StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



Print Large Sky Charts For 10 p.m. EDT:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]
Solar X-rays:  
Geomagnetic Field:  
Status Current Moon Phase

528    OCTOBER 1, 2006:   The Universe in a Nutshell
The universe is an awfully big place. In recent years it has also become an extremely confusing place. In the 1950s it seemed so simple. The universe always had been here; it was expanding, appeared the same at all points, and in the voids between the galaxies, hydrogen was being created to form new galaxies. It was a philosophically pleasing prospect, and science could not prove it wrong. But by the 1960s this Steady State universe began to crumble. The deeper into space we peered, the earlier we glimpsed the universe. This is because light travels at a finite speed. Discovered were strange new distant quasi-stellar objects called quasars which were eventually interpreted to be galaxies with supermassive black holes. They were billions of light years away, meaning that they were part of our earlier universe billions of years into the past. The universe was no longer homogeneous. In step with these discoveries was a growing belief that the universe had to have had some type of origin event, a blast that started the outward movement. The idea dated back to the 1920s when the expanding universe was first discovered, but observational proof was lacking. Serendipitously, this Big Bang was discovered in 1964 by Bell Lab physicists, Penzias and Wilson experimenting with outdated satellite communications equipment. It was heard as an unwanted ubiquitous static or hiss in the microwave signals with which they were experimenting. The universe started with a blast some 10 to 20 billion years ago. But where was it going? Would it continue to expand forever or would there be enough mass in the universe to halt the expansion and bring the universe back to a big crunch? The surprising answer comes next week.

[Hubble Ultra Deep Field]
This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible light image ever taken of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, this galaxy studded view represents a deep core sample of the universe cutting across billions of light years. NASA image STScI-PRC2004-07a and caption...

529    OCTOBER 8, 2006:   Expansion Forever
The universe started with a bang; a really Big Bang, and it was discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two relatively unknown physicists working for Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ. They were using an obsolete radio telescope in their quest to remove static from microwave telephone circuitry when they made the connection that the faint hiss which they first interpreted as unwanted noise was the Big Bang itself. So significant was their finding that Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978. The key to understanding how the early universe evolved into the galaxies and clusters of galaxies that we observe today was to look for minute variations in the background radiation of the Big Bang. This would signal differences in the temperature and the density of matter during the earliest epoch of our universe’s history and allow astronomers to calculate how the structure of the universe evolved. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, WMAP for short, has revamped our portrait of the universe. We now know the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago. A mere 380,000 years later, light began to flow freely in the universe. We know that stars were shining 200 million years later. We also know that matter accounts for only four percent of the traditional universe that we can detect. Twenty-three percent of the universe is composed of an undetectable material called “dark matter.” The remaining 73 percent of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” something else which we cannot presently detect. How do we know this to be true? WMAP has conclusively shown us that the universe is not only expanding, but it is accelerating. As Charles Bennett, WMAP’s principal investigator put it, “The universe will expand forever.”

530    OCTOBER 15, 2006:   Orionid Meteors Brighten October's Sky
With the moon on the wane and the skies of autumn becoming more transparent as each week passes, the time is now upon us for the first of three annual meteor events. The Orionid meteor shower peaks on the morning of Saturday, October 21, and offers observers in suburban and rural locations the opportunity of viewing one of the major meteor events of the year. The moon will be new on the 22nd, so it will pose no interference with observations. One of the interesting aspects of the Orionids is that meteor activity remains high for several days prior to and after the maximum. Rates are not as great as the August Perseids or the December Geminids, but 10 to 20 meteors per hour can be expected after midnight. These shooting stars are swift, but not overly bright. About 50 percent will leave trains, transient glows that linger up to several seconds after the event. Meteoroids, the debris released by comets on their sojourns around the sun, travel in orbits. If the Earth encounters the trail of the comet’s debris, shooting stars radiating from a particular part of the sky will be the result. Most astronomers believe that the Orionid meteor shower is related to Halley’s Comet, so even if you missed the “big event” in 1986 when Halley appeared in our spring sky, you can still see its dross every October when the Earth passes near Halley’s orbit. Observe after midnight. Face east and look overhead. By 3:00 a.m., Orion, the hunter, with its famous three belt stars will be in the SE. Meteors will appear to be diverging from a region of the sky to the left of red Betelgeuse, the Hunter’s brightest shoulder star. After 3 a.m., observe towards the south as Orion climbs upright into the morning sky. By 6 a.m. the radiant appears high in the south as dawn’s early light brightens the east.

[Orionid Meteor Radiant]
Orionid Meteors radiate from just east of the elbow of Orion the Hunter. Rates of about 10-20 meteors per hour can be expected after 2 a.m., the time for which this map has been constructed. Gary A. Becker graphics...

531    OCTOBER 22, 2006:   The Milk Dipper
One of the true harbingers of autumn and the colder days which lie ahead are the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, probably the most famous open cluster in the sky. This week in the east, you can spot their gossamer glow created by six faint stars about mid-sky by 10 p.m. The sideways “V” of Taurus the Bull will be directly below the Sisters, and just rising in the east will be Orion, the mighty Hunter. To the left of the Pleiades will be Auriga the Charioteer, with white Capella, the sixth brightest luminary of the night. Stars don’t get born alone, but rather in clusters like the Pleiades which may be as little as 50-100 million years in age. That may sound ancient by human standards, but it is representative of only one to two percent of the five billion year history of our sun. By human standards, the Seven Sisters are babies still in diapers, but like families, they will age and go their separate ways. There is just not enough gravity among the scattered 400-500 members to hold the cluster together. Look at the Pleiades with binoculars or a spotting scope. The brightest stars will have the same blue-white color of Vega now the most vivid star in the west at 10 p.m. The brightest stars of this cluster create a strong resemblance to the pattern found in the Big Dipper, like a “Milk Dipper” in my mind. This past summer while volunteering at Utah’s Bryce Canyon Nat. Park, we had a power outage due to lightning. A good chunk of SW Utah was darkened. After midnight the skies cleared and what a glorious black night it was. I kept my telescope running with a portable battery while another powered a dew zapper warming my camera’s lens to keep it from fogging. The Pleiades, shrouded in its ethereal blue dust cloud, ushered in the first light of dawn. Photo online…

[Pleiades/Milk Dipper]
The "Milk Dipper" or Pleiades star cluster (center right) rises above silent Ponderosa pines at Bryce Canyon National Park in SW Utah. This seven minute digital image was taken just before dawn on the extremely dark morning of July 28, 2006. A lightning strike in northern Arizona the previous afternoon had darkened much of SW Utah, including the Park's Visitor Center where this image was taken. Below the Pleiades one can see the sideways "V" of Taurus the Bull. To the left of the Pleiades is the red smear of the California nebula. Its color is created by glowing hydrogen gas. Gary A. Becker digital photo...

532    OCTOBER 29, 2006:   Have Some More Happy Juice
Readers of this column know that I have had my share of eye problems, and without some very fine and dedicated physicians, I would probably be writing these articles in Braille. In 1974 during a routine eye exam, my ophthalmologist, Allentown’s Dr. Charles Goldsmith discovered that my retinas were becoming detached from the cup of my eye. When he referred me to Dr. Kenneth Nase in West Reading, I can still remember his exact words. “It’s not a screaming emergency!” But it really was! My retinas were detached dangerously close to the fovea or central vision of the eye. Within 10 days I was at Reading Hospital being prepped for the first of two operations in which I had a 30 percent chance of going blind in each eye. As the IV was inserted into my arm, my world became fuzzier, but not my hearing. The discussion among the OR nurses centered about the fact that in several weeks the third shift would have to work nine hours as Eastern Daylight Time fell back to Eastern Standard Time. They were upset because they would only be paid for an eight hour shift, even though the time period between 1-2 a.m. would be repeated twice. “ASTRONOMY,” I thought. “I can make a valuable contribution to this conversation.” So off I rambled, telling the staff that really their plight wasn’t so bad. “Suppose you were working onboard a hospital ship and the vessel crossed the International Date Line sailing in an eastward direction. You’d have to repeat a whole day. So stop complaining,” I insisted. “It’s only an hour.” Suddenly, I realized that there was a hush in the room. They were actually listening to me in my state of utter euphoria. One of the nurses approached. She smiled and adjusted the IV. “Have some more happy juice,” she said. My world quickly faded into a starry night.

October Star Map

October Moon Phase Calendar