StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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

[Moon Phases]
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Current Geomagnetic Field:  
Status Current Moon Phase
842    OCTOBER 7, 2012:   Color Flashlight for Your Smart Phone
Returning from Philadelphia “in the dark” last week, I inadvertently managed to scoot through an E-ZPass lane. All types of expletives danced through my brain as I envisioned my tariff at the exiting tollbooth. Having gotten a receipt going into Philly, I asked my wife, Sue, to find it so I could try to talk my way out of this dilemma, but there was no flashlight. I said, “Use my smart phone flashlight,” and after some bumbling and three near sideswipes, we got the light working. She found the receipt and at the toll booth, I thankfully paid for only the road miles traveled. The man at the exit did swipe my driver's license and request DNA samples from both of us, all while an immensely long line of angry drivers queued up behind us. Why not simply use the car’s cabin lights, you’re thinking? I’m an astronomer and they are disconnected. That got me to thinking about flashlight applications for my Android phone, and I found a really sophisticated and free one called Color Flashlight. If you leave CF on or off when exiting the app, it returns in the same manner when you reboot it. In addition, it allows the user to illuminate his or her smart phone LCD panel in any color independent of the flashlight, providing the user with diffuse lighting from nearly off (extremely dim) to as bright as the panel on the phone will permit. The use and flexibility of the flashlight is obvious, but the colors are very helpful for astronomy because the user can take advantage of red light and small amounts of green lighting, for seeing gear in the dark without losing any dark adaptation. CF also has a host of other helpful effects which are fun and safety oriented. There is a more sophisticated version, also for free, called Color Flashlight HD, but I'd rather "Keep it simple stupid." That’s the writer calling himself stupid and not trying to incite my readers to riot.

843    OCTOBER 14, 2012:   It's Showtime for the Orionids
The meteor season has been underway since the Perseids of mid-August. Now it’s time for the big three autumn spectacles to commence, starting first with October’s Orionid Meteor Shower, followed by the Leonids of November, and finally, the biggest shooting star event of the year, the December Geminids. Orionid activity peaks on the morning of Sunday, October 21, with meteors radiating from an area above and to the east (left) of Orion’s super red giant star, Betelgeuse. Even the crescent moon is cooperating by setting around 11 p.m. local time on the 20th. Orionid meteors begin “to fly” in earnest after midnight when the radiant is about 30 degrees above the eastern horizon. As the hours roll by, Orion and the area from which the meteors are diverging, get higher and higher in the sky. By 5 a.m. this point reaches its maximum altitude, about 65 degrees, allowing observers to see shooting stars streaming from above and below the radiant. This is when events max at about 25 meteors per hour from a rural locale. In addition to the Orionids, there are two other minor showers which bear mentioning. They are the Northern and the Southern Taurids with meteors emanating from the constellation of the bull. Even combined, these streams produce little activity, but when a Taurid flares, often it is in the form of a slow moving, long duration fireball which can be really spectacular. In comparison, the normal Orionid meteor is swift and much fainter. Remember that for mid-latitude observers, October nights are not for the fainthearted. When contemplating your apparel and the equipment you should be bringing, think winter. Although the shower might be “rocking and rolling,” you will be lying stationary looking towards the SE. Ground tarps, sleeping bags, headgear, gloves, and thick socks will help keep you comfy so that you can enjoy the show in style.

[Orionid Meteor Radiant]
Orionid Meteors radiate from just east of the elbow of the arm of Orion the Hunter which holds his club. Rates of about 10-20 meteors per hour can be expected after 2 a.m., 25 events per hour by dawn. This map has been constructed for 2 a.m. using Software Bisque's The Sky. Gary A. Becker graphics...

844    OCTOBER 21, 2012:   Watch Iridium Flares Blast
If you enjoy sky watching but live in a light polluted area of the country, there are still plenty of options worth pursuing. One of my favorite is looking for Iridium flares, bursts of reflected sunlight from one of the three door-sized antennas that are attached to the Iridium constellation of communications satellites. There are 66 active units in near polar orbits, providing satellite phone communications to remote locations worldwide. Because positioning and orientation of these satellites must be precise, it is possible to predict the time and location on the Earth’s surface when the forward antenna (panel) will reflect a splash of sunlight and flare itself into bright visibility. The events are calculated to the second and with precise sky locations, making them easy to identify. The Heavens Above website ( and numerous apps like “SatTrack” or “Iridium Flare” (Android) or Sputnik (iPhone) give predictions. All of these programs need to know your location, but this can be accomplished automatically by keeping your GPS navigation unit activated on your smartphone. You’ll receive information on when and where to look in the sky. The when is important because not all smartphones have the precise time, so it would be wise to download an app like “ClockSync” which automatically connects and updates your system to the atomic time provided by the US government. The location of the event may be given in azimuth and altitude. Azimuth runs clockwise along the horizon starting at north (0o or 360o), east (90o), south (180o), west (270o), and returns back to north again. It can also be stated as a direction such as NNE or SW, etc. Altitude is measured from the azimuth position upward to the correct height. The range is from the horizon (0o) to 90o, directly overhead. You are now all set to witness the exhilaration of seeing an Iridium flare.

[Iridium 37 Flares]
Iridium Blast: Iridium communications satellite 37 gave one of its best performances over Coopersburg, PA on October 17 at 7:59-34 p.m. It glinted for over 40 seconds culminating at a brightness of -8, nearly 40 times more luminous than the planet Venus, all from a reflective panel no bigger than a door. The luminary in the upper left corner of the picture is Polaris, the North Star. The haziness in the photograph was caused by high cirrus clouds from an approaching cold front. Gary A. Becker image using a Canon 24-70mm lens at an effective focal length of 64mm, ASA 640, color temperature of 3400 K, 40 seconds at F/2.8...

[Six Day Moon]
The moon at 6.5 days on October 21: Gary A. Becker Questar image...

845    OCTOBER 28, 2012:   Sungrazing Comet on its Way
Heads up! If you remember Comet Hale-Bopp (1997), the brightest comet seen for the longest period of time in recorded history, or bright Comet Hyakutake (1996), with its blue fluorescent tail next to the stars of the Dig Dipper, then get ready for perhaps another barnburner, Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). The brightnesses of comets are one of the most difficult predictions that astronomers make and ISON will be challenging. Comets are composed of a mixture of icy materials, mostly water, dust, and some rock. The ratios of ice to dust vary greatly among members. These gatecrashers first head toward the sun from the outposts of our solar system, then over millions of years get snagged by the planets into shorter and shorter orbital paths. Many are also expelled from the solar system. Comet ISON has similar characteristics to the Great Comet of 1680, and if that is the case, when it passes 1.1 million miles from the sun on November 28, 2013, it could produce a wonderfully large tail visible for several months starting in mid-November. That’s very exciting news. On the other hand, ISON could simply disintegrate in the sun’s heat and strong gravity and be lost. Currently still beyond Jupiter’s orbit, ISON is much brighter than expected for its distance from the sun, and this should be sounding a warning to astronomers to be careful. Comet Kohoutek, C/1973 E1, was also discovered beyond the orbit of Jupiter, and was similarly brighter than it should have been. Kohoutek’s initial brightness fooled astronomers into thinking that here was the mother of all comets. Instead, Kohoutek was coming to us from the rockier Kuiper Belt with an excess of volatiles on its surface but not that much ice underneath. When it rounded the sun in December of 1973, the ices were gone, and the comet flubbed big time. At least let’s keep our hopes high that Comet ISON will be respectable.

[October Star Map]

[October Moon Phase Calendar]