, May 13.

[Comet NEAT, May 8, 2004]
NEAT spotted:   With a rash of bad weather ready to descend upon the Lehigh Valley, Comet NEAT was spotted in hazy skies on May 8 at 9:15 p.m. It was an easy binocular target, a fuzzy ball about the size of the full moon with a short 1-1/2 degree tail. I estimated the comet’s brightness at +4.3 fainter than expected and certainly not naked eye from the suburbs. This digital image shows NEAT as the fuzzy object just above the treetops near the photo’s center. Procyon is the bright star to the upper right. I owe this observation to Mark Balanda, a friend of mine who lives in Hershey, PA. He called wondering where the comet was. That got me outside to discover that it was clear enough to make an observation. Together we confirmed the comet’s location. Thanks Mark. Digital photography by Gary A. Becker…

402b  MAY 12, 2004:   NEAT Week--Part 2
During this week Comet NEAT will be visible with binoculars in the WSW from suburban and rural locations as a small, diffuse object with a short tail. NEAT is the brightest comet to become easily seen from mid-northern latitudes since Comet Hale-Bopp was observed during the spring of 1997. During the last several weeks the comet has been rapidly gaining altitude as it has shot into northern hemispheric skies. During the next two weeks Comet NEAT will continue to be better positioned in the west after twilight, but it will gradually begin a slow fade as a naked eye object in rural locations as its distance from the sun and the Earth begin to increase. The comet could remain a binocular target for the next month. I saw Comet NEAT for the first time on May 8 under hazy conditions. It is about as large as the full moon, but it is diffuse, like a dim cottony ball. Its large size is a function of the comet’s closeness to Earth, now about 30 million miles. Using averted vision, I was able to discern a small tail, perhaps one and one half degrees in length. Each night the comet will appear higher in the sky for same time. This should make NEAT easier to spot because the line of sight from observer to comet will traverse through less atmosphere. On May 13, NEAT will be in line with the two brightest stars of the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux, but about three binocular fields of view to their left. A real treat awaits those observers that view NEAT on the evening of May 15. The comet will be just over one degree from the easily observable open star cluster known as the Beehive in Cancer the Crab. Binoculars will make the view more pleasing. Go to to view a map of NEAT’s changing positions during this week.

Thursday, May 13: I used my 8-inch, F/6, Meade LX200 to view Comet NEAT from Coopersburg and recorded several digital images with the camera piggybacked onto the telescope. A fan like tail structure was seen across the field of view with several faint streamers. An estimate of NEAT's brightness using +4.29 magnitude Zeta Ursae Minoris and +3.32 Delta Ursae Majoris gave a rough estimate of +3.8. I used 7x42B Trinovids binoculars. Observing conditions: clear and calm, limiting magnitude +4.0.

[Comet NEAT, May 13, 2004]
NEAT sports a small tail as witnessed in this May 13 photograph taken with a digital camera piggybacked onto a Meade, 8-inch, LX200 telescope. The Beehive open star cluster in Cancer the Crab, also known as M44, can be seen in the in the upper right hand portion of the image. Photo by Gary A. Becker...

Sunday, May 16: Comet NEAT was spotted from Coopersburg with my 7x42B Trinovids binoculars looking like a small fuzzball with a three degree tail. I estimated its magnitude at +4.0 using +3.94 Delta Cancri and +4.03 magnitude Iota Cancri as reference stars. Observing conditions: clear, calm, T=62 deg. F., limiting magnitude +4.5.

Wednesday, May 19: Using 7x42B Trinovid binoculars NEAT was seen to fade since last Sunday. I estimated its magnitude at +4.4. The coma was somewhat more condensed, but a faint 3 degree tail could still be seen. Iota Cancri (+4.03), Kappa Leonis (+4.47), and Lambda Leonis (+4.32) were used to make the magnitude estimate. Observing conditions: mostly clear, calm, T=57 deg. F., limiting magnitude +4.5.


403    MAY 16, 2004:   It Truly is a Miracle--Part 1
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve seen my universe through the frames of glasses. My genetics doomed me right from the start. With two loving but myopic parents and every relative sporting glasses, corrective lenses became part of my existence early in first grade. Then my heredity pulled out an unexpected surprise, a recessive gene from a great, great, grandmother who towered over her nineteenth century peers at well over six feet. I grew like a weed in my teens. All of these changes stretched my retinas and by age 24, they nearly detached completely. In what can only be described as two brutal operations, my sight was restored. I beat the 30 percent odds of going blind, but the surgery left me with bottle thick glasses, and a lot fewer dates. Still I was grateful. My teaching career was left intact. Let’s face it; there are no employment opportunities for blind astronomers working in planetariums. My romantic anxieties disappeared when I met Susan, but the glasses didn’t, and all through my life they have been a distinctive part my character and the obvious grist of numerous jokes from friends and students alike. My favorite example was a scavenger hunt devised by Dieruff seniors many years ago. The object was to lift various personal items from faculty members. My glasses were at the top of the list, valued at 400 points. Several students actually warned me of the impending heist. I learned to “roll with the punches” and soon people were laughing with me and not at me. It made all the difference. My poor vision also allowed me to view the universe as if I was a first time observer, meaning that if I could see it, anyone could. My teaching became more compassionate, but my visual acuity declined. Next week, the happy ending…


404    MAY 23, 2004:   It Truly is a Miracle--Part 2
Thick glasses and below average vision have been a part of my life for the past 30 years, but when cataracts began to cloud my lenses, life became downright frustrating. Take for instance, the Mars opposition last August. The Red Planet was only 34.65 million miles from Earth. Through the eyepiece, Mars was big, bright, and beautiful with plenty of features to astound even the novice observer. But for me seeing them was exasperating. The slightest motion of my head brought the light being gathered by the telescope through a different part of my cloudy lens. Mars was stretched and pulled as if I was looking into a crazy mirror at a funhouse. What happened to me on April 22 was no less than a small miracle. In a short 40-minute procedure, a small slit was made into the cornea of each eye. The natural lens was then broken up with ultrasound and vacuumed away. Folded intraocular lenses were inserted into the cavities where my lenses had been. They unfolded and presto, I was in recovery. About 15 minutes after surgery a smiling Dan Ross of LV Center for Sight popped in and handed me a Time magazine and said, “Can you read this?” I could. Two days later, I was with my students at Hawk Mountain showing interested visitors the sun. On the road I kept a running monologue of the signs I was passing and the incredible color saturation that objects possessed. With interim glasses, stars now looked like points of light and I could see distinctly the dark seas on the moon. A week later, I “discovered” the Red Spot on Jupiter and perceived its motion in just a half-hour of viewing. Glasses will still be part of my persona, but the coke bottles are gone. My students have exclaimed, “What big eyes you have.” “The better to see you goof off,” I’ve responded. Thank you, Dr. Ross.


[Transit of Venus at sunrise]

405    MAY 30, 2004:   View the Venus Transit at Cabela's
Let’s hope that the morning of June 8 is radiant against a clear, blue sky because a transit of Venus will be unfolding as the sun breaks the horizon. A transit occurs when a smaller body is seen in front of a much larger object. From local sunrise at 5:30 a.m. to about 7:15 a.m., EDT the eastern half of the US will be able to catch the last segment of Venus transiting the sun. Consider that the last time this happened was on December 6, 1882. No person currently alive has ever witnessed such an event. In order to see Venus against the solar disk, all of the observing precautions for viewing the sun apply. If you possess aluminized Mylar or black polymer material in the form of eclipse glasses that were sold several years ago by the ASD Planetarium, and you are an astute observer, you should be able to use these glasses to view Venus as a tiny dot against the solar disk. If you don’t own eclipse glasses, the ASD Planetarium has purchased several hundred black polymer commemorative Venus transit glasses. They are being marketed for $2.50 per pair as a fundraiser for the Planetarium by Dan’s Camera City in Allentown. Contact John Evrard at 610-434-2313. An even better suggestion is to be present at Cabela’s superstore, located at the junction of I-78 and Rt. 61, at sunrise (5:30 a.m.) on June 8. The ASD Planetarium’s StarWatch team of observers has partnered with Cabela’s and Hawk Mountain to safely show you this event. There is no charge. We will have about a dozen telescopes with solar filters or projection units set up to view Venus in transit in the RV section of the parking lot. When entering Cabela’s parking area, bear left and stay to the rear of the lot. Visit the online version of StarWatch at the URL below for more information about safe solar observing. More next week…

[Path of Venus across the sun]
Black Polymer Venus Transit Glasses can be purchased from Dan’s Camera City 1439 W. Fairmont St., Allentown, PA--610-434-2313--for $2.50 per unit. All proceeds will benefit the Allentown School District Planetarium. Venus is drawn to scale in this view of the sun showing where it will be located at the beginning of the transit (sunrise) and at the end. This map is localized for eastern Pennsylvania.

[Past and Future Venus Transits]


May Star Map

May Moon Phase Calendar