StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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998    OCTOBER 4, 2015:   Lucky Break Lunar Eclipse
Since mid-August, the Mid-Atlantic States have enjoyed an incredible run of dry weather, clear to partly cloudy nights, and temperate conditions for observing. That all began to change the week Pope Francis came to “town.” Slowly all of those sunny days deteriorated, and the nights became mostly cloudy. My students and I enjoyed numerous clear evenings atop Moravian College’s Collier Sky Deck in center city Bethlehem. They learned how to operate automated telescopes, zooming around the sky, finding double stars, nebulae and clusters, some with only a couple dozen stars, and others containing hundred of thousands of luminaries. I was hoping that the run of good weather might reappear for the lunar eclipse of September 27, but it didn’t. The nights became even cloudier, and by eclipse day, I felt a sense of hopelessness enveloping my psyche. Observing events were cancelled, and I found myself assembling my telescope and camera gear under a tree in my backyard which presented a cloud-filled vista of where the eclipse would take place. I settled in, hearing the stealthy movement of deer in the woods and a screech owl in the distance nailing its prey. Gradually, I noticed patches of moonlight appearing against the cloudiness, and finally a full moon, partially emerged in the Earth’s shadow, appeared. I snapped my first images. Ten minutes later, another area of cloudiness dissipated near the moon and viola! The moon peeked out again. More snapping occurred. I thought maybe I would see it more consistently, and then even thicker clouds imprisoned the moon just as quickly as they had released Luna. I was in for one more surprise which happened at the sweetest part of the eclipse. Just as the moon was completely engulfed in Earth’s shadow, another hole in the clouds appeared, and there was Luna, rimmed in red, darker than expected, but glorious. My snapping knew no bounds. Then clouds closed in quickly, hiding the moon for the rest of the eclipse.

[September 27-28 Total Lunar Eclipse]
It was an almost all cloudy night, but just as totality occurred the clouds parted for about three minutes. This was the result as the moon first fully entered the Earth's shadow. Photo by Gary A. Becker from Coopersburg, PA...

999    OCTOBER 10, 2015:   Orionids: First Big Meteor Shower of Autumn
The meteor season has been underway since the Perseids of mid-August, but now it is time for the first of the big three autumn spectacles to commence, October’s Orionid Meteor Shower. It will be 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 Wednesday, October 21, with meteors radiating from an area above and to the east (left) of Orion’s bright, super red giant star, Betelgeuse. The moon will be at first quarter, cooperating by setting around midnight local time when the radiant, the location from which the meteors will be diverging, gets high enough into the sky to create some potential action. As the hours roll by, Orion and the area from which the meteors are radiating, gets higher and higher into 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 should be at their best, about 25 meteors per hour from a rural locale, half that from suburbia. In addition to the Orionids, there are two other minor meteor showers that 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, it often is in the form of a slow moving, spark-spitting, wavering, long duration fireball which can be wonderfully spectacular. In comparison, the normal Orionid meteor is swift and fainter. Remember that for mid-latitude observers, October nights are not for the fainthearted. When considering your apparel and the equipment you should be bringing, think winter. Although the shower might be “rocking and rolling,” you will be lying stationary, facing SE, but gazing overhead. Ground tarps, sleeping bags, hats, gloves, and thick socks will help to keep you comfy so that you can enjoy the show.

[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 from a rural location. This map has been constructed for 2 a.m. using Software Bisque's The Sky. Gary A. Becker graphics...

1000    OCTOBER 18, 2015:   StarWatch 1000
This is my 1000th StarWatch, and I believe that a little history behind the column is in order. StarWatch began in 1996 when Allentown’s Morning Call approached the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society and asked for someone to write a weekly column. No one responded. I was contacted by the club’s webmaster, Adam Jones, a former student of mine, who suggested that I might use the column to provide publicity for the Allentown School District Planetarium which I directed and which District officials were trying to close. This was the spark that ignited the column. I had already fought off four attempts to end the program, but the public had always rallied to my support. One of the compromises which kept the ASD Planetarium operational was my raising of the yearly capital to cover expenses, about $10,000 per annum. It was difficult convincing the MC that they should bond with the Planetarium; but when I submitted 30 weeks worth of articles, they relaxed and the column began appearing daily in their Weather Section. Several years later, StarWatch was picked up by, Inc. and began appearing in several dozen weekly newspapers scattered across the country. The liaison with the Morning Call was the most important factor which kept the ASD Planetarium running up through my retirement in 2010. When the MC ended its involvement in 2007, my contributions dropped by nearly 50 percent. The inside story from the MC’s side was that I was being paid too much, but I had never received a dime of compensation, not even from The Accessweather folks who still continue to use the column. The real fun has been sending it into the Moravian College community where I am currently teaching astronomy, a local connection once again. How many more StarWatch articles does the future hold? One thousand was my goal back in ‘96, but I have no present reason to quit. My sincere thanks to everyone reading StarWatch!

1001    OCTOBER 25, 2015:   No Deal Breakers for The Martian
As of October 18, 2015, The Martian has grossed worldwide, $319.2 million, against a budget of $108 million (Box Office Mojo). Not bad, Andy Weir, for your first published novel which was quickly translated into a feature film. It highlighted the survival of astronaut, Mark Watney, who was left behind for dead in an emergency evacuation of the Ares III base when the fury of a Martian dust storm threatened to topple the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), their only escape to the Hermes in Mars’ orbit and their way back to Earth. After previewing the film on October 2, my Moravian astronomy students saw it the following week. Of course, there was a catch, a writing assignment, charging them with finding errors in the film. Our ensuing discussion showed some very astute observations. I started by revealing that any hurricane-type storm on Mars would feel like a light breeze and be incapable of blowing over the MAV. Mars’ air pressure is only 1.5 percent of Earth’s surface pressure. They countered with the snowflake-sized dust and its black appearance. Martian wind only blows very fine-grained (red) sand creating a pink sky, not the magenta seen in the movie. And then there was the first long traverse that Watney made to locate the site of Pathfinder (1997), buried in sand and still attached to its parachute. Watney needed Pathfinder to reestablish communications with NASA after the storm. Pathfinder is still visible from orbit, but defunct in Ares Vallis, among one of the rockiest parts of Mars, its parachute jettisoned just before touchdown. Why were there no familiar constellations visible in the Martian sky at night, and could you really grow a potato crop indoors with artificial light? “STOP!” cried sophomore, Rebecca Fulton, with an anguished look on her face. “I thought you loved this movie?” A fast-paced hour had just flown by. “None of these were deal breakers,” I explained. Nice going Moravian Astrohounds.

[October Star Map]

[October Moon Phase Calendar]