StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1002    NOVEMBER 1, 2015:   Autumn Constellations Tell the Story
Now that we are past the midpoint of fall, and the time of the long shadows is upon us, the evening sky is filled with autumn constellations. The Big Dipper is beginning its invisible scrape along the northern horizon, but Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia; Perseus, the Hero of Andromeda, who is Cassiopeia’s daughter; Andromeda herself; and Pegasus the Flying Horse, are becoming the prominent patterns visible in the early evening sky. Face NE and view mid-sky around 9 p.m. for the W-shaped pattern which is recognized as Cassiopeia. The “W” is on its side with the opened end pointing towards the left. An additional star, difficult to see from suburbia (see map), creates the chair which is up-side down, a rather unpleasant position for the Queen; but then she deserves it, having tried to sacrifice Andromeda to Cetus the Sea Monster in a vain attempt to thwart the angry gods. Looking like a “V,” with its open end pointing to the right below Cassiopeia, is Perseus the Hero. He saved the chained Andromeda from certain death, a sacrificial offering by her mother to the monster, wantonly conceived by Poseidon (ocean god) because Cassiopeia had boasted that her beauty was more compelling than any earthly woman or Olympian goddess. To the right and above the Queen and Hero leaps Pegasus the Flying Horse. His most notable feature is the Great Square formed from four equally bright stars that dominate his pattern and represent his body. Alpheratz, the star closest to Perseus and Cassiopeia, launches three relatively bright stars that sweep towards the Queen and Hero and could be mistaken for a hind leg if the Horse had one, but really represents Andromeda. She is being whisked away from her mother and Ethiopia to the safety of Perseus’ homeland where Perseus will vanquish the evil king and marry her. It was all in an epic week’s worth of work for the gods, but you can relive the story with a quick evening’s glance into the starry heavens.

[Early November Constellations]
The Fall Constellations are now on tap. This map is set for 9 p.m. local time in early November. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisques' The Sky...

1003    NOVEMBER 8, 2015:   Blazing Taurids
“Aw, did you see that?” voices in the dark shouted. “What?” I responded. “It went halfway across the sky and was really bright.” I was looking downward, helping several other students with a problem they were encountering with their telescope, but I knew exactly what had been witnessed. It was a Taurid meteor blazing across the sky. Meteors are created from the jetsam and flotsam that are released by comets when they approach the sun along their orbital paths. If the comet’s corridor takes it near Earth’s orbital circuit, we encounter that debris as shooting stars. The dross slams into our atmosphere, causing the air to incandesce as the meteoroid is torn apart. Currently, the shooting stars created by Comet Encke are maxing in our night sky, and they are a source for an occasional bright fireball, radiating away from the V-shaped grouping of stars known as Taurus the Bull. It was a Taurid meteor that my students had witnessed. Events from the Taurid stream are the slowest moving shooting stars that can be seen on an annual basis, and they can linger in the sky for multiple seconds, sputtering occasionally like a distant Fourth of July sparkler with pieces flying off and creating their own small meteoric displays as the parent body disintegrates. Taurids are visible throughout October and November with a broad maximum that is ending this week. That’s the good news. The problem is that there are only a few Taurids that the Earth encounters. Encke is not very active and the strands of debris are old. Over the millennia they have spread out, creating the exceptionally long period when Taurids appear, but severely reducing their hourly count. My suggestion is that if you are outside on a clear, starlit evening, give the sky a 10 minute sweep. It is not only relaxing, but also awe-inspiring to contemplate something bigger than yourself; and who knows, in addition you might encounter, as my students did, a slow moving Taurid blazing across the velvety night.

[Taurid Meteors]
Not all Taurid meteors are fireballs like the ones shown here, but if you ever get the chance to witness one, it will be scorched eternally in your memory banks. "X" markes the spot in the sky where Taurids radiate during early November. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisques' The Sky...

1004    NOVEMBER 15, 2015:   Leonid Meteors Ascending
Internet chatter about the Taurid meteor shower showed that it has produced some very nice fireballs. One of my friends, David Fisherowski, who lives in SE PA, imaged nine meteors on the night of Nov. 8/9, a really nice catch for a meteor stream that produces about five events per hour under optimal conditions. Taurid activity will continue throughout November but at diminished rates. Leonid meteors follow, but this shower is not for the faint of heart. Insomniacs, early risers, or the individual who just likes it cold, please step forward. Leonid activity peaks on the morning of November 18 between midnight and dawn. Fueled from the debris of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, it was the Leonid storm which triggered the birth of meteor astronomy on November 11-12, 1833. On the 12th, between the hours of 2 a.m. and dawn, Leonids literally rained down on North America with the highest rates estimated at 100,000 shooting stars per hour. That’s about 30 events each second. The Leonids for 1866 and 1966 had maximum numbers of 5000 and 160,000 meteors per hour respectively. Enhanced returns also occurred from 1999 through 2002, with 2001 being the most productive year for East Coast observers. Now activity has returned to normal with about 5-10 Leonids visible each hour on maximum morning from suburbia. Face SE after midnight and view towards the zenith, usually the darkest part of the sky. If Leonid activity is present, the paths of the shooting stars will trace back to the sickle of Leo the Lion, a reversed question mark which outlines the Leo’s head. Leonids really fly; they are the fastest meteors that can be seen with entrance velocities of nearly 45 miles per second. Dress for winter, making sure that head, hands, and feet are well protected. Hefty sleeping bags are a must-have item, including numerous hand warmers, and an air mattress to elevate your body off the cold ground. Here’s to being a happy human icicle by dawn’s early light on Nov. 18.

[Leonid Meteors]
Leonid meteors radiate from the sickle or head of Leo the Lion. This map is set for about 3 a.m. on the morning of November 18. Don’t expect many Leonids, but some may be bright. The lowest appearing meteor and the meteor farthest to the right are courtesy of David Fisherowski of Boyertown, PA. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisques' The Sky...

1005    NOVEMBER 22, 2015:   A Warmer Winter?
I was recently talking to a woman who said her neighbor’s forsythia bush was starting to bloom. It was old, she said of the plant, and I reiterated that it must be suffering from some type of Oleaceae dementia. This conversation took place while I was wearing a light jacket on a beautiful, sunny, mild day in the middle of November. It has been a strange fall, the type of autumn we all dream about, and according to the National Weather Service, the extended forecast right through the summer of 2016 is for higher than normal temperatures and about normal amounts of precipitation. Of course, we all know how accurate the science of meteorology is. In fact, if everyone worked to the same degree of correctness as NWS forecasters, most of us would be fired from our jobs. So now try to get a three or a six month climatological prediction correct. In all fairness, however, modeling the motion of atmospheric fluids is a dauntingly complex task with more variables in the equations than any rational computer programmer would want to tackle. Weather is what you get and climate is what you expect, and right now conditions seem pretty good in both departments for a balmier than average winter. Part of this lopsided warmth is attributable to the lag of the seasons. The highest and lowest temperatures are not reached at the times of the highest and lowest sun. Mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere continue warming well past the high sun of June 21, reaching equilibrium with energy absorbed and energy reradiated about one month later, near the end of July. Likewise, landmasses continue to release more heat than they absorb until late January when the lowest temperatures are normally recorded. So don’t get the swim gear out just yet unless you are headed to a subtropical island getaway. It will get colder. On the other hand, if the NWS is correct, the inconveniences of winters past may be lessened this year, tempered by more rain than snow.

[Mild Winter in the Forecast?]
The extended NOAA trends as shown by this map, forecasts higher than normal temperatures for the northern tier of states and the West Coast through January of 2016. Longer range predications continue the inclination for a warmer spring and a hotter summer for 2016. Nothing, however, is written in stone for these types of super long range forecasts. Map created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration…

1006    NOVEMBER 29, 2015:   How Bright, Catalina?
A friend and I have a bet as to whether a new comet will become an easy binocular target. I say it won’t, and I hope I lose. Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) will be lurking in our morning sky for the next several months, but its first-time status will probably keep it below visual magnitude, but hopefully make it easily seen with binoculars. Its location with respect to the moon, Venus, and the alpha star of Bootes the Herdsman, Arcturus, should make its observation easy if Catalina is bright enough. The problem with C/2013 US10, is that it is a newbie, coming into the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud of several trillion dirty sun-orbiting snowball-like objects contained in a hazy sphere of leftovers that extends about two light years from Sol. During the billions of years that these distant comets have been in existence, they acquire a thin coating of volatiles that vaporize (sublimate) far from the sun, making the comet appear very active and bright. When these volatiles are gone, the luminosity slumps, and this is exactly what has happened to Catalina. Now for the very iffy part… Catalina was closest to the sun on November 15, but now it is approaching the Earth. Comets are usually brighter after perihelion, and the fact that it is coming nearer to us through January 12, adds to the uncertainty that makes Catalina interesting. Two sets of dates are worth considering for observations, Dec. 3-7 and Dec. 31-Jan. 2. On Dec. 7 the moon, Venus, and Catalina are all within the same binocular field of view, and around the New Year, the comet will be right on top of the bright star, Arcturus. Observations should be made around 5:30 in the morning when Catalina is high enough above the SE horizon. A locator map is included with this StarWatch. Use binoculars. The winner of the bet gets treated to a sumptuous, gravy-smothered meatloaf dinner with extra mash potatoes at a local tavern near Boyertown, PA. Oh, I forgot, beer is also included.

[Comet Catalina and a Conjunction]
Comet Catalina will brighten enough to be seen through binoculars. The question that remains is whether it will be an easy view. Because of bright objects nearby, December 3-7 and the two days surrounding the New Year, will provide excellent opportunities to observe Comet Catalina. This map is set for 5:30 a.m. Perturbations by planets in our solar system will send Catalina into interstellar space, never to return to Sol. Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisques' The Sky...

[November Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]