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

[August 28 Total Lunar Eclipse]

576    SEPTEMBER 2, 2007:   Red Dawn in the West
Probably most of you did not go outside and view the total lunar eclipse of August 28. After all, it took place on a Tuesday, a working day for most of us, and it started at the ungodly hour of 4:51 a.m. I also had my first day of school on Tuesday and knew that if the weather cooperated, I would have to put up a good front smiling and making cheery comments such as, “It was wonderful,” and “You should have been there.” Actually, I still do get excited about eclipses, meteor showers, planetary conjunctions, and dark, cloud-free starry nights. I set my alarm for 4 a.m., but by two, I was already awake. My mind was on “tape recorder mode,” reviewing the numerous items that I had carefully stowed in the car hours earlier and creating new mental notes about last minute “stuff” to bring along like an extra tripod, so that if things went really well, I could record the event with a second lens. “Things” never go that well. I like lots of people around when I observe, but sometimes I also need a little space. So I chose a cemetery for my viewing location. It was quiet. I could hear deer walking through the brush nearby. At least I told myself they were deer. Clouds moved in and obscured the moon just as the eclipse started. Gradually, bits and pieces of Luna were revealed in increasingly larger gaps as the clouds dissipated. A hazy yellowed moon, with a humongous black cookie bite, hung low over the dew-drenched landscape 25 minutes before totality. Then there were more clouds. Within minutes of totality, however, a bright coppery moon emerged against a brightening dawn sky. It was that magical moment that would make the next 18 hours of my life bearable against the desire to sleep. Photos are at “this week’s StarWatch” at the URL below. February 20 is the next total lunar eclipse. Plan on seeing it with me, but not from a cemetery.

[August 28 Total Lunar Eclipse]
These three images of the total lunar eclipse of August 28, 2007 were taken from Coopersburg, PA between 5:45 a.m. and 5:54 a.m. using a Canon D20 digital camera and a 200mm zoom lens. Exposures were one second at F/5.6, ASA 800. The increase in the background lighting was the result of a brightening dawn sky. In the last image the eclipse had reached totality, and moon was completely within the Earth's shadow. This was a very bright eclipse. All photos by Gary A. Becker...

[August 28 Total Lunar Eclipse]

[August 28 Total Lunar Eclipse]

577    SEPTEMBER 9, 2007:   Aurigids Bust
It was 4:30 a.m. I could hear the car coming down the block as I adjusted my camera settings. As the vehicle passed, I looked. Darn, my red headlamp was on. It was the Coopersburg police. The rolling sounds of the tires on the macadam faded as the vehicle continued down the block. I sighed. Then I heard what sounded like a U-turn, and the car speeded up. It came to a stop in front of my house. I was frozen like a deer in mega-watt headlights. “May I ask what you’re doing?” the officer queried in an official sounding voice. The scene looked like this. I was lying out in my sleeping bag, just behind a seven foot pine using it for protection against the only obnoxious streetlamp on my block. A camera and tripod were to my right, as well as various other gear scattered here and there. “Well, you see, kind officer; I was hiking through your pretty town and thought I’d lay my weary head down besides this tiny Engelmann Blue Spruce.” Actually, I was observing the Alpha Aurigid meteor storm which was predicted for the West Coast on this September 1 morning, and banking on the fact that it would be several hours early and that meteors would be flying everywhere on the East Coast. “Have you seen any?” was the official response from the now friendlier voice coming from the patrol car. “No,” was my curt retort at that time. After three hours of observing under my belt, I did manage to eek one faint Aurigid meteor. The West Coast saw more activity, but visual hourly totals were more like several dozen shooting stars per hour, although some Aurigids, as predicted, were very bright. The outburst lasted about one hour. Part of the problem was a nearly full moon that flooded the sky with light. Meteor counts made with radio telescopes produced rates comparable to the August Perseids, about 60 events per hour.

578    SEPTEMBER 16, 2007:   Two Eyes
“Have you seen ‘two eyes?’” was the query of Mark Balanda in a recent telephone conversation. Mark is a friend who lives near Hershey, PA and often makes the drive into the Lehigh Valley to participate in StarWatch activities sponsored by the ASD Planetarium. We have sometimes talked on our cell phones while trying to make the same observations. “Do you see it, Mark?” “No!” “Do YOU see it, Gary?” “No!” Isn’t technology a hoot! What Mark was referring to, “two eyes,” was a Mars encounter with Taurus the Bull in the predawn sky of August 20. For about a week or so Taurus seemed to have two bright eyes: one Aldebaran, and the other, Mars. I caught the event digitally a little late during the August 28 lunar eclipse and have posted it online at the URL below. Click on “this week’s StarWatch” button. The dance of the planets has continued, and Mars has trekked away from Taurus’s eye to stand very close to the location where the great supernova of 1054 AD occurred. I’m a huge fan of this spectacular event because I have photographed a representation of this happening on an overhang near Peñasco Blanco on my many travels through Chaco Culture National Historical Park near Nageezi, New Mexico. On the morning of July 5, AD 1054, Ancestral Puebloan priests, awakening to recite their morning blessings to the sun, were greeted by a new star which was over 30 times brighter than Venus. The exploding star was glimpsed during the day for a week. The remnants of this event, called the Crab Nebula, can be seen through telescopes looking like a tattered explosion. View reddish Mars above Orion the Hunter (three bright belt stars) in the south about 5:45 a.m. If your east is free from obstructions, you will also be able to locate bright Venus too.

[Two Eyes:  Mars and Aldebaran]
Two eyes: Mars (left) and the star, Aldebaran, of Taurus the bull, can be seen above Orion the Hunter (three vertical belt stars) rising in the brightening morning sky on August 28. Unfolding nearly opposite to this scene was a lunar eclipse in the WSW. Moonlight peaking in an out of cumulus clouds illuminated the tombstones in the cemetery located just outside of Coopersburg, PA. This two minute image was recorded by Gary A. Becker using a Canon D20 digital camera, ASA 800. The zoom lens settings were 10mm at F/4.0.

579    SEPTEMBER 23, 2007:   In Search of the Dark
I have been in search of dark skies ever since I passed my driver’s test on my 17th birthday in 1967. Friends and I would gather on top of South Mountain, near Emmaus, at the home of Jeffrey Schaffer, where we would view the universe through his 12-inch Newtonian reflector. That was a big mirror for the late ‘60s. As my astronomical interests burgeoned, I began to spend summers in the western US, traveling with my buddy, Allen Seltzer, who was then Education Coordinator for the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City. On one especially transparent night in Utah’s Arches National Park, we each reclined on opposite sides of a picnic table. As the vale of night descended and the heavenly vault revealed its gossamer splendors, our conversation dwindled to silence. I wasn’t talking because I simply couldn’t identify the star patterns. I was embarrassed. There were just so many unfamiliar luminaries peppering the constellations into invisibility. Finally, Allen broke the silence with a sigh. “I can’t see the constellations,” he said. “There are just too many stars.” I could have used that to my advantage, but I just laughed and said, “Me too…” We worked our way through that pleasant problem to make the dark sky as familiar as our light polluted ones back East. My searches for an even darker sky led me to Australia in late winter of 2001 where I finally understood the concept of the billowing star clouds of the Milky Way and its light, bright enough to cast diffuse shadows on the ground. National Park Service volunteering has satisfied my dark sky desires since 1999. But now I think I have discovered a new site, and it’s in our own Pennsylvania’s Potter County at Cherry Springs State Park. I’ll discuss how dark Cherry Springs is next week.

[Observing at Cherry Springs, PA]
Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, PA is host to scores of interested amateurs on a typical clear summer weekend. Here a 30-inch Newtonian reflector is being assembled for an evening of clear sky viewing. Digital image by Gary A. Becker...

580    SEPTEMBER 30, 2007:   Blinded by the Night!
It was the only cloudy night of the three weeks that I spent at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. My observing mates had retired, and our cottage was dark. I ventured outside to experience the night, my flashlight beam providing a narrow path of yellowed light down the macadamized driveway. Courageously, I turned off my illumination. There was nothing but blackness and the sound of rustling leaves. Ten minutes later, I still was seeing nothing, even though my eyes had to be adapting to the darkness by now. I was blinded by the night! Feeling like I was still in control, I twirled myself around a half dozen times or so, and then started to walk, thinking I was headed back to my cabin. Suddenly there were whooshing sounds in front of me. Kangaroo beasties were gliding through the Jurassic Park-like jungle. They could see me, but I was still hopelessly blind. I beat a hasty retreat, flashlight fully engaged. Why was it so dark, I later mused in my brightly lit bedroom? There were numerous reasons which, I think, also apply to Pennsylvania’s official dark sky locale at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County. Clean air certainly is one factor. Both sites are also elevated, but not high enough to be appreciably affected by the atmosphere’s natural sky glow. Atmospheric fluorescence is apparent at Utah’s Bryce Canyon, a national dark sky site, 8,000 feet above sea level, where I spent the summers of 2005-6. I also believe that the verdant jungle/forest plays a significant, but overlooked role. It provides a natural canopy for any illumination on the ground that might stray skyward. Although Potter County is not nearly as dark as Siding Spring, flashlights are mandatory for safe navigation if you are walking outside on a moonless night.

[Summer Milky Way from Carter Camp, PA]
The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of PENNSYLVANIA? Potter County and specifically Cherry Springs State Park has been legislated as Pennsylvania's dark sky site for astronomy. I believe that it is the forest trees canopying ground illumination, and preventing light from straying skyward, that is the added bonus which helps maintain the darkness of this sparsely populated region. In the image below, the fall Milky Way is on the rise. Included in this photo are our two sister galaxies in the Local Group, the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies. Ten minute Canon D20A images by Gary A. Becker on August 11/12, 2007, Carter Camp, PA...
[Fall Milky Way from Carter Camp, PA]

[September Star Map]

[September Moon Phase Calendar]