StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MAY  2015


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

[Moon Phases]

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976    MAY 3, 2015:   Glittering Stars against a Velvet Night
I don’t recall a semester where the weather was so uncooperative. Three of the four evenings where classes were cancelled because of icy conditions, occurred on field trips, and it took 14 tries, yes, 14 attempts before my students got one night where the weather was decent. That just happened on April 28, a beautifully transparent and temperate dark with little wind and a bright gibbous moon lighting the grassy fields at Shooting Star Farm north of Quakertown, PA. Members of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society, a club that I joined when I was only 16, also had their scopes assembled to help my students drink in a wider variety of celestial gems. As the contrails of westward heading jets disappeared in the dimming twilight, Tom Duff caught Mercury in his 80mm refractor. What a joy! I’ve only viewed the Messenger God a half-dozen times telescopically. It became an easy starlike target as the sky darkened. Mercury will remain well positioned, for the next two weeks, but a little fainter each night. Above Mercury lay stunning Venus, so bright that it became visible just a few minutes after sundown. Bill Dahlenburg centered the Goddess of Love in his 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain and jacked up the power to about 400 to reveal a surprisingly steady, but featureless object that had the phase characteristics of a waning gibbous moon. I had never seen Venus looking so good at such a high magnification, indicating that not only was the night pristine, but the air steady (non-turbulent) enough to allow that kind of crispness in an image. Sandy Mesics and I zoomed our scopes around, showing off blue and red supergiant stars, double stars, and the moon, but the highlight in my refractor was Jupiter which just kept revealing more and more detail as higher magnification eyepieces were introduced. Heaps of thanks are extended to friends, Bill Jacobs and Johnny Killwey, for hosting a truly special evening under the glittering stars.

977    MAY 10, 2015:   "Death Star," Venus
Hey, it’s Mother’s Day, and although the women of the night number only four: Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Coma Berenices, and Virgo, the sky is awash with two other brilliant females, the moon and Venus. While Mama Cass, the evil Queen of Ethiopia and her teenage daughter, Andromeda, have left the sky for their seasonal retreat, Coma Berenices, the hair of Egyptian Queen Berenice II, and wife of Ptolemy III, and Virgo the enigmatic Virgin, still can be seen in the west and south respectively. None of these patterns are extremely splashy, but the other two women truly dominate. Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, better known as Luna, the moon, waxes and wanes in our evening and morning sky. Currently, she is on the wane and can be seen before dawn. Diana will emerge on the evening of Tuesday, May 19 as a razor thin crescent about 30 minutes after sundown. However for the next several months, Venus, the Goddess of Love, will be gracing the darkening sky. You only have to look west about 30 minutes after sundown and she will be there, that starlike object glittering in the deepening lapis twilight, shining as the third brightest object of the heavens after Diana and the sun. Just don’t “fall” for this beauty of the nocturnal world for her love is purely superficial. A view of her through a telescope will reveal almost no detail whatsoever because her volcanically cracked and cratered surface hides behind a sulfuric acid haze mixed with other noxious droplets which are vaporized high in the atmosphere by her stifling heat (900 degree F. at the surface). Her greenhouse gases are championed mostly by heaps of carbon dioxide, so dense and heavy that it causes some volcanoes on her surface to be crushed into pancakes. Okay, so Venus wouldn’t make the ideal mom, but she should act as a warning to any guy who seeks a woman only for her beauty. Hook up with Venus, and you’ll be suffocated, crushed, poisoned, and fried. Venus’ love is truly only a twinkle in the eye.

[Young Moon and Venus]
The moon with plenty of earthshine and Venus graced the deep lapis evening sky this past March 22. Coopersburg, PA photography by Gary A. Becker...

978    MAY 17, 2015:   Slivery Crescent at Dusk
The moon begins to make an appearance this week. On Monday it is new, invisible to the eye, as it passes south of the sun only minutes after midnight on the East Coast. Monday evening finds the 21-hour old moon too close to the sun for any reasonable chance of observation. The best I have done was to witness the moon 24 hours before its new phase when I was scouting an area to view a nearly total sunrise solar eclipse along coastal Down East Maine in 1999. Tuesday evening, however, presents one of the best opportunities in favor of viewing a slivery crescent against a darkening landscape. Thirty minutes after sundown, Luna will still be 10 degrees above the WNW horizon, and if sky conditions are clear enough, a razor thin crescent will emerge. The moon will be less than five percent sunlit, and as the sky darkens, earthshine, light reflected off the moon from a nearly full Earth, could become truly spectacular. The crescent will be brightly illuminated, but as the veil of darkness deepens, you will notice the form of the entire moon backlit against the dimming sky. This is one of my favorite springtime horizonal observations, especially if my vantage point is pastoral, a half hour of quietness with the verdant aromas of a freshly plowed field and the brightening moon, resplendent with a splash of earthshine, lowering itself against a distant horizon. Binoculars will always help make these types of observations easier, but the entire scene viewed with the unaided eye is beautiful too. You’ll need binoculars and perhaps a little more darkening to see Mercury, 10 degrees to the right and below the moon, but Venus will sparkle above Luna, and above it, mid-sky and to Venus’ left, will be Jupiter. Saturn will be rising in the ESE, but give it an hour or two to gain sufficient altitude for easier visibility. The waxing crescent moon glides past Venus on Thursday, May 21, and Jupiter, two days later on the 23rd.

[Young Moon]
Young Moon: The evening of May 19 cleared just enough to see earthshine in addition to the less than five percent lit crescent moon against the hazy, dimming twilight. Photography near Douglassville, PA by Gary A. Becker...
[Young Moon]

979    MAY 24, 2015:   Planets Rule in June
While most of the action in the sky during late May and in June will take place in the twilight west with Venus and Jupiter taking center stage, there is another planet that will become prominent during the summer months. If you observe low in the SE around 10:30 p.m., you’ll notice a bright starlike object which should be shining with a steady light, the key criteria for determining whether you are viewing a star or a planet. Steady and bright almost always means a planet, and you won’t be disappointed if you happen to point a small telescope towards that “star” because you’ll have the ringed world of Saturn in your sights. Saturn’s axis is tilted nearly 27 degrees to the perpendicular of its orbital plane, and like Earth’s axis, Saturn’s axis points in the same direction. As Saturn orbits Sol every 29.5 years, we get to see the rings from below, above, and in the ring plane as our view of Saturn’s axis changes as Earth and Saturn revolve around the sun. Coupled with Saturn’s small orbital inclination to the Earth’s orbital plane, Saturn’s rings can be opened by as much as 29 degrees to our view. This maximum display will not occur until 2017, but the changes between now and then are minimal, making this and the next half-dozen years or so an exciting time to view what many amateur and professional astronomers say is the most beautiful object to grace our heavens. While you are first noticing Saturn in the SE, also keep watching Venus (brighter) and Jupiter in the west. During the month of June, the third and fourth brightest sky objects will rapidly be approaching each other so that by the evening of June 30, Jupiter and Venus will be less than one lunar diameter apart. In addition to just being a memorable sight to witness with the unaided eye in the darkening evening sky, both planets will be observable in the same field of view through virtually any amateur telescope and, in addition, at a fairly hefty magnification. Good viewing!

[Quarter Moon]
First Quarter Moon shining down on me. Photography by Gary A. Becker on May 25, 2015...

[Eight Day Moon]
Eight Day Old Moon: Photography by Gary A. Becker on May 26, 2015...

[Ten Day Old Moon]
Ten Day Old Moon: Photography by Gary A. Becker on May 28, 2015...

980    MAY 31, 2015:   An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
It’s hard to be humble when you are in an extremely competitive profession, driven to excel, and just plain smart. Yet this is exactly what retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield considered instrumental in his lifelong career to become a successful rocket man in the rarefied atmosphere of outer space. Hadfield eloquently and compellingly explains his philosophy in fast-paced detail in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (ISBN 978-0-316-25303-1 paperback), from the defining moment when at age nine, he watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and decided that he was going to shoot for the stars, to Hadfield’s final 2012-13 mission as Commander of the International Space Station and his months of rehabilitation as he readjusted to Earth’s gravity. Living in an environment where the smallest error can kill you was an obvious factor of why every astronaut has to “sweat the small stuff,” not for self-adulation, but for the preservation of everyone involved. Being at the top of NASA’s food chain involved understanding all aspects of the operation, every piece of hardware, how every system operated and integrated into the whole, and then simulating every conceivable way that a mission could go “south” and practicing, practicing, practicing, until making the correct decision became as natural as taking your next breath of air. This is also, hands down, the best book that I have yet encountered which details what it is like to fly in space and the patience that it requires to complete even the simplest tasks in a zero-G environment—5-40 minutes to urinate and days to prepare for a single spacewalk. In space there is no up or down, no feeling of gravity. Your legs constrict while blood moves to your head, squeezing your sinuses and making you feel as if you have a perpetual head cold. You often feel nauseated. Be the best that you can be; cooperate and become a team player; turn lemons into lemonade; achieve the impossible, and just maybe you’ll fly.

[May Star Map]

[May Moon Phase Calendar]