StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



Print Large Sky Charts For 9 p.m. EST:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]
Solar X-rays:  
Geomagnetic Field:  
Status Current Moon Phase

[New York City Sunset]
Even the city that never sleeps had to give pause to the striking beauty of the sunset enhanced by Venus and the moon on the evening of November 1. Canon 40D image, 20mm, F/4.5, 1/4-sec, handheld at the top of the RCA building in New York City, Gary A. Becker...

[RCA building, New York City]
Gary A. Becker image on top of the RCA building in New York City...

637    NOVEMBER 2, 2008:   Taurids Titillate
The beginning of November is an excellent time to step outdoors and view one of the more interesting meteor showers of the year, the Taurids. These shooting stars have a reputation for being bright and slow, and covering a wide girth of sky in their fiery plunges through the atmosphere. Not all Taurids exhibit these characteristics, but there are enough standout meteors to make early November special with respect to fireballs and the associated e-mails that I have received reporting them. Taurid rates are low, under 10 events per hour, but because of their brightness, you’ll never forget a brilliant Taurid if you see one. Imagine a meteor traversing nearly half of the sky, sputtering and wavering against a star-splashed background of inky blackness. That is how I remember one vivid Taurid seen over 30 years ago from a windy mountaintop on a frosty November’s eve. The Taurids are a very old and complex meteor stream that show activity from mid-September through early December and have two identifiable branches. The peak activity for the northern branch is November 4-7, while the southern branch is most active from October 30 through November 7, making this week an exceptional opportunity to see them. The meteoroids which produce the Taurids originated from Comet Encke perhaps in discrete outbursts of activity 4700 and 1500 years ago, although in the latter case, the parent body may have been a severed chunk of Encke or a different comet/asteroid altogether. V-shaped Taurus the bull, from which the meteors radiate, is above the horizon by 8 p.m. Observe overhead from an open, dark area facing east during early evening. If you are going to spend several hours watching for Taurids, a sleeping bag, pillow, and tarp will be handy for comfort. Face south after midnight, and west before dawn.

[Spitzer Space Telescope view of Encke Dust]
The Spitzer Space Telescope which sees the universe in the infrared, captured the meteoroid dust blanket ejected by Comet Encke as the diffuse diagonal from the upper left to the lower right section of this photo. The two smaller jets of debris nearer to the comet are the most recently ejected particles from Encke. The comet has long exhausted its supply of fine dust and is currently releasing particles with sizes of about one millimeter. They produce the bright meteors associated with the Taurid stream in early November of each year. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Kelley (Univ. of Minnesota)...

638    NOVEMBER 9, 2008:   An Astronomer's Hell: Venus
I think we all have our own conceptualizations of hell. For me it is being placed in a perpetual condition or situation which would be repulsively unpleasant. As an example, the penny-pinching rich, unwilling to share some of their wealth with the less fortunate, might wind up in an afterlife of subsistence living, never quite being able to make ends meet. In my version of hell, I would be in a huge, stuffy office with wooden furniture and broken calculators, having to file lengthy income tax returns forever. The reports would always be revisited for further documentation in an endless cycle of mind-numbing, bureaucratic paperwork. In circumstances like that on Earth, I’d gladly commit suicide, but hey, I’d be dead already. When astronomers think of hell, one of the images that must filter through their imaginations is the planet Venus. If you go outside about 30 minutes after sundown, it will be impossible for you to miss her resplendent loveliness in the SW. In fact, Venus was considered to be the goddess of love by the Greeks and Romans. Arguably, because of her brightness, Venus is the most singular, starlike object in the heavens, but under that veil of beauty are torments that come straight out of Hades. Consider her poisonous carbon dioxide atmosphere, weighing some 90 times more than the Earth’s ocean of air. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and Venus’s atmosphere is full of it, almost pure CO2. That also makes Venus incredibly hot; try about 850 degrees F. wherever you would travel. If that would not be horrific enough, Venus is covered by clouds composed mainly of sulfuric acid. I warn my high school students to be weary of dating a Venusian type—heavenly on the exterior, but a crushing, frying, dissolving, and poisoning monster from within. For those of us who have made that mistake, it is hell on Earth.

639    NOVEMBER 16, 2008:   Giving Thanks to the Universe
When I was in New York the other week, I marveled as I always do about the complexity of a city, how it is dependent upon so many things going right, and how events such as the failure of the electrical grid or the collapse of the World Trade Center could bring it to its knees. I remember being in New York in November of 2001. It wasn’t the rubble and smoke from the WTC that surprised me, but the spider web of streets leading to it that were exposed and gutted as thousands of workers feverishly labored to repair the infrastructure that had been damaged by the attack. Now, Lower Manhattan is pretty much back to normal again. The streets and subways are repaired and the city bustles with a vibrant and resilient energy that can only be described as “New York.” In a similar fashion our universe is as complex and vulnerable, with enough predictability for science to be able to paint a landscape of its evolution from an unimaginably hot and super compressed beginning to what currently appears to be an accelerating future. But behind the beauty of those gossamer starscapes or the wispy filaments of a Hubble image lie deadly radiation and violence that would stagger even the most distorted imagination. Galaxies cannibalize each other in massive collisions, and it is believed that in our universe one star explodes every second. Somewhere out there, chaos must be raining down on unsuspecting life. Locally, Earth’s atmosphere shields us from deadly solar radiation and hundreds of tons of meteoroids that pelt our planet daily. Earth’s magnetic field shelters us from solar wind particles discharged in our atmosphere as auroras. Through all of the challenges that the cosmos has presented to us, life has managed to eke out a successful existence for billions of years. That’s something for which we can all be thankful.

[Crab Nebula]
Crab Nebula:   On the morning of July 5, 1054 AD, Native American shamans woke up to greet the sun and were amazed to see a new star shining about 10 times brighter than the planet Venus. A thin waning crescent moon was just to the left. The star, now known as a supernova, was visible in sunlight for eight days according to Chinese records. A massive, old star detonated in our Milky Way Galaxy, 6,300 light years distant, and its light traveled for 6,300 years before it was seen by humans on that summer’s dawn. Today, the supernova remnant known as M1, or the Crab Nebula, has a diameter of 11 light years, and it is expanding at a rate of over 930 miles per second. Supernovae are by far the most violent events that occur in our universe today, and if one happened close enough to the Earth, let’s say 50-100 light years away, it would be curtains for us all. Photo credit: Hubble Space Telescope, NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)...

640    NOVEMBER 23, 2008:   Light Show in the Southwest
During the last several weeks in the southwestern sky, about 45 minutes after sundown, a spectacle has been unfolding as two very bright starlike objects have steadily been creeping closer towards each other. They are respectively, Jupiter (left), the third brightest object of the night, and Venus, the second most brilliant nighttime icon. They are getting ready to a do-si-do in the planetary sense throughout the first couple of days of December. During this week and throughout the conjunction, Venus will be responsible for most of the motion as it approaches and eventually passes Jupiter by less than four lunar diameters during the late sunlit morning hours of December 1. Although the western Pacific gets to see the closest approach of Venus and Jupiter, and Western Europe sees Venus occulted by the moon, we get to witness the “pregame” and “postgame” shows over the course of two evenings, November 30 and December 1. Sky conditions on the last day of November will need to be very clear with an unobstructed SW horizon. About a half hour after sundown the drama will start unfolding with a very thin, earthshine lit, waxing crescent moon about eight degrees below and to the right of Venus. The altitude of the moon will still be a healthy 12 degrees above the horizon. Venus will be just over two degrees from Jupiter. Wide-field binoculars will capture the scene nicely. Photographically, a tripod-mounted camera and 200mm telephoto lens will suffice. By December 1 the moon and Venus will be less than three degrees apart, and only 3.5-degrees will separate the moon from Jupiter, making this the primo evening event for visual and binocular observations. By December 2, Luna has glided over 13 degrees past Venus and Jupiter, still an impressive visual sight, but more difficult to capture with a camera.

[Venus and Jupiter burn]
Venus and Jupiter on Fire:   You could feel the excitement building as Venus approached Jupiter to within nine degrees on the crisp East Coast evening of November 22. The planets will be only separated by two degrees with an earthshine lit, waxing crescent moon on December 1. A 35 second unguided image was snapped after a 30 second guided photo of the same scene. The sharp horizon of the unguided picture was blended into the guided photo. A Borg-Hutech light suppression filter successfully dampened the effects of light pollution in the sky while still leaving the woods burn on the horizon. A Canon 40D camera was mated with a Nikkor 24-120mm zoom lens and imaged at an EFL of 60mm at ASA 400. Photography by Gary A. Becker near Coopersburg, PA...

[Venus and Jupiter ready to court]
”Niagara Falls...   Slowly I turned and step by step, inch by inch,” Venus and Jupiter approached. A mostly cloudy day (November 25) turned into a pleasant sunset and a beautiful twilight with Venus and Jupiter dominate in the southwest. A 65 second unguided photo was imaged after a 60 second guided photo of the same scene was taken. The sharp horizon of the unguided picture was blended into the guided photo. A Borg-Hutech light suppression filter dampened the effects of light pollution in the sky. A Canon 40D camera was mated with a Nikkor 24-120mm zoom lens and imaged at an EFL of 56mm at ASA 400. Photography by Gary A. Becker near Coopersburg, PA...


641    NOVEMBER 30, 2008:   Busted
A mostly cloudy day turned into a pleasant sunset. As I poked my head outside to glance at the clearing sky, I caught Venus and Jupiter in the southwest. It had been three days since I had imaged them, and they were conspicuously closer. Although a large part of me wanted just to relax, I went with my gut instincts and about 40 minutes later, I found myself at my favorite “watering hole” for winter astrophotography, a large open hilltop with an aesthetic tree line. It was rush hour on the spider web of roadways surrounding Coopersburg, and as cars came around a tight bend, I was caught like a deer in headlights—this odd looking fellow dressed in seven snowsuits, kneeling by a weird piece of equipment which looked like it was pointed towards the horizon. I should have simply posted a sign saying “Lost NCIS Operative.” Watchful drivers slowed as I blissfully snapped away in the dimming twilight, and eventually a pickup truck pulled off the road. Well, at least it wasn’t a cop or some hovering SWAT team protecting our national security. I went about my photography occasionally twitching my head to the left to catch any action. Finally, a tallish man stepped out and walked over. “Do you need any help?” he queried, which translated means, “What the hell are you doing here and if I don’t get a straight answer, I’m calling the police.” I began telling him the fascinating account of my life’s story, and he was soon gone. However, that has never deterred the woman who lives several blocks away from me near another open field and sees me in similar postures during the spring and summer. The officer arrives and says, “Hey, it’s you. I’m gonna call the guys.” Pretty soon more cruisers roll up, and I’m conducting an impromptu star party for the borough and surrounding police departments. That’s got to be one happy lady peeking through her blinds.

[Venus and Jupiter Closer]
Locally the weather looks doubtful for the Moon-Venus-Jupiter conjunction on December 1 A wintry mix is in the forecast. Recently the days have been mostly cloudy with a brief spot of clearing around sundown. Hopefully that trend will continue. A 30 second unguided image was snapped after a 30 second guided photo of the same scene on November 28 and the two images blended to create a sharp horizon. A Borg-Hutech light suppression filter helped with the copious amounts of light pollution present. A Canon 40D camera was mated with a Nikkor 24-120mm zoom lens and imaged at an EFL of 56mm at ASA 400. Photography by Gary A. Becker near Coopersburg, PA...

[Venus, Jupiter, and the moon]
I have chased eclipses, but never a conjunction. This was worth it, a great December 1 start to the Holiday Season. A cold front swept through 90 minutes earlier, but clearing was spotty. Eventually a hole in the clouds was found in Orefield, PA. The moon has a heavy dose of earthshine. Venus is below and Jupiter to the right. The stars very near Jupiter are two of its four Galilean satellites. A Canon 40D camera was mated with a Canon 70-200mm lens and imaged at an EFL of 216mm for 10 seconds, F/4.5, at ASA 400. A Borg-Hutech light suppression filter was also used. Photography by Gary A. Becker near Orefield, PA...

[Venus, Jupiter, and the moon]
Here is yet another view of the spectacular triple conjunction of December 1 showing the moon, Venus (below), and Jupiter (note the two Galilean satellites). This time clouds added character to the picture, but several hours earlier it had been raining heavily. A Canon 40D camera was mated with a Canon 70-200mm lens and imaged at an EFL of 112mm for 4 seconds, F/4.5, at ASA 400. The camera/lens was on an equatorial mount. The original image was cropped. Photography by Gary A. Becker near Orefield, PA...


[Novemer Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]