StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1159    NOVEMBER 4, 2018:   Crescent Moon—Cowboy Junkies
I have as an astronomy educator tried to make a conscious effort to promote the science behind my discipline, but equally important is the beauty of the night sky in all of its different characteristics—visual, melodic, and poetic. I believe this makes the science more approachable, especially to a liberal arts population. I want my students to be able look up into the heavens to appreciate its beauty as well as to comprehend what they see. One of the eternal themes in the arts involves the moon and its phases, a concept that I have stressed throughout my professional career. In fact in my book, I have an exercise jokingly, and not very poetically titled, “Know the Phases of the Moon or Die.” Although I incorporate many participatory ways of presenting the phases, some students still fail to the grasp the differences between a new moon (no moon) and a full moon, waxing (growing) and waning (diminishing), or crescent (horned) and gibbous (bulbous) moons. Let’s not forget quarter moons, first and last, which show a half-lit Luna in the sky. It can be confusing, especially to my international students. Enter Cowboy Junkies, a Toronto-based alternate country and folk-rock band that was formed in 1985 and is still singing today. I invite you to listen to “Crescent Moon” on YouTube, which debuted in their fifth album, Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, in 1993. It is about unrequited love. I cannot comprehend why this ballad with all of its astronomical resonance never got any more traction than it did. It is quiet, poetic, melodic, and beautifully sung by female vocalist, Margo Timmins. Perhaps it hits a little too close to the heart because most of us have experienced an unanswered love for which we have suffered deep, emotional pain. However, the astronomy is woven so effortlessly throughout the song that I had to bring it to your attention. Here are the first two verses which don’t do justice to the poetry and to the emotional feelings which it creates unless accompanied by the music and the vocals. I hope you’ll listen to “Crescent Moon” in its entirety and appreciate the song as much as I have.

Reach a hand to the crescent moon
Grab hold of the hollow
If she sits in the palm of the left
That moon will be fuller tomorrow
If she sits in the palm of the right
That moon is on the wane
And the love of the one who shares your bed
Will be doing just the same

"Won't you come with me", she said
"there's plenty of room in my iron bed
You're looking cold and tired
And more than a little human
I know I'm not part of the life you had planned,
But I think once your body feels my hand
Your mind will change
And your heart will lose its pain"

The lyrics along with a few notations can be found at A special thank you is extended to Richard Hogg for introducing me to Cowboy Junkies, prompted by a short conversation about lunar phases and how to remember them, which took place last week under the beautiful skyscape of Shooting Star Farm.

[Crescent Moon-Cowboy Junkies]
Click on the image to be taken to the YouTube video of "Crescent Moon." The lyrics with a few notes can be found below.

[Crescent Moon lyrics-Cowboy Junkies]

1160    NOVEMBER 11, 2018:   First Man: No Thrust
I had desperately wanted to see First Man ever since I first saw the trailer for the 2-hour, 20-minute feature film about Neil Armstrong, adapted from the book by the same title, the original moonwalker’s official biography. Years ago, I had listened to the audio book, and then read First Man by James R. Hansen, who was a co-producer of the film along with Steven Spielberg who served as an executive producer. I also have to preface my comments with the fact that Armstrong was one of my personal heroes, someone who tirelessly worked toward the goal of becoming better at whatever he did—a perfectionist without the ego baggage. He also had the capacity to work on a problem with full concentration on achieving a successful solution, regardless of the amount of personal danger he encountered. This was accurately portrayed in the film, but the champion of achieving the impossible was shy about public appearances, modest in every way. I know because I heard him speak in 1973. I was so close to Armstrong that I could have reached up and stolen the glass of water from his podium. At that lecture, a soft-spoken Neil emphasized that we had chosen to go to the moon, not because the challenges were hard, but as a diversion from the bad publicity the Kennedy administration was receiving surrounding the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April of 1961. Armstrong left the talk without answering any questions, and I snuck out and found him down a corridor standing alone quietly gazing at some imaginary vista. For about a minute it was just Neil and me—a minute I shall never forget—before the throngs of people found him, and once again he was inundated with adulations. He hated every moment of it! I think that Ryan Gosling captured Armstrong’s character to high degree of accuracy which in itself had its difficulties because Armstrong’s personality was in no way bigger than life. He didn’t want to be the hero, nor cared about being the first human to set foot on another world. He simply wanted to perform his part to the best of his abilities which he always did. Another problem was that Gosling had only a small facial resemblance to the real Neil Armstrong that we all knew from the Apollo missions. The film also switched back and forth between the activities of Armstrong and his wife Janet and their children. The lives of the wives were not easy by any means, but the tactic was overplayed, focusing too much emphasis on the family and not enough attention on Armstrong. The film still cruised along, with well-conceived and accurately rendered special effects, that kept the viewer engaged. However, by the time the film transitioned to Armstrong’s participation in Apollo 11, it was as if director Damien Chazelle said, “We’ve got to do a wrap on this project in the next 20 minutes.” The film’s climax showing the landing and the first step left me flat and detached from the characters. There were no mental flashbacks to the awe and excitement that I experienced when I witnessed the actual landing and Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. The final disappointment was on the moon itself where the audience got the impression that the whole Apollo program was simply about walking on the moon—to beat the Soviet Union in the space race. That may have actually been the view from afar shared by the masses, but Apollo was so much more. It was about the new technologies needed to accomplish the goal of docking spacecraft, voyaging to the moon, accurately landing on its surface, and returning safely back to the Earth, knowledge that was immediately accessible to everyone, knowledge that created thousands of spinoffs which improved the lives of all humanity, but served to bring the greatest benefits to the citizens of the United States. Set design, special effects, the claustrophobia of spaceflight, and Armstrong’s unassuming personality were well-portrayed in First Man, but the storyline was truncated and tamed at its most vital point, leaving this viewer gasping for air, rather than being breathless.

[First Man]
First Man, the book jacket from Simon & Schuster and the movie poster from Universal. I would read the book first.

1161    NOVEMBER 18, 2018:   Ho, Ho, Ho-Christmas Comet Approaches
Five years ago, the astronomical community was sitting on pins and needles watching Comet ISON rapidly brighten as it approached the sun. ISON was a sungrazer, passing only 724,000 miles from the sun’s “surface,” and after closest approach on Thanksgiving Day, it was supposed to become a spectacular naked eye object visible to Northern Hemispheric observers. However, several outbursts, one on November 12 and the other on the 19th, signaled that perhaps the comet would be too frail to survive its gravitational entanglement with the sun. The pros got it correct. As ISON rounded the sun in the early afternoon of November 28, 2013, SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, monitored the approach and then watched as the comet disintegrated into a fantail-shaped object immediately after perihelion. ISON had become a rubble pile of rapidly sublimating (vaporizing) ices before disappearing from view forever. Now another interloper, Comet 46P/Wirtanen, discovered photographically in 1948 by Carl A. Wirtanen (1910-1990) of California’s Lick Observatory, is approaching the sun and the Earth. As comets go, Wirtanen has been fairly well-observed because its orbital period is only 5.4 years, but its nucleus is very small, about six regular city blocks in diameter. Usually no one would make a big fuss about such a tiny object; however, this time around, 46P/Wirtanen will pass unusually close to the Earth, about 7.1 million miles (11.5 million kilometers) on December 16, the tenth closest approach of a comet since 1966. Because of its nearness to Earth, Wirtanen (could) should become visible to the unaided eye from suburban and rural locales, making it a fine sight through binoculars and small telescopes. It could be easily observable for several weeks moving northward through Cetus the Whale, Taurus the Bull, and Auriga the Charioteer, passing the Pleiades (Seven Sisters in Taurus) on December 15/16 and appearing about a lunar diameter from Capella, the alpha star of Auriga on December 23. An online map has been included with this StarWatch at The last super “Earth-grazing” comet was Hyakutake which passed just a little more than 9 million miles (14.5 million kilometers) from the Earth on the 25th of March, 1996. Hyakutake was spectacular, dubbed the Great Comet of 1996, with a tail stretching over 80 degrees from rural locales. From my backyard in suburbia, the bluish apparition was the length of the Big Dipper, and because of its closeness to Earth, it had a large change in position from night to night. That was one of its downfalls because Hyakutake came and went before the public could become fully aware that something spectacular was happening in the evening sky. A year later, Comet Hale-Bopp dazzled everyone in the morning and evening heavens, the brightest comet visible for the longest duration of time in recorded human history. Comet Wirtanen will be nothing like these blockbuster comets, but still, a comet that will be about the brightness of the faintest star in the Big Dipper (Megrez), is worth the effort of locating your binoculars so that you can take a peek. Just remember the saying, “Comets are like cats: they have tails and do precisely what they want (David Levy). More about 46P/Wirtanen in a few weeks if the prognosis is as optimistic as it is right now…

[Comet Wirtanen Locator Map]
The path of Comet 46P/Wirtanen during the time when it will be at its brightest is shown in this modified star chart from

1162    NOVEMBER 25, 2018:   The $150 Hex Screw
I set a goal for this semester to have five operational telescopes working on the Sky Deck of the Collier Hall of Science. Students would learn the operation of Moravian College’s computerized telescopes with five smaller instruments kept in my lab and then graduate to the Sky Deck where they could manage five similar, but larger instruments without having to disassemble, reassemble, align, and calibrate their telescopes. With five scopes upstairs, all would be ready once students were on the deck and much more time could be spent observing. It sounded great on paper, but the project has been a challenging experiment, two steps forward and one back. Most of the frustrations have simply involved the unusually cloudy and rainy autumn weather which we have experienced, but the project has been plagued by other gremlins too. Several weeks ago, it was two steps backwards—no forward movement, when a telescope—my personal scope—blew over in high winds, but every mistake that has been made has thankfully not been repeated. We are making progress, and I’m sure that the spring term will see more positive results. This situation reminded me of another frustrating experience I had with a telescope when I was director of the Allentown (PA) School District Planetarium. Every two or three weeks, I would set aside a Friday to perform maintenance on the Spitz A3P planetarium star projector, but for some reason on this day all systems were working fine. I decided to turn my attention to the repair of one of our telescopes. Keep in mind this happened in the late 80s when landline telephones and phone books ruled. The part of the instrument that held the telescope, called the “equatorial head,” was fastened to a pier with three hex screws. One had gone missing, and it was my intention to find a replacement to bring the instrument up to safety specs. I removed one of the two remaining screws and drove over to a local hardware store on Hamilton Street. They had plenty of hex screws, but not the one I needed. They did identify mine as a 6 mm (millimeter) hex screw, my first introduction to metric threading. I drove back to the planetarium and called another hardware store, giving them the specifics of the item that I wanted to purchase. Yep, they had it, and I was elated. However, when I arrived to my chagrin, the store clerk could not find any. Smart phones and Google were still years away so it was back to the planetarium to find another hardware store. This scenario repeated itself four times on that warm May Friday, and by dismissal, I was not only irritated, but angry. Driving home to Coopersburg where I lived, I passed Fluck’s Hardware on Main Street. I must have done so in excess of a thousand times, but I had never been inside. It was an old gangly building overflowing with “stuff” that spilled out and down the grey wooden steps onto the cracked tan sidewalk. I passed the store and said, “What the heck. Another disappointment awaits.” Mr. Fluck, a short, stocky, greying fellow, who had put off retirement, greeted me upon entering, and when I told him of my need for a 6 mm hex screw and showed him the one that needed replacing, he simply said, “Follow me.” He walked down more than half of the narrow, dark labyrinth which was his store to a location which contained specially built wooden shelving for the scores upon scores of small boxes which they held, each neatly positioned in its own private cubicle. He pulled down a container and when he opened it, there were hundreds of 6 mm hex screws in it, exactly like the one I was holding. Taking no chances, I bought six; the bill, I believe was three dollars plus tax. When I got home a few minutes later, I sat down and calculated the cost to the taxpayers of Allentown for my day’s efforts that led to the purchase of the one 6 mm hex screw which I needed to complete the repair of the telescope. The amount was 150 dollars. Fluck’s Hardware became a regular watering hole when I needed something out of the ordinary or even the ordinary until Mr. Fluck retired and the business closed, perhaps some half-dozen years later. Sometimes what looks like two steps backwards is really a jump ahead. I’m hoping that is the case for our Moravian College Sky Deck.

[November Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]