StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]

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950    NOVEMBER 2, 2014:   Taurids Tantalize
My Moravian College astronomy students were recently on a field experience to Shooting Star Farm, east of Hellertown, PA. There were six high-end telescopes on the field supported by friends and members of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society, and about 30 students in small clusters enthusiastically waiting their turns at the various eyepieces to glimpse their real-time views of the universe. At 6:45 p.m. a supply launch to the International Space Station from Wallops Island, VA, visible from PA, was scrubbed, but students were treated to a beautiful and bright five minute flyover of the ISS during twilight. Incidentally, that same supply rocket exploded after liftoff the following evening, October 28. When all was said and done, some very cold but happy students left about 8:50 p.m. Five minutes later, those still present on the field were treated to a beautiful, bright, slow moving and flickering shooting star coming up from the east. It was undoubtedly a member of the Taurid stream. Most meteors observed are faster and fainter, but the Taurids have uniquely brighter and “lazier” characteristics. If you are going to spend a few hours viewing the Taurids, avoid the bright moon. Dress warmly, protecting head, hands, and feet. Once any of these extremities become cold, you are doomed. Observers should view east before midnight, and overhead after that time. The entire month of November is good for Taurids, but these meteors are far and few between, so you may be watching for a half-hour or more before catching your first event. However, seeing a piece of space dust catch frictional heat from Earth’s atmosphere, and set a tube of air glowing brightly, which is the meteor phenomenon, can be a mind-blowing experience. I have no problem reliving my most recent Taurid experience or a Taurid that I saw over 40 years ago looking like a distant Roman candle sputtering and sparking to its brilliant death.

951    NOVEMBER 9, 2014:   Leonid Meteors on Tap
The Leonid meteor shower is almost upon us; but this year on November 17, Asia is favored, and we will have to catch the before and after remnants of this most variable of all meteor showers. In 1966 Leonid meteors literally rained down on the southwestern US with hourly rates of 144,000 shooting stars, about 40 Leonids visible per second. No meteor storm in recorded history has been more intense. The outburst of 2001 for the East Coast saw bright meteors flashing the ground like strobe lights. All of this earlier activity was created by the return of the Leonids’ parent comet, Tempel-Tuttle, in late 1964 and early 1998 and the streams of dross which were shed from this comet on earlier trips around the sun. This year, meteor rates will be nothing like the storm events of ‘66 and 2001, but there will be Leonids flying in our skies at rates of between 5-15 events per hour in the predawn heavens of November 16 and 17. Moonlight is not a major factor this year, but keep in mind, that Luna will be fairly close to the radiant which is the region in the sky from where the meteors will appear to emerge. That location is in the sickle (head) of Leo the Lion, and can be seen by viewing the map included with this StarWatch at the URL below. Observing meteors during late fall and winter can involve a real challenge in staying comfortable. Once your head, hands, or feet capitulate to the cold, you are “doomed” as 3-CPO would say. The best advice is to bundle up, and then bundle up some more. You can purchase hand and toe warmers from places like Home Depot, but buy the hand warmers in bulk so you can have at least a half-dozen or so going at the same time. Their use in quantity really makes a difference. Look towards the zenith after 1 a.m., and keep the moon, after it rises, from your direct vision. Leonids pierce Earth’s atmosphere at 44 miles per second, so they are almost over before they begin, but some are very bright and memorable. Good Luck!

[Partial Phases, October 8, 2014 Total Lunar Eclipse]
Leonid Meteor Shower Radiant: "X" marks the spot from where Leonid meteors will be radiating over the next several weeks. The best nights to catch this shower will be on the mornings of November 16 and 17 between 1 a.m. and dawn. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisques', The Sky...

952    NOVEMBER 16, 2014:   Interstellar is Outstanding
Ever since last summer, like a kid in a candy shop, I’ve been waiting for the release of Chris and Jonathan Nolans’ Interstellar, a space thriller which depicts a near futuristic world where past human excesses have hobbled our planet and are slowly causing it to die. The government has abandoned all unnecessary technology to concentrate their efforts on agriculture, but that too will fail. Their only hope is to seek new worlds. This effort is being coordinated by a secret, government-sponsored NASA that has found a wormhole near Saturn. The wormhole which seems to have been created by a benign intelligence has proven to be a conduit to a different part of the galaxy where several planets have already been shown to have habitable traits. A final expedition is mounted to scout out the best three, and Cooper, a former NASA test pilot-turned farmer, played by Matthew McConaughey, leads the mission along with mega-smart Amelia (Anne Hathaway) to find and colonize the best suitable candidate. Coop has to leave his family behind, and a particularly painful parting is with “Murph,” his young daughter, (Jessica Chastain) who has Coops’ same sense of awe and excitement about science. Coop realizes that when he returns, Murph will be at least a dozen years older, and he essentially unchanged. To say more would be to steal the heart and soul of Interstellar’s story. Here is a motion picture where despite spectacular and believable special effects, the characters far outshine the visual, and bring to it a sense of humanity that immerses the viewer in the tears and cheers of the human experience. Less cerebral than Contact (1997) and much more believable than Gravity (2013), Interstellar provides a sci-fi balance that leads to a mind-blowing climax that took me completely by surprise. And, why not…? Its executive producer was theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne. YOU MUST SEE THIS FILM!

953    NOVEMBER 23, 2014:   First Light
I have been working with some of the telescopes that Moravian College owns, and one of them, a Stellarvue, 102mm, ED refractor has been my favorite. Good refractors, telescopes that bring light to a focus using lenses, are in smaller sizes, the quintessential instruments for producing as perfect an image as the laws of physics will permit. It brought back some fond memories of the first telescope given to me by my parents on my 10th birthday. It was a retractable, spyglass, similar to the ones you see in old Hollywood pirate movies. I was ecstatic, but I soon found that trying to hold a 30 power telescope motionless while obtaining a good focus was nearly impossible, so my dad rigged up a device that could tightly clamp my collapsible scope while also being attached to a tripod. Suddenly, I could produce a relatively good focus because the image I was observing was steadied. One night when I went outside to discover the heavens for myself, I focused on a relatively bright, yellowish star low in the south and was completely amazed. It had rings, and they were beautifully colored, with one side appearing deep purple and blue while the other side was noticeably orange and red. Never did I imagine such loveliness included as a bonus along with Saturn’s rings. Nearby another bright planet lurked, Jupiter, and it too possessed unexpected colors in addition to three of its four Galilean satellites being plainly visible. It was a monumental evening of exploration and discovery. It wasn’t until years later that I understood how imperfect my original telescope had been. Its single lens, while focusing the light it collected, also acted like a prism, dispersing the image into its component colors, creating the “beautiful” fringes that bracketed every bright celestial object seen that summer. I can honestly say Moravian’s Stellarvue has none of that, but I also admit to keeping that first refractor which opened up the colorful universe to my untrained eyes.

954    NOVEMBER 30, 2014:   Earliest Sunset, December 8
Although the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, it does not coincide with the time of the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset. The earliest sunset for 40 degrees N. latitude will occur on Monday, December 8. We want the sun to be in sync with our clocks when it is noon, but Earth’s elliptical orbit and axial tilt make that impossible. In fact, clock time and the position of the real sun in the sky are only in step on four days of the year. It last happened on September 1 and will occur again on Christmas Day. Essentially, the Earth rotates at a constant rate, completing one spin in 23 hr, 56 min. During this time the sun shifts eastward in the sky by about one degree due to Earth’s orbital motion. In order to correct for this, we complete the 24-hour day by adding four additional minutes to bring the sun back to its original location. But the sun’s eastward motion is affected by two variables which create inconsistencies. One is the change in the orbital speed of the Earth as it moves along its elliptical path—fastest in the winter when we are closest to the sun and slowest in the summer when we reach our greatest distance from Sol. The second variant is the seasonal change in the altitude of the sun caused by Earth’s axial tilt, upward after the winter solstice and downward after midsummer. Both make the sun’s daily eastward motion change. Since late June, the net effect of the four minutes of catch-up time given to the sun each day has resulted in overcorrecting for Sol’s day-by-day eastward motion, thus causing the sun to cross the meridian (noontime) earlier each day. On Nov. 3 this effect reached its maximum amplitude with the sun due south 16 min, 28.8 sec before our clocks told us that it was noon. If the sun crosses the meridian earlier, then it also sets earlier too. The trend has reversed itself, but not enough to compensate for the decreasing daylight hours, thus causing the earliest sunset to take place next week on Dec. 8.

[November Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]