StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

062    NOVEMBER 2, 1997:   Waxing Moon Passes Planets
The planets continue to be on parade for the fall season, spread across the sky like a string of brilliant pearls right after sundown. To locate their positions, use the moon which debuts early this week in the southwest as a thin crescent. On Tuesday, in deep twilight, youíll find the moon standing high above the planet Venus. A good southwestern horizon will be mandatory, but the sight will be beautiful, especially if the sky is exceptionally clear. Start viewing about 30 minutes after sundown. With binoculars, look for Mars about half a binocular field diameter to the right of Venus. Remember how Venus passed Mars about two weeks ago? Thursday, mid-afternoon (yes, during the daylight), if the sky is very clear and blue, try finding the nearly first quarter moon in the southeast. It will be slightly above, but equally positioned between Uranus (left of moon) and Neptune (right). On Friday, the first quarter moon is above and slightly to the left of Jupiter. Try finding Jupiter shortly after sunset (5:00 p.m.) with binoculars a little more than half a field width below the moon. By next Wednesday, 7 p.m., the moon has moved to within a hairís distance of Saturn. More about this next week.
063a  NOVEMBER 9-11, 1997:   Near Occultation of the Moon and Saturn
Youíve noticed through your skywatching that the moon usually misses the planets which it approaches. Even though the moon and planets orbit in nearly the same planes, the difference is substantial enough so that the moon rarely passes directly in front of a planet. Thatís not the case Tuesday evening for the southeastern US, when the moon will occult Saturn for about an hour if you live in Miami. From southeastern PA, the nearly full moon will appear to pass under the ringed world, but just barely. Along the Jersey shore, south of Atlantic City, a brief occultation will occur, while AC will see the moonís limb graze Saturn from about 7:16-29 p.m. For Allentown, the closest approach appears to be at 7:24 p.m., but it's so close that you may need a telescope to see it occurring because of the overwhelming brilliance of the moon. The moon leads Saturn by about one lunar diameter at 6:00 p.m. when Saturn should be an easy target through most binoculars. Watch as the moon approaches Saturn during the next 1-1/2 hours, then pulls away from the ringed world as the rest of the night passes. If you own a telescope or a higher powered spotting scope, use it to enhance the experience. Clear skies!

The near occultation of Saturn and the moon went off as scheduled under a mackerel sky which may have even improved observations of the event. Saturn was easily visible in binoculars at 6 p.m. When next I viewed the moon about 7:05 p.m., sky conditions had deteriorated. I thought I just caught a glimpse of Saturn among the moving clouds and so decided to bring out my telescope. I had set it up about 5 p.m. in my study, so it was just a matter of scooping it up and taking it outdoors. By the time I caught my first telescopic view through a break in the clouds, Saturn was probably no more than about one ring diameter away from the moonís limb. I was certainly viewing within a few minutes of closest approach. I continued watching, alternating between my telescope and binoculars for an additional 45 minutes as the moon slowly pulled away from Saturn. Through binoculars, as clouds scudded past, the moon often dimmed while a thinner gap exposed Saturn for a brief moment allowing it seemingly to flare into view. Observing Saturn with binoculars through clear patches of sky proved more difficult because the moonís brilliance overwhelmed the ringed world. It was also interesting to view the difference in brightness between Saturn and the moon. Although Saturn appears like a yellow diamond against a black sky, it paled next to the brightness of the moon. When first spotted with binoculars, after nearest approach, Saturn was probably no more than 2-3 minutes of arc away from the moon which is about 30 minutes of arc in diameter.
063b  NOVEMBER 12-14, 1997:   Leonid Meteors Peak
With the near occultation of Saturn behind us, turn your focus towards an increase in meteor activity for the beginning of next week. On Monday morning (17th) near dawn, the Leonid meteor shower peaks. Even though the landscape will be bathed in bright moonlight, Leonid activity has been on the increase during the last several years. The comet dust responsible for this outbreak in shooting star activity is thickest every 33 years as the comet responsible for its release, Tempel-Tuttle, passes through the inner solar system, releasing these particles which slam into Earthís atmosphere causing the air to glow. The last Leonid storm occurred in 1966, when rates of over 100,000 meteors per hour were estimated in the Southwest. The Lehigh Valley was shrouded in clouds that night. This year rates of 30-50 meteors per hour during the several hours before Mondayís dawn could prove realistic. Leo is low in the east at 1:30 a.m. Three hours later, it is still positioned in the east about midway up in the sky. Look for bright Regulus as the "dot" of a backwards question mark. Meteors will appear to radiate from here. Save!
064    NOVEMBER 16, 1997:   Pegasus Flies Again
The Leonid meteor shower peaks about dawn (5:00 a.m.) on Monday (17th) with perhaps as many as 30-50 meteors per hour visible. Start observing anytime after 1:30 a.m. View towards the east. This is also a great time to get to know a few more stars of autumn. Center stage, just east of south about 8 p.m. is Saturn. Its brightness pales next to Jupiter, much lower in the southwest, but Saturn is still the dominate "starlike" object of that region. Above and to the right of Saturn by about two fists is the star Algenib. It forms the southeast corner of the Great Square of Pegasus, the body of the flying horse, four stars which are approximately the same brightness and which do indeed form a giant easy-to-see square. Pegasus is due south, more than halfway up in the sky. Proceeding clockwise, the other three stars are Alpheratz, Scheat, and Markab. The rest of the horse is essentially invisible from all urban and most suburban locations because of light pollution. I have always enjoyed the pronunciation of Scheat (SHEE-at). Yes, it does sound very much like that four letter word. My students have occasionally used it to joke with me. After all, how can you get into trouble for calling out the name of a star? Save. More about Pegasus next week.
065    NOVEMBER 23, 1997:   Great Square Leads to Other Stars
Last week, we spoke about the four stars which formed the Great Square of Pegasus, the flying horse--clockwise--Algenib, Alpheratz, Scheat, and Markab. Algenib is above and to the right of Saturn which dominates the south at 8:30 p.m. These stars can be used, just like the Pointer Stars of the Big Dipper, to locate other luminaries of interest. Follow Alpheratz past Markab to find unmistakably bright Jupiter low in the southwest and establish that this system really does work. Then go in the other direction, far across the sky to find the sixth brightest star of the night sky, Capella, twinkling vigorously in the northeast. Scheat through Algenib will again lead you back to Saturn, while going the other way will bring you to Deneb, near the zenith, and the faintest of the Great Summer Triangle triad, now beginning to slide towards the western horizon. Finally, Scheat through Markab will send you nearly straight down towards the southern horizon, where low in the sky will be found Fomalhaut, the principle star of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, and a sure sign that autumn is upon us.
066    NOVEMBER 30, 1997:   Evening Lineup of the Planets
During this week all the planets will be "theoretically" visible in the sky right before sundown. From southwest to southeast, the lineup will be Pluto, the sun, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter, and Saturn. The moon will pass them all, approaching Saturn by next Monday. To astronomers this represents a planetary alignment, but remember, the planets will not be located one in back of the other. They will be spread across most of the southwestern sky from the location of the setting sun to the southeast. The angular separation, excluding Saturn, will be about 72 degrees, seven stacked fists held at armís length. When Saturn is included, the distance stretches to 128 degrees. During March of 1982 we had another close grouping in the morning sky. Another tight grouping (excluding Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto), about 26 degrees across, will occur on May 4, 2000. However, here the planets will be on both sides of the sun, allowing the spectacle to be visible only from space. Watch as the moon passes above Venus on Tuesday, and then approaches/passes Jupiter on Thursday/Friday.