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
689    NOVEMBER 1, 2009:   Taurid Meteors: Slow and Bright
It is not one of your major meteor showers, but shooting stars from the Northern and Southern Taurid streams produce some of the slowest, brightest, and exciting meteor events of the year, and their time of greatest activity is occurring within the next several weeks. I remember going out with a group of astronomy buddies when I was in college to observe them. We went to the dark site of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society’s, Pulpit Rock in Berks County, PA, a 1588 foot mountaintop, cleared of trees with a treacherous dirt road leading to its summit. The night was blustery with a chilled wind raking the skeletal treetops surrounding us. Low to the ground on a concrete pad where the air was more subdued, we set up our gear—air mattresses, sleeping bags—all of the necessary items which we thought would sustain us for a cold and windy November’s eve. Wrapped in our cocoons of warmth, we waited, eyes starring skyward, our expectations keeping us alert. Finally after a quarter hour wait, we saw our first Taurid meteor. Several seconds were required for it to burn slowly across the inky, black sky. The radiant from which the meteors were coming was to our backs, but the slowness and length of the occurrence was the unmistakable signature of a Taurid. Our stalwart group of meteor enthusiasts finally succumbed to the cold shortly after midnight, but not before witnessing a Taurid that will forever stay etched in my mind. I caught it over my head in full bloom, about the brightness of Jupiter, scorching its way across the heavens, until buffeted by thicker air, it wavered back and forth and then was finally extinguished. If Taurid observing is on your calendar during the next several weeks, wait until the moon is gone. Don’t expect to see many, but those that are observed will probably be remembered for a very, very long time.

690    NOVEMBER 8, 2009:   Love That Meridian
Several weeks ago, Susan and I enjoyed a evening of great food and conversation with a friend of ours, Bill Jacobs. Jacobs is from the land of the stars, Hollywood, and spent a decade or so working on film projects at Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, and flying solo. Preferring open spaces to skyscrapers, and real stars to stardom, Jacobs moved to Bucks County where he is currently gearing up to make his first feature film next summer. His astronomically themed story is how our association began in late July of this year. During our tasty chicken meal, I noticed that the bottle of Chardonnay we were enjoying was labeled “Meridian.” “WOW,” I thought. I had just explained the meridian to my students, the circle that divides the eastern and western sky, intersecting the north and south points along the horizon, as well as the zenith, the point directly overhead. Bill, Sue, and I finished that bottle, and I took it along with me when we left. The following Monday, I presented the Meridian to my first period astronomy class with the question, “How is this fine bottle of Chardonnay related to astronomy”? Amidst cork sniffing and hushed talk about my imminent arrest, some crazy and true answers emerged. Cruz Maquera, the son of a former student, wrote about coordinate systems and the Prime Meridian. Maybe I did teach his father, Tim, something. He won the grand prize. Others like Jeremy Schreiber, noted that the meridian was an astronomical term (Yeah, Jeremy) or it measured the altitude of the sun (Yeah, Luis Everth). Others who will remain nameless queried whether the bottle was manufactured with solar power or near a meteorite crater. Another pupil mused upon whether the shape of the bottle was similar to the true shape of the universe. Now that, I thought, was profound until cops arrested him the following day on a DUI charge. Okay, the DUI was a lie!

Looks like the Meridian is on the Prime Meridian. Graphics by Bill Jacobs...

691    NOVEMBER 15, 2009:   Leonids Could Produce Good Show
We can view a painting from the 16th century and marvel at the opulent lifestyles of the very rich or gaze upon a pastoral scene and see the weather on a particular day centuries ago. Likewise, astronomers can view billions of years into the past by looking at distant galaxies that may no longer exist in our present universe. We can also witness the plunge of a shooting star, a piece of cosmic dust locked inside of a comet for billions of years, released centuries ago, and by coincidence viewed as our eyes gaze skyward. Underway is Earth’s annual tryst with the dross of 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, a small 2.2 mile in diameter comet that produced a blizzard of meteors over the East Coast during the morning of November 18, 2001. This year, if all goes well on the 18th, there may be a flurry of Leonid meteor activity favoring Asia, but also some heightened rates for the eastern seaboard. Numerous astronomers are in agreement that Earth will pass through rubble ejected from Tempel-Tuttle during its 1466 and 1533 returns to the sun with rates climbing as high as 130 to 500 meteors per hour before dawn. Eastern China, Japan, and western Australia are favored here. About 12-14 hours earlier, 2 a.m. through dawn EST on the morning of November 17, the East Coast and much of the eastern half of North America will be in a favorable position as Earth sideswipes dust released from the comet in 1567. Up to 30 Leonids per hour could be viewed, triple the normal count for this meteor shower. Dress warmly, protecting head, hands, and feet. Face east after 1 a.m., SE after 3 a.m. View overhead, the area of sky which is normally the darkest. Look for shooting stars radiating from the center of the Sickle of Leo the Lion, which looks like a backwards question mark. See the online map at the URL associated with this article, and keep your fingers crossed.

[Leonid Meteor Shower Radiant]
Leonids will appear to diverge from the Sickle of Leo, the Lion on the mornings of November 17/18. Meteor rates could climb to about 30 Leonids per hour after midnight for eastern North America on the morning of the 17th. At that time the Earth will be passing near the boundary of a debris field of material released from Comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1567. Read above. This map shows the heavens looking ESE at 4:00 a.m. for the time of the meteor shower. The radiant is marked with an "X." Graphics by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's, The Sky.

692    NOVEMBER 22, 2009:   I'm Not a Galaxy Person
East and west, coming and going, the sky is in transition with the autumn constellations dominating the heavens during the early evening hours. It is not my favorite time of the year, when Earth’s vantage point in its yearly circuit around the sun puts us in a position where we are looking away from the dusty and obscuring, but glorious Milky Way. If you’re a “galaxy man” as then University of California, Berkeley English professor and astronomy writer, Timothy Ferris self-described himself to me, this is your time of the year. We were observing at Star Hill Inn in New Mexico for several evenings during the mid 90’s. I was keen on photographing the glories of the heavens because of my lousy eyesight, a staggering -11.5 diopters of myopia. At that time my eyes did not allow me to see the pristine heavens like most others. Ferris was keen on observing faint galaxies in the worst way, and I was the only one available to confirm his observations. We made odd bedfellows one evening because I refused to verify anything that I wasn’t really seeing, but I did manage to view some faint smudges that were island universes hundreds of millions of light years away. I still am not a galaxy person, but there is hope on the horizon. In the east at 9 p.m. is the winter group of constellations: Orion, Taurus, Canis Major and Minor, Auriga, and Gemini, rising along with the more difficult to see winter Milky Way. We live in the somewhat dinky, but still spectacular Orion arm where new stars are being generated and the sky in winter is awash with the glow of colorful luminaries. In the west is the “swansong” of summer, best represented by Cygnus the Swan, which to most suburbanites looks more like a cross standing tall above the WNW horizon. If Christmas seems to come earlier each year, the heavens have been declaring the same for the last several millennia.

[Northen Cross in the West]

693    NOVEMBER 29, 2009:   Stay Warm for the Geminids
I’m sitting here in my study with a glass of wine while nursing my first cold of the season. When you’ve got the sniffles, and those congested, sore throat blues, the outside cold always seems to bite with just a little more vigor. I have to admit that I am getting to be less of a winter person, even though this cold season can offer some of the most transparent skies of the year, especially when a blustery cold front pushes through. One of the most anticipated late fall events is the Geminid meteor shower which on a favorable year can produce up to 125 shooting stars per hour in the predawn heavens. Watching them can be painfully cold even when lying out on an insulated ground mat and stuffed into a sleeping bag. That includes layering your clothing and keeping your head, hands, and feet protected. I once hiked down from the 6288 foot summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire where the wind speed was clocked at 80 mph and the temperature was a numbing zero deg. F. with less layers of clothing than when I meteor observe in the winter. The secret to keeping warm in a wind chill of -40 deg. F. is to keep moving and making sure that you are encased in a spacesuit of Gortex, so that no heat-robbing air from the outside can intrude, but moisture from exertion can escape. So what do I recommend for a few hours of meteor watching bliss in subfreezing conditions? Keep your head, hands, and feet as toasty as possible with multiple layers. That also includes the rest of your body as well. Be prepared to emerge from your bag at least once an hour for a little running in place and twirling of your arms. The latter is especially useful for driving warming blood into the fingers. The whole routine will get your heart pumping, increase your alertness, and probably keep the neighbors from bothering you. More about the Geminid meteor shower next week.

[November Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]