StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1055    NOVEMBER 6, 2016:   Orion's Nights Begin
"You know Orion always comes up sideways./ Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,/ and rising on his hands, he looks in on me/ busy outdoors by lantern-light with something/ I should have done by daylight…” Robert Frost’s, The Star-splitter (1923), still continues to speak to me and of Brad McLaughlin who burned down his farmhouse so he could collect the insurance money and spend “the proceeds on a telescope/ to satisfy a lifelong curiosity/ about our place among the infinities.” Frost’s description of Orion rising as winter approaches with its cold, blustery winds and shuffling leaves is so beautifully stated that it has become a part of an ongoing tradition that I anticipate each year as the seasons change. When I glided out of doors, jacketless last Tuesday morning just after midnight, my exhalations frosted the air, and I knew that the heavy dew on the grass would soon be crystalline white. There was no need for a lantern in this 21st century reenactment; a solitary streetlamp lit my path across the roadway to darkened houses with families warm and cozy in their beds. But I wasn’t alone. Trees rustled impatiently in the windswept air, presently ready to loosen their leaves into a tumbling dance to the ground. The sky was a more subdued shade of velvety black; and the luminous stars scintillated as restlessly as the trees, but none of them fell. Turning around and looking across the street at my lamp-lit house, there was brilliant Orion, just like Frost had written a century ago, throwing a leg up, not over my fence of mountains, but rather my stand of swaying ash and maples, rising on his hands to greet me once again. I contemplated as I often do upon the beauty of the universe in which we are privileged to live, and with moistened eyes “looked and looked, but after all where are we?/ Do we know any better where we are,/ and how it stands between the night tonight/ and a man with a smoky lantern chimney” a century ago? “How different from the way it ever stood?” To me, the universe is even more mysterious than it was in Frost’s time.

[Mars Desert Research Station and the Milky Way]
Gateway to Heaven: Although Orion is not rising in this summer Milky Way photo taken at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah, these are the kinds of nights which are the most inspirational to me. Composite images by Gary A. Becker...

1056    NOVEMBER 13, 2016:   Jim Had to Climb
On the first floor of Collier is a showcase highlighting some of the astrophotography of Moravian College students during the 1970s. I have been hesitant to dismantle it because five of the nearly two dozen images displayed were taken by Jim Detterline, a Moravian graduate in 1978. Although he loved astronomy, that’s not Jim’s real story. During his undergraduate years he was a member of the Grotto Club, and to put it mildly, he and his associates climbed anything that was vertical. The Bethlehem Police Station, the girls’ dorms, and the four story brick wall on the western side of Collier were some of Jim’s favorite haunts. Graduating with a BS in Biology, Jim continued at the Univ. of Memphis, obtaining an MS and PhD in Zoology, but it was climbing that was Jim’s real passion. He began tackling the Rockies in 1979, but it was a 1980 ascent of the Grand Teton (Wyoming) that changed his life forever. Trapped on a rock face for six days while a blizzard raged, he and his Grotto buddy, Paul Bolick, were the only survivors of 16 climbers on the mountain. As a result of his rescue, Jim decided to dedicate his life to rescuing others. Upward bound in the National Park Service, Jim ultimately became the Longs Peak Supervisory Climbing Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. If Moravian College is about community, then Jim Detterline must be considered one of its finest advocates. During his 28 years with the NPS, he performed over 1200 rescues, a Colorado record, receiving the Congressional Medal of Valor for saving a man and a woman stranded in a waterfall. Jim grabbed each with one hand and “singlehandedly” pulled them up to safety. I stayed numerous times at Jim and Rebecca’s home near Estes Park with my friend Pete, Jim’s brother, and heard the stories firsthand. Jim always donned a Moravian T-shirt and gave me the best guest room. Jim died in a climbing accident on Oct. 24. Read more about this unforgettable Hound and hero, and his remarkable life at rip-jim-detterline.

[Cowboys on the Ranch]
Cowboys after a ride: Left to Right, Gary A. Becker, Adam R. Jones, Peter K. Detterline, and Pete’s older brother, Jim Detterline (August 2016).

1057    NOVEMBER 20, 2016:   Arrival
In the space movie fare which has produced some provocative viewing in the last several decades, such as Contact, Red Planet, The Martian, and Interstellar comes another appealing film called Arrival which is currently playing in local theaters. Starring Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics expert, and Jeremy Renner as her physicist partner, Ian Donnelly, the two set off to understand the language of an alien race that has made its presence known to humanity by arriving at 12 unrelated locations across Earth in black, flattened, dirigible-style spacecrafts that hover nose first just above the ground. Even before the investigation begins, the viewer gets a sense that Louise is different, hiding a unsettling secret that overwhelms her being. This promotes an immediate sense of angst from the film’s get go which percolates and heightens during the lead up when contact is finally made with the aliens. The spacefarers are huge octopi-like creatures communicating in a pictorial language drawn within the cloud-filled chamber in which they reside. Progress is slow, maybe too slow for most audiences, but the trepidation lasts. “What is really going on here? What’s the big picture?” While Louise and specialists across the world are deciphering the language, the Rosetta moment occurs when the aliens tell Louise to “use weapons.” Then the unthinkable happens. A coup within the US military tries to destroy the “egg” while Louise is communicating with the aliens. The octopi sacrifice one of their own to save Louise, while at the same time the world is screaming their slogan to “use weapons.” The key to understanding Arrival is to be able to think in a nonlinear fashion. In Arrival, “C” does not follow “B” and “B” does not follow “A.” The film is a puzzle of pieces which must be crafted into a whole by the viewer. Both Louise and the octopi have a special gift, concerning time and the future. For this feature film which produces such a heightened sense of tension throughout its discourse, Arrival’s conclusion is both positive and full of promise.

Theatrical release poster by Paramount Pictures...

[Super Perigee Moon]
The super perigee moon of early November 14 was still approaching Earth when this image was taken six hours before Luna's full phase. Image by Gary A. Becker...

[The Waning Gibbous Moon]
The waning gibbous moon at 81 percent at 12:30 a.m. on November 18. Image by Gary A. Becker...

[The Waning Gibbous Moon]
The waning gibbous moon at 72 percent just before 1 a.m. on November 19. Image by Gary A. Becker...

1058    NOVEMBER 27, 2016:   Earliest Sunset December 7
Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, but 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 Wednesday, Dec. 7, when Sol’s orb will be banished from the sky at 4:35 p.m. EST. We want the sun to be due south when our clocks tell us that it is noon, but Earth’s elliptical orbit and its axial tilt make that impossible. In fact, the time on our clocks and the position of the real sun in the sky are only in step on four days of the year. It last happened on Sept. 1 and will occur again on Dec. 24. 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 because of Earth’s orbital motion. In order to correct for this, we complete the 24-hour day by adding four additional minutes to the Earth’s rotation, bringing the sun back to its due south 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 travels 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 solar distance. The second variant is the seasonal change in the altitude of the sun caused by Earth’s axial tilt. Sol moves upward after the winter solstice and downward after summer solstice. Both effects make the sun’s daily eastward motion vary. 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. 2 this effect reached its maximum amplitude with the sun due south 16 min, 28.8 sec before our clocks struck 12 noon. If the sun crosses the meridian earlier, then it must also set earlier. The trend has reversed itself, but not enough to compensate for the decrease in daylight hours, causing the earliest sunset to occur next week on Dec. 7. After the 21st, the days too will be lengthening.

[November Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]