StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]
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681    SEPTEMBER 6, 2009:   Under Schoodic Skies
It is summertime in Maine, and with the beginning of September, comes the best time to visit the Pine Tree State. Actually, when visions of Maine flood my mind, I think of cobblestone beaches and the endless spray of salty surf against pink granite. Lazy, restorative days, where the cool sea breeze and a hot sun can easily lull you to sleep on a hard flat rock… At night, with the sounds of waves crashing on a nearby beach, I imagine an inky sky sprayed by the lights of a thousand glistening stars peppered against the heavenly vault. This may seem like a fantasy, but it actually exists on Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula, part of Acadia National Park. Millions of tourists filter annually through Bar Harbor and Acadia N.P. which surrounds it. But just an hour’s drive north or six miles by ferry, you will find the same protected rocky shore, but with only a handful of people. Time seems to stand still in Winter Harbor, Prospect Harbor, and Birch Harbor. I know because I have been visiting these places for over 30 years. Although you can see the stars in their most pristine form from anywhere on the Schoodic Peninsula, my favorite haunt is Acadia’s Oceanside Meadows Inn, a B&B with a singular rustic Victorian elegance and a view of the sea and surf that is unrivaled by any other downeast property. Owned by naturalist, Ben Walter, and educator, Sonja Sundaram, and operated by local sisters, Marla, Ola, and Edith, the Inn epitomizes the best in downeast elegance, including sumptuous three course vegetarian breakfasts and rooms that sweep in the cool sea air and the sounds of the rhythmic surf. Included on the property is a meadow where the stars shine just as brightly as they do in Texas or the Southwest. As the school term dawns this week, my mind remains on the Schoodic coast. More at

[Acadia's Oceanside Meadows Inn]
Acadia's Oceanside Meadows Inn at the head of Sand Cove near the small town of Prospect Harbor, Maine presents a serene relaxing setting by day and dark skies by night. To the left is the Farmhouse and to the right is the Captain’s House. Both accommodations offer beautiful views of Sand Cove, also part of Oceanside Meadows, and refreshing sea breezes which keep rooms comfortable without the need for air conditioning. Gary A. Becker photo...

[Captain's House-Acadia's Oceanside Meadows Inn]
Originally build by Captain George Allen, c. 1860, the Captain’s House boasts the kitchen and breakfast dining area, as well as a huge Victorian parlor complete with blazing fireplace. Cell phone coverage has not yet reached Oceanside Meadows, but the property does have WiFi capabilities. To the right of the large tree in back of the house is the meadow which I use for stargazing. My wife, Susan, can be seen peering from the left third floor screened window. Gary A. Becker photo...

682    SEPTEMBER 13, 2009:   Fomalhaut: Not so Lonely Anymore
It’s not so isolated anymore, at least for the next year or two. Fomalhaut, the alpha star of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, stands like a lonely sentinel guarding almost absolutely nothing in the southern sky. Its loneliness arises because of Fomalhaut’s lowness to the horizon from mid-latitude regions in the northern hemisphere, and the opacity created by a hazy atmosphere and light polluted skies which hide all of the much fainter stars which surround it. If you lived in rural Australia, Fomalhaut would be a white beacon of glimmering, shimmering brightness almost near the zenith, with a myriad of much fainter stars in its midst. It is the 18th brightest luminary of the nighttime heavens. Now there is an easy way of finding this lost soul of the autumn heavens. Look for blazing Jupiter in the east, southeast to south between 10 p.m. and midnight, and if the night is clear and your southern horizon is unobstructed by trees, buildings, or city lights, Fomalhaut should be visible as a much fainter star below and to the left of Jupiter. When you look at Fomalhaut, consider that it is one of the closer stars to our sun, only 25 light years distant, and that it is shining at a temperature of 15,500 degrees F., about 5,000 degrees warmer than our own sun. Even more intriguing is the fact that Fomalhaut is surrounded by a cloud of icy dust being warmed by this star—dust that could one day form into additional planets circling the star. Fomalhaut already has at least one Jupiter-sized planet, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting in its dusty disk. Closer to the star is an area devoid of debris, where some astronomers think an additional planet awaits discovery. Although Fomalhaut is a different type of star than our sun, it shows that planetary formation is probably a common attribute of single stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.

[Fomalhaut and Jupiter]
Fomalhaut, just above the dome of light from Kutztown, PA, 13 miles away, has bright Jupiter (upper right) to keep it company for the next several years. This 55 second picture was taken on September 19 at 9:22 p.m. with an equatorial driven Canon 40D camera at ASA 250, and a 24mm Nikkor lens set at F/4. Gary A. Becker photo...

[Venus Flytrap Cartoon]

683    SEPTEMBER 20, 2009:   How Do We Know the Age of the Universe?
From the corner of my right eye I caught Allen High School senior Joey Ledee’s hand in the air, and I recognized him. “How old is the universe?” he respectfully asked. I responded, 13.7 billion years, give or take a 100 million. There was a pause, but the hand still remained high. “Yeah, Joey,” I continued. Then that scariest of questions came from his lips… “How do we know?” Actually that question is not difficult to answer in principle, but the 13.7 billion-year conclusion has consumed the professional lives of countless thousands and will probably change slightly in the future. We have known from the early 20th century that the universe has been expanding, and that the farther back in time we looked, the faster it seemed to be moving away from us. Stars that fluctuate in their light output, stars that explode, and even common stars all produce energy at a standard rate that can be used to predict distances. As an example, when a supernova occurs in a distant galaxy, its observed brightness can be correlated with what its brightness would be at a standard distance from our sun to quantify the distance to that galaxy. Since NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s, Hipparcos Space Astrometry Mission, there has been a flood of better data to calculate the distances to many objects in the universe. It was assumed that the rate of expansion would be faster the farther back in time we looked. In other words, the growth of the universe would be slowing. Just the opposite was discovered. Clusters of galaxies nearer to us are expanding from each other at faster rates than clusters of galaxies that are more distant from us. Taking into account the most distant objects that we see, and how the rate of expansion has been increasing over time, has allowed astronomers to conclude that we live in a 13.7 billion-year-old universe.

[ISS and Big Dipper]
The International Space Station says hi to the Big Dipper on a low altitude pass near Kempton, PA on the evening of September 19, 2009. An equatorially mounted Canon 40D camera along with a 24mm Nikkor lens (EFL 38mm) was used for this two minute exposure, ASA 250, F/4. A second exposure with the drive turned off allowed a sharp horizon to be imaged and then superimposed into the photo of the ISS flyby. Gary A. Becker photography...

[Billy's Big Hit]

684    SEPTEMBER 27, 2009:   Nay to Millbillillie—Yea to Allende
About 10 years ago my wife and I pulled into Cortez, Colorado on a daytrip from Chaco Canyon (NM) where I was volunteering as an astronomy interpreter. As we passed the local high school, we were confronted by large signs indicating that there was a rock show inside. No shrill band with screeching vocalists greeted us, however. It was a genuine rock show with gem and mineral collectors having traveled hundreds of miles to sell their wares at this annual event. I remember surveying the gymnasium, hand over my brow to shield my eyes from the bright glare of the overhead mercury vapor lamps, looking for the grungiest table of the entire show. When I found it, nearly directly ahead and about 100 feet away, I knew that I would be in hog (meteorite) heaven. A meteorite is space debris from the asteroid belt that makes its way to the Earth’s surface via the curious fate of intersection. Behind the table of small, grayish-brown specimens was an excited Blaine Reed who was touting samples of the Millbillillie meteorite which fell in October of 1960 in Western Australia. He had developed a unique technique for restoring the luster of its fusion crust, the ultra-thin layer of melted rock that forms due to friction with the atmosphere as the meteorite plummets to the Earth’s surface. But it wasn’t the Millbillillie stones that intrigued me. There were grungier samples that I recognized as the Allende meteorite which fell on the sleeping town of Allende, Mexico at 1:05 a.m. on February 8, 1969. These stony meteorites, and there were thousands of them, have been dated as the oldest space debris yet discovered, 4.567 billion years of age, even older than the Earth, and 700 million years older than the oldest Earth rocks which are found in western Greenland. Needless to say on that hot summer’s day, my MasterCard received one of its best workouts ever.

[September Star Map]

[september Moon Phase Calendar]