StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1263    NOVEMBER 1, 2020:   Giant Meteor, What?
Great balls of fire! Giant Meteors don’t destroy the Earth. Giant meteorites do; but with the end of the year coming into sight, I’ll take anything that will give me a little smile, and that is exactly what Pete Detterline did when he surprised me with a similar sign that now graces my front yard. Meteors and meteorites happen to be two of the most botched up words in astronomy. Sadly, they are even used incorrectly by professional astronomers. In addition, meteoroid, a word that is almost never mentioned in polite astronomical conversations, must also be added to the list. Even the popular rhyme, “A meteor is the flash of light left by a falling meteorite” has to be amended. “Oh no, Mr. Bill! Meteoroid should be substituted for meteorite. Get it right, folks!” Meteors are the flash of light created by dust entering the Earth’s atmosphere. This dross is released from periodic comets as they orbit the sun. When a speck of cometary dust called a meteoroid slams into the Earth’s atmosphere traveling at speeds up to nearly 45 miles per second, it forms a cylinder of glowing (ionized) air surrounding the particle as the meteoroid’s energy of motion is dissipated into the atmosphere. This is known as the meteor phenomenon. We don’t see the meteoroid “burning”; there is no combustion. Nor do we see the meteoroid glowing; it is far too negligible, the size of a sand grain or smaller, and it could be hundreds of miles distant. The meteoroid is being ablated, ripped apart into less significant particles by the pressure of the air acting upon it, the leftover micrometeorites slowly drifting to the Earth’s surface as cosmic dust over many months. Meteorites, those larger meteoroids that make it to the ground, lighting up the sky as a “giant meteor,” originate from bits and pieces of the asteroid belt that intersect Earth’s orbit. If a rock from outer space hit you, you might scream “ITE” before you died. If the end times are predicted, then the placard better read “Giant Meteorite”; but then it just wouldn’t be quite as much fun. The sign stays, but we will have none of that malarkey here in StarWatch.

[Giant Meteor]

1264    NOVEMBER 8, 2020:   Grateful Thanks to Shooting Star’s Bill and Johnny
Have you ever wanted to meet someone in the film industry? I had that opportunity in 2010 when former Paramount Pictures director and Bucks County resident, Bill Jacobs, sent me an email asking for advice regarding possible locations for various scenes for a feature film that he had conceived, When the Moon was Twice as Big. Bill had moved to the East Coast to avoid the overpriced production costs that were associated with filmmaking in Hollywood. I honestly thought that his missive was a spoof, nearly deleting the correspondence after just reading the salutation in the header. Thank goodness, I didn’t. It would have been one of the biggest blunders of my life. When my wife and I listened to Bill’s story over dinner at the Red Lion in Quakertown several weeks later, it became evident that Bill had a dream and a vision far larger than anything I had ever imagined. Bill’s warmth and sincerity and his passion for his trade brought me into a world that expanded my appreciation of the art of the possible. Several weeks later, Bill and I took a two-day tour of the astronomical sites in the Lehigh Valley. Kutztown University, the Boyertown Area School District Planetarium, and Pulpit Rock and South Mountain sites of the LVAAS were included. Boyertown and Pulpit Rock were chosen for major scenes in the motion picture. I was selected as technical advisor for the picture which brought me on set to assist in some of the filming, but it also introduced me to Bill’s talented friends and his home at Shooting Star Farm. The 35-acre, equestrian homestead was named after a brilliant fireball that Bill had witnessed years before while living in Ohio. Besides the farm’s well-maintained grounds, two barns, house, and other outbuildings, what impressed me the most was how dark the area was and its proximity to Moravian College where I taught astronomy. It took me a full year to muster up the courage to ask Bill if I could bring my students to Shooting Star for a dark sky field experience. I thought I might be taking advantage of our friendship, but again I was wrong. Bill excitedly opened up his grounds to my students, oftentimes mowing the grass on the day of an event. Help came from friends many of whom were members of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society, returning from a day’s work to volunteer their time and energy to help my students gain a better perspective of the heavens through the vistas created through their wonderful telescopes. These were not your ordinary obligations. Shooting Star field experiences involved two nights a semester with numerous inclement weather dates, creating commitments that could last over many weeks. What made these events so special and the volunteers returning time and time again were the get-togethers that ensued for my friends following the observing sessions. Good food, good conversation, and good camaraderie made those nights under the starry vault of Shooting Star Farm so memorable for all of the participants. When Bill partnered with Johnny Killwey in 2013, the events became even more festive. Johnny loved the culinary arts and took charge of the oven, and in addition, supplemented his own style of New York wit to the conversations. However, with the feature film nearly completed, Johnny and Bill have purchased a five-acre plot of land in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Shooting Star Farm is for sale. The LVAAS has invited my Moravian students to share in the excitement of the night sky from Pulpit Rock. I have volunteered to bring the cheese and savory foods, but sheltering in the 40-inch observatory after an event just won’t be the same as it was in the Great Room of Shooting Star Farm while warming up around a crackling fire with goodies, discourse, and Bill’s big old brass telescope peering through a corner window. My profound thanks to Bill Jacobs and Johnny Killwey for their unbounded support and generosity to my friends from LVAAS and to my students from Moravian College, who were provided with the opportunity to glimpse the jewels of the heavens from Shooting Star Farm. Pictures and a list of participants can be found here.

[Shooting Star- 1]
Grateful Thanks to Bill Jacobs and Johnny Killwey for opening Shooting Star Farm to friends and members of the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society, Inc., and to hundreds of astronomy students from Moravian College over an eight year period. Participants in dozens of events included Marcella and Matt Gustantino, LVAAS members, Bill Dahlenburg, Sandra Mesics, Tom Duff, Ron Kunkel, Rich Hogg, Terry Pundiak, and Joe Zelinski. Images, Timothy Murphy and Gary A. Becker...

[Shooting Star-2]

[Shooting Star-3]

1265    NOVEMBER 15, 2020:   Leonids on the Prowl
Traditionally, November represents the transition period from tolerable warmth to the chill of winter. By the time of Thanksgiving, accumulating snows can already be in the forecast, although up to this point in 2020, we have been happily spared. Some of the best meteor observing occurs during the long, dark nights of late fall and early winter, and with a cooperating moon, these events can be impressive. If the sky is clear, the morning hours of November 17 (Leonids—before dawn) and December 13 (Geminids—10 p.m. till dawn) all promise to deliver an excess of shooting stars. The moon certainly will not pose any problems. It was the Leonid shower of November 12-13, 1833 that gave birth to meteor science. During the four hours preceding dawn on the 13th, meteors rained down on the eastern and central US, with as many as 15-50 shooting stars visible each second, radiating away from the head of Leo the Lion. Screams of hysteria as well as the bright, but silent explosive flashes of light from fireballs illuminating bedroom interiors awakened most people in the regions of greatest activity. A 24-year old Abraham Lincoln was an eyewitness to the Leonid storm that morning. The Leonids are cyclical in nature with the last interval of enhanced activity having occurred between 1998 and 2002. Heightened rates will not happen again until 2099. The Leonids of 2000 were particularly memorable for the number of bright meteors that they produced. From 2:20-5:20 a.m. I witnessed 54 Leonids with perhaps 20 of them bright enough to be called fireballs. I caught most of their brilliant flashes between the skeletal branches of my backyard trees despite an obtrusive, waning gibbous moon brightening the sky near the radiant point of the shooting stars. Leonid meteors result from our planet intersecting the abundant dross which is released by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, discovered on December 19, 1865 by E. Tempel (French), and independently, on January 6, 1866 by H. Tuttle (American). As this short period comet swings around the sun every 33.17 years, dense corridors of debris are released from the sublimating (vaporizing) surface ices of the comet. Earth intersects the denser swarms of powdery dust near to the comet in enhanced periods of activity when Tempel-Tuttle is generally close to the sun. In an average year like 2020 about 10-15 Leonids may be seen each hour after midnight on maximum morning, November 17. Meteor rates will increase after midnight and will be at their highest levels several hours before dawn. Leo will be high in the southern sky at that time. Leonid meteors are the swiftest of the major showers. They enter the Earth’s atmosphere at slightly over 43 miles per second. They will appear to be radiating from the sickle of Leo the Lion, a backwards looking question mark which forms the Lion’s head and lower torso. The bright star named Regulus forms the dot of the question mark. Leo can be located by taking the two stars of the Big Dipper that point to the North Star, Dubhe and Merak, and going in the opposite direction until the body of the Lion is reached. Leonid meteors will appear to be radiating swiftly away from the head of the Lion every five minutes or so. There is good meteor viewing ahead, if you can stand the cold.

[Leonid Meteor Shower Radiant
Leonid Meteor will be radianting from the blue "X" in the sickle of Leo the lion. The best chance for seeing Leonid meteors is Tuesday morning, November 17, an hour or two before dawn. This map is set for 2 a.m. Graphics by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's The Sky.

1266    NOVEMBER 22, 2020:   Consolation Prizes for a Missed Eclipse
On Thanksgiving, I was to travel to Santiago, Chile with friends, and the following day board the Westerdam for a 22-day cruise down the western coast of South America, through the Drake Passage and then up the eastern side of the continent. The expedition was to conclude in Buenos Aires, but not before encountering the sun in total eclipse on December 14. Oh, did I mention that the excursion also included “boots on the ground” in Antarctica? COVID killed that trip. A year, earlier right after the 2019 fall term concluded, I was supposed to be traveling to Australia to view the incredibly dark skies Down Under in the comfort of a temperate, late Australian spring. An extended family emergency squelched that trip, but Peter Detterline, my friend, ventured to Oz on his own, only to be treated to yellow and orange skies, a result of the worst wildfires that the land of the Southern Cross had ever experienced. A world pandemic and global warming, among other human tragedies, suggests to me a collective response for change is needed now. Astronomically speaking, I mused how lemons could be “squeezed” into lemonade, and I discovered a number of eclipses that would be visible from the mid-Atlantic during the next 12 months. The first and least spectacular, a penumbral lunar eclipse occurs on Monday, November 30. You will have to be up early at 4:45 a.m. to catch about 82 percent of the moon embracing the secondary shadow of the Earth. The northern hemisphere of the moon will appear dusky, greyish, and not quite normal. From a lunar perspective, that region of the moon will see more than half of the Earth covering the sun; hence, the duskiness because the northern lunar hemisphere will receive less sunlight falling upon it. The northern area of the moon is also less reflective than the southern hemisphere because of its dark maria or seas. This will also enhance the effect. Call it a COVID penumbral eclipse because you’ll be able to see it from your home, as well as being socially distanced a quarter million miles from the moon. A similar lunar eclipse is occurring at moonset on May 26, 2021, but that will be very difficult to view. Then just 15 days later on June 10, 2021, my birthday, the sun rises in a deep partial eclipse from the mid-Atlantic through New England. A seashore location facing east to catch the sun rising above the water would be your best bet, but you’ll need the proper filters to guarantee a safe view. About 150 miles northeast of International Falls, Minnesota, in Canada, the eclipse will be annular or ringed when a slightly smaller moon is centered over a rising sun. Again, the proper filters will be necessary during all aspects of the eclipse. Although I generally feel that mornings are overrated, a sunrise annular eclipse is something not to be missed. I feel a post COVID road trip is motivating me. Finally, on November 19, 2021 the opportunity to view a near total lunar eclipse presents itself to the Americas. The partial phases of the eclipse begin at 2:19 a.m., EST. Greatest depth into the Earth’s shadow transpires at 4:05 a.m. when 97.5 percent of the moon will be darkened. Through binoculars and small telescopes, the range of colors across the lunar disk should be spectacular. The partial phases of the eclipse end at 5:47 a.m., with the moon hanging about 12 degrees above the western horizon for the East Coast and higher the farther west one is located. So even after some disappointing trip cancellations, there is some good local eclipse viewing that remains ahead. I think I’m content for the moment. Ad Astra!

1267    NOVEMBER 29, 2020:   Geminids: Fireworks for the Holidays
As Holiday decorations begin to pepper the Lehigh Valley landscape, there is a celestial light show that will be gaining strength in the nighttime sky next week. Geminid meteors will be flying, and their numbers will only continue to climb as Earth moves into denser regions of its dross. Rates of about 30-50 meteors per hour can be expected between the morning hours of December 13 and the morning hours of December 14 with brighter meteors visible during the evening and morning hours of December 13/14. If this shower occurred during the summer, it is safe to say that the Geminids, rather than the August Perseids, would be the biggest shooting star extravaganza of the year. They outpace the Perseids by a margin of two-and-one-half to one. Meteor showers usually arise from the Earth’s intersection of debris released by comets as they orbit the sun, but until recently, the Geminids had no comet progenitor. Then in 1983, a 3.2 mile (5.2 km) in diameter asteroid, known as 3200 Phaethon, was discovered and tied to the annual Geminids. Phaeton is a record holder for named asteroids approaching the sun. At its closest distance (perihelion), it lies only 12.9 million miles from Sol, allowing surface temperatures on Phaethon to soar to around 1200 degrees F. As an Apollo asteroid, a class of minor planets which crosses the Earth’s orbit, Phaethon can get near to the Earth, but it probably will not be involved in a collision. On December 16, 2017 it passed our world at a distance of only 6.4 million miles (10.3 million km). The discovery of Phaethon and its relationship to the Geminids gave credence for a proposed theory that some comets never die; they just fade away to become rocky asteroids when their orbits are changed enough by the giant planets, in this case, Jupiter. Meteor observing was responsible for my getting interested in astronomy. As a teenager, it was just fun to lay out under the stars in a chaise lounge in the summer or cozy up in a sleeping bag during the early fall and late spring. Winter and the Geminids were a whole different story. The cold and the increased cloudiness are major reasons why this meteor shower is not better known to the public. Bright moonlight doesn’t help either, but that is not a factor this year. In 2012 I watched them under cold, crystal clear skies. I lasted just under four hours, even with being bundled up in several sleeping bags and numerous thermal clothing layers, several balaclavas, and a half dozen hand warmers. Nothing did the trick. This year, I’m getting out the electric blanket. Watching meteors is not the same as other winter activities, such as skiing or snowboarding, where increased physical activity keeps you comfy while in the cold. You are lying motionless, and the chill just seems to seep in uninvitedly. My suggestion is to go outside for an hour at a time, then get warmed up for the next hour. Geminid meteors will be visible as soon as it gets dark, but optimal conditions occur after midnight when the radiant, which lies just to the right and above the star Castor in Gemini the Twins is highest in the sky, allowing observers to spot meteors in all directions around their diverging location. East Coast residents are in the best position for spotting Geminids in the Americas. Bundle up, look up, and enjoy the best meteor shower of the year. You won’t be disappointed. A locater map for Gemini and Castor can be found below.

[Geminid Radient]
"X" marks the radiant of the Geminid Meteors Shower which will have maximum counts on the morning of December 14. Gary A. Becker map using Software Bisques', The Sky...

[Brilliant Lunar Halo]
On November 30, I stepped outside around 12:30 a.m. to check the sky and was greeted by a magnificent lunar halo. Lunar halos are the same as a solar halo and are formed by ice crystals found in cirrus clouds that are dispersing moonlight (reflected sunlight) into the colors of the rainbow. Gary A. Becker image...

[November Star Map]

[November Moon Phase Calendar]