StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



219   NOVEMBER 5, 2000:     Astronomy at the Met
If you really enjoy a subject like astronomy, you begin to find something astronomical wherever you travel. Not long ago I found myself wondering around the Met in New York City in search of my favorite painting. No, I’m not Pierce Brosnan, and this is not "The Thomas Crown Affair," but whenever I get to the Met, just like he did, I visit my favorite painting. It’s a work by the French artist, Jules Breton (1827-1906), called "The Weeders," a pastoral scene depicting six women weeding at sunset. Breton noted that he discovered the subject as a "finished picture" one evening in the fields near his native village of Courrieres in northern France. In the painting an enlarged orange sun is setting behind barren trees. In the foreground are six women, almost in silhouette, working the field. Near the upper left corner of the painting is a thin crescent moon with just a hint of earthshine. Earthshine is reflected sunlight from the Earth reflected back to us from the unlit portion of the moon. It can be striking, especially when seen against a dark sky on a very clear night. In Breton’s picture, however, the sky is still bright because the sun is just setting. I couldn’t figure out how he had created the nuance of the moon’s ashen light. The earthshine is just barely visible as it might be in a real situation. When I examined the picture more closely, I discovered that Breton had varied the direction of his brushstrokes in the earthshine area, creating a change in the reflected light, ever so slightly enhancing the earthshine’s visibility. In the exuberance of my discovery, I noticed several guards rapidly approaching me. I turned and said, "No flash, right?" See Breton’s painting in this week’s web version of StarWatch.

The Weeders

220   NOVEMBER 12, 2000:     Leonids Alert
If it’s November, it must be Leonid meteor time. Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s return to the sun in early 1998 after a 33 year absence, sparked a strong interest in Leonid meteor activity which still has not died off. Intense storms of shooting stars were witnessed in 1799, 1833, and 1966, while strong displays occurred in 1866 and 1999. It is during the years immediately surrounding the comet’s closest passage to the sun that the Earth can tangle with Tempel-Tuttle’s tight knots of ejected debris, and fire can rain down from the heavens. The comet and its meteoroid swarm is still causing quite a stir among astronomy enthusiasts. In 1997 most of the world was treated to dazzling displays of fireballs. It turned out that the Lehigh Valley would have caught the tail end of the fireworks had it not been cloudy on the morning of greatest activity. Last year, ground zero was the Middle East, with rates reported of several thousand meteors per hour. The action was already over for us by 11 p.m., the time that the radiant rose above our local horizon. The radiant is the area of the sky from which the meteors seem to be coming. It is located in the Sickle or head of Leo, the Lion. See the photos and map associated with this StarWatch at the web address below. View on the morning of the 18th. Look east after midnight; midway up in the east after 3 a.m. If Leonid activity is occurring, you will be able to trace the meteors’ paths back to Leo’s head. Dress warmly, making sure that head, hands, and feet, are well-protected. Two predictions give the East Coast a good chance to see high activity, while other forecasts target Europe and the Pacific. If the East is missed, you can still expect to see between 20-40 Leonids in the hour before dawn.

Leonid Radiant

Leonid in 1999

The above photo is comprised of two separate images taken on Thursday morning, November 18, 1999 by Gary A. Becker. The first photo captured four Leonids which occurred in a 30 second burst of activity around 3:30 a.m. EST. To this image was added another Leonid meteor captured just after 4:10 a.m. This meteor appears at the lower right of the photo (5). The pictures were originally imaged on Royal Gold 1000 and manipulated through Paint Shop Pro by the photographer to produce the single high contrast b/w image which is shown here. The Sickle of Leo, shown as a backwards question mark, outlines the head and body of the Lion. The same photo, but without the numbers, appears below.

Leonid in 1999

221   NOVEMBER 19, 2000:     Strange Lights
Strange lights in the sky? Here are two reports, one explainable and the other not. Last Saturday morning, November 18th, was the climax of the Leonid Meteor Shower. Activity was high in the eastern US, but there was no storm of shooting stars as some had hoped. At 1:20 a.m. there was enough Leonid activity above Coopersburg where I live, to know that Saturday morning would be sleepless. I observed from 2:20-5:20 a.m. under less than ideal conditions and still saw 54 Leonids. Twenty-five of these meteors were seen in the first 40 minutes of observation and 10 Leonids were seen from 2:40-2:50 a.m. Three other reports from Eastern observers, who started watching earlier than I did, indicated an activity peak about 2:30 a.m. Other Valley residents have been less fortunate in identifying mysterious lights that they have seen in the sky. Take Lucent Technology employee, Marty Gasper, who was enjoying the clear skies of Monday, October 23rd from Zionsville. Gasper reported about 9:40 p.m. a "tightly focused beam of light appeared high overhead." The pencil thin beam which traced itself across the sky, emanated from a location about 20 degrees above the eastern horizon. It ended about mid-sky above the western horizon. The white light slowly pivoted southward across the sky from its eastern origin. A second shorter beam was observed coming from near the origin, but pointing directly downward toward the eastern horizon. Several other shorter, focused light beams were witnessed during this event which lasted until 10:15 p.m. Two other individuals observed this apparition along with Marty. Can anyone provide an answer?

222   NOVEMBER 26, 2000:     Venus Emerges
For those of us who enjoy walking their pets in the early evening hours or who have gotten themselves stuck in traffic, take a look at the sky. There are some really bright planets making their debuts near the western and eastern horizons. We’ll start in the west with Venus this week. It’s been a long wait, but Venus is steadily gaining altitude, and within the last three weeks, it has become an exceptionally easy target even through stands of barren trees. Low in the southwest after sundown, Venus shines with a truly glistening whiteness that shimmers slowly in the deep blue velvety skies of late autumn. And when you combine Venus with a thin crescent moon frosted with earthshine, you’ve created one of the most pristine late twilight scenes that astronomy has to offer. The 28th, 29th, and 30th of November hold such a promise, with the moon only two degrees above our Sister Planet on the 29th. One month later on December 28th, 29th, and 30th, the moon passes Venus again. On December 29th look for Venus to be only 2-1/2 degrees from the Moon, but this time below Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor. On January 28th a thin waxing crescent moon will be 6-1/2 degrees from Venus. In all three encounters, really clear evenings will reveal earthshine on the moon, the reflected light from a nearly full Earth, reflected back to us from the unlit portions of the moon. Earthshine plus "moonshine" plus Venus-shine can really provide for some memorable views. Observing Venus through a telescope during the next two months will reveal the size of the planet increasing as its phase wanes. During this time, Venus will be approaching the Earth. We’ll talk about Jupiter and Saturn in the east next week.


November Star Map

November Moon Phase Calendar