StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MAY  2016


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[Moon Phases]

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1028    MAY 1, 2016:   Pete: You Old Space Dog
I first heard about Peter K. Detterline from my Kutztown astronomy professor, Dr. Carlson R. Chambliss. “I have a pupil who embodies your enthusiasm for astronomy, and I’m going to make sure that he student teaches in your planetarium.” Peter’s build up continued for the next 18 months, so naturally by the spring of 1981, I was really eager to meet this guy and just get on with it. Detterline did not disappoint. Pete was a natural, a quick study, firm yet compassionate towards his learners, and passionate about the subject which he loved and taught. I also discovered that he required very little sleep. One Friday, he confessed that he’d been up all night playing racquetball—no rest. I thought I had him in one of those “life defining moments,” but I was wrong. Pete was his typical energetic self, on point and on task. Obviously we became associates, and when Pete “settled in” as director of the Boyertown (PA) Planetarium, I hoped to strengthen our alliance, but professional careers and opportunities, family obligations, and travel allowed our lives to only mingle in and out like a loose tapestry. It was Carlson Chambliss who acted as the bridge filling in the missing details of Pete’s exemplary career. When I retired from public education in 2010 and came to Moravian College, my schedule became more flexible and Pete stepped in, asking me to assist him in the maintenance of the Musk Observatory which he had spearheaded, part of the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah. I soon realized what a gifted human being Peter had become—tireless, dedicated, humorous, a lifelong learner, goal-oriented, technologically sophisticated, and still passionate about the heavens and compassionate towards others. He had an effortless way of changing lemons into lemonade. But Pete’s greatest gift to me has been our renewed comradeship. That once loose tapestry has now been strengthened into a much finer cloth. Thank you, Peter—you old space dog, for being my friend and confidant. God bless!

[Peter K. Detterline]
Peter K. Detterline stands in front of the Elon Musk Observatory which he spearheaded at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

1029    MAY 8, 2016:   Mercury to Transit Sun
Eclipses, transits, and occultations… They are some of the rarities of astronomical observations. An eclipse occurs when a larger object like the moon covers, or partially covers, another large object like the sun (solar eclipse) or the moon is hidden by the Earth’s shadow in a lunar eclipse. Occultations happen when a larger object, like the moon, a planet, or even an asteroid hides an even smaller object, such as a star. Planets can occult asteroids; asteroids can even occult stars. Obviously, stars are gigantic compared to the moon, an asteroid, or a planet, but the great distances of the stars from the Earth make them appear merely as points of light in the night with actually no real physical size. Transits, in a sense, are the opposite of an occultation. They occur when a much smaller object like Venus or Mercury pass in front of a much larger object, in this case, the sun. The last transit of Venus was on June 6, 2012. The next Venus transit that we get to witness in North America is on December 8, 2125. Boy, am I looking forward to that one! Mercury, on the other hand, transits the sun more frequently, 14 times during the 21st century. The last transit of Mercury was on November 8, 2006, but East Coast weather was cloudy on that day. The one before that in 2003 was also on a cloudy day. Weather is not the only concern because many times these events happen on the other hemisphere of the world, when it’s nighttime here so again we miss out. Will Monday, May 9, prove to be any different? Mercury again transits the sun starting at 7:12 a.m. Greatest depth across the sun’s disk happens at 10:57 a.m., and it is all over by 2:42 p.m. Unfortunately, Mercury transits are not for the unprepared. They require telescopes or a good set of binoculars, but most importantly, they must be properly filtered to reduce the sun’s intensity and prevent infrared radiation from heating up and burning the eye’s retina. Pictures will be posted at if I am successful in capturing this event.

1030    MAY 15, 2016:   Lucky Punk
“I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement, I’ve kind of lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head CLEAN off, you've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” You can hear Clint Eastwood’s voice and see his arm stretched out, barrel forward, confronting the robber, the villain’s shotgun within arm’s reach. In the 1971 Dirty Harry feature, Eastwood’s gun was actually empty, but the crook didn’t know it and backed down. I didn’t have a gun pointed at my head, but it surely felt that way with 12 successive days of drizzly, English weather, no practice, and one of nature’s rarest events about to unfold, a transit of Mercury on May 9. Transits of Mercury and Venus occur when the orbital planes of these inferior planets cross Earth’s orbit exactly at the moment when we are figuratively looking down the barrel of a gun, with the planet and the sun in our sights. There are 11 Mercury transits left for this century and none for Venus until December 2117, and that happens on the other side of the world while it is nighttime here. Still, even English weather needs a break now and then. Late on the afternoon of Saturday the 7th, the sky brightened, and Sunday turned out to be a be a glorious Santa Fe- type day, breezy with a saturated turquoise sky and lots of hope for the transit. I was able to cut the grass, set up the telescope, snap the images that I needed to get the correct exposure, and practice the techniques that I wanted to use to capture the event. Taking portraits of Sol in bright sunlight is difficult because the filtered solar image is dim, creating difficulties with obtaining a precise focus. When the sun cleared my backyard trees on Monday morning, there was tiny Mercury. The fun for me lasted until just after noon when the clouds rolled in again, shutting down the event. Yeah, this “punk” really got lucky! See the photo below.

[May 9 Mercury Transit Composite]
Although the May 9 transit of Mercury lasted for over seven hours, backyard trees and overcast skies limited my view to just under three hours. Composite image by Gary A. Becker...

[Nearly Full Moon]
The nearly full moon (97%) of May 19, 2016… The image below shows the inherent detail of the original frame taken through a TeleVue 2.5x Powermate Barlow attached onto a TeleVue 101mm aperture, F/5.4 quad refractor. The exposure was 1/160 second at ASA 200. Image by Gary A. Becker...

[Nearly Full Moon]

1031    MAY 22, 2016:   Spotlight on Mars
Mars is at opposition on Sunday which means that it is opposite to the sun with the Earth in between. Mars is visible all night just like when the moon, each month, is at opposition and is in its full phase, rising at sundown and setting at sunrise. It is around opposition time that Mars is nearest to Earth and brightest in the sky because Earth is passing Mars in its yearly orbit around the sun. Closest approach happens on the 30th when the Red Planet will be 46.8 million miles from Earth. As oppositions go, that’s not too shabby, but it was nothing like the opposition of August 27, 2003 when Mars was a scant 34.65 million miles, its closest distance to Earth in 60,000 years. The next opposition of Mars takes place on July 27, 2018 and will again place the Red Planet very near to Earth at 35.9 million miles. That will cause Mars to shine with an intensity of nearly twice that of its present brightness. By 11 p.m. Mars will be easily visible low in the SSE, as luminous as Jupiter appears in our early evening sky. Whereas Jupiter appears white, the Red Planet will have a warmer (pinkish) hue. Other bright companions are also lighting up the sky near Mars. To Mars’s left is yellowish Saturn which will be at opposition on June 3. The brilliant moon is also in the picture, between and above Mars and Saturn on the 22nd and to the left of these worlds afterwards. Below is Antares, one of two bright (first magnitude) red supergiant stars in the sky. In Greek, Antares means the rival of Ares which is Mars. You’ll understand how appropriate these names are when you see them together. You can also watch Mars and Saturn jog to the right of their present locations against the starry background. That’s called retrograde (backwards) motion and is a result of a faster moving Earth passing a slower moving planet. When a slower moving vehicle is passed on a highway, the slower car or truck appears to shift backwards relative to the faster moving vehicle. Mars retrogrades through late June and Saturn through mid-August. Good observing…

1032    MAY 29, 2016:   Saturn Run
Last week, the spotlight was on Mars which was at opposition, visible all night, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise. This week on the 3rd of June, Saturn is exactly in the same location. This means looking south into the midnight sky; Saturn and Mars will be close together. Fainter Saturn will be to the left, and below the planets will be Antares, the red supergiant of Scorpius the Scorpion, the faintest of the triad. Saturn’s focus this week reminds me of John Sandford’s and photographer Ctein’s Saturn Run (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) which I have recently read. Set in 2066, a Caltech intern, Sanders Heacock Darlington discovers a starlike object decelerating and settling into an orbit within the rings of Saturn. The US has proprietary discovery, but it doesn’t take long before the ship departs with everyone knowing that out there lies something of immense intellectual value. The race is on to secure that knowledge, but our competitors, this time the Chinese who are in the process of preparing a mission to Mars, quickly begin to refit their ship for a much deeper space venture—Saturn. Like Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, Ctein, a Caltech graduate in physics and English, bases the science fiction parameters of Saturn Run upon the extrapolation of current real science objectives and not just drug-induced hallucinations. What intrigued me the most was the actual extraterrestrial contact. We arrive there first, and the US initially gets all of the information; however, we never shake hands with the aliens. Instead, all contact is made through an overly polite but extremely anal computer that allows us as much access to their advanced technology as time and memory storage can handle. It’s done this way because in the alien’s experiences with face-to-face contact—well, things really haven’t worked out so well. While the Chinese keep making mistakes and blowing things up, the race for home adds yet another twist to the story that results in compromise and maybe a more cooperative and stable future world.

[Saturn Run's-Ctein (left) and John Sandford]
Ctein’s (left) and John Sandford’s (John Camp) create a realistic sci-fi thriller with an alien race that envisions a different kind of “first contact.” Image from theonlinephotographer…

[May Star Map]

[May Moon Phase Calendar]