StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1202    SEPTEMBER 1, 2019:   Godspeed, Learning Dome
I’m pretty sure that I squeezed a lemon or maybe the light was just plain red when I got through the intersection on my way home from the dedication of the Allentown School District’s new Learning Dome this past August 23. I WAS SIMPLY OVERWHELMED. When I retired after 38 years under the stars of the Allentown School District Planetarium and jumped over to Moravian College, my star theater was closed and my astronomy program was terminated. A lot of people thought that I was angry at the district, but I wasn’t. Moravian gave me plenty of opportunities to hone my teaching skills and expand my program in the subject that I loved so dearly. My course went from being taught once a year to four times each year. Through public donations that I raised the college bought into the construction of a robotic observatory near Hanksville, Utah, and the Sky Deck started by my predecessor, Dr. Joseph Gerencher, continues to be refurbished and improved. My Moravian astronomy program is evolving and that is exactly what happened with the Allentown School District Planetarium which has now grown into the Learning Dome, a state-of-the-art facility which can spectacularly address any STEM-related subject. As an example in the inaugural presentations, we observed our planet and pinpointed earthquake epicenters that had occurred just hours before, examined ocean temperatures to get a better understanding of why the hurricane season maxes in September, looked at the drainage patterns of the Lehigh Valley, dissected the body of a man layer by layer, and then flew through his skeletal system in an updated version of Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. But in astronomy, WOW! I said to Lee Butz who had organized the campaign which raised nearly a half million dollars to create the Learning Dome and to sustain its future operations that, “I want one of these.” I had been in earlier digital planetariums and their representation of the sky was underwhelming; in fact, in one case just plain disappointing, but the Allentown School District has done it correctly. The projection unit produces a realistic image of the day and the nighttime sky. The room becomes dark, and the stars shine as pinpoints of light at their correct magnitudes, looking much better than my old Spitz A3P projector which the district preserved as a display in the room. With a computer-generated system, every aspect of astronomy can be shown with a precision that is only limited by the resolution of the system. Oh, I forgot to mention that it’s 4K, the best that it gets. Then there was the continued maintenance of a mechanical projector that needed constant adjustments, lightbulb changes, and a lot of TLC to keep it going. There was always something that needed fixing, and I spent hours each week performing the maintenance requirements that could have been channeled into better lessons or an expanded program. This is not self-deprecation. This is simply the way it was, running a much older planetarium compared to the digital Learning Dome into which the Allentown School District facility has evolved. If a liberal arts college like Moravian, all hyped up on technology steroids, really wanted to do something spectacular, the biggest bang for their buck would be the consideration of a facility like the Learning Dome. In the meantime, I’m hoping to partner with the ASD, if they will have me, and the enthusiastic Learning Dome educators who now teach in my old classroom at Husky High. “You did good, ASD,” and I was honored to be asked to join the celebration. Godspeed, Learning Dome!

[Learning Dome Inauguration]
“I think I’m under the spotlight,” on the inaugural evening of the Learning Dome which replaced the original Allentown School District Planetarium. I'm to the right of the console in the second image. It was wonderful to see the planetarium revitalized again. Photography by Jane Therese, Special to the Morning Call
[Learning Dome Inauguration]
From the Allentown School District's Facebook page... The photographer is unknown.

[Learning Dome Inauguration]
I have to admit that seeing the old Spitz A3P Planetarium Project as a display in the new Learning Dome brought back a little nostalgia. I worked and babied that mechanical instrument for 38 years, the first six under the leadership of Robert R. Brown. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

1203    SEPTEMBER 8, 2019:   Saturn in the South
There is an old cartoon of a person looking through a refracting telescope and someone dangling Saturn on a string in front of the objective. Regardless of the caption, it highlights the improbability held by most people that Saturn’s rings can be easily viewed through a small scope from its half billion-mile distance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even when I view Saturn through my finder telescope attached to my larger instrument, the planet looks a bit odd. No, I cannot resolve the rings, but I sense that there is something weird like Galileo did when he viewed the god of the harvest over 400 years ago. It is not quite round. His crude telescopes, the best in the world for that time, allowed him to draw a central orb with two smaller circles attending it. In another sketch, Galileo showed a central circle connected to a football-shaped extension around it. Why did he not make the leap of faith? Knowing that Saturn has rings like everyone recognizes today makes all the difference. Rings around a planet was truly an outlandish concept for an early 17th century observation of Saturn. With improvements in the telescope and better eyepieces, the rings were finally discerned as a disk surrounding Saturn in 1655 by the Dutch astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, Christiaan Huygens. If Galileo or Huygens could have owned a cheap Walmart or K-mart telescope, they would have been able to see more detail through these scopes than the ones that they possessed. Therefore, anyone with a telescope or spotting scope and the inclination to see Saturn’s rings can view them easily through early fall. If you are outside by 9 p.m. this week, that bright “star” low in the south will be Saturn. A much brighter star to the right of Saturn in the southwest will be Jupiter, also a worthwhile target; and don’t forget the waxing gibbous moon which will be visible just to the left of Saturn on Sunday, September 8, and farther to the left on succeeding nights. Ironically on Sunday, the dwarf planet Pluto lies less than a lunar diameter above the moon too. Why look for the rings of Saturn now? Just like the axis of the Earth which is tilted 23.5 degrees from the perpendicular to its orbital plane, Saturn’s axis is tilted by 27 degrees. Just like Earth, Saturn’s axis points in the same direction. This means that as we observe Saturn from different positions as it orbits the sun every 29.5 years, we can see the planet from below its ring plane or from above the rings. Twice during this period, we see Saturn in its ring plane causing the rings to disappear, indicating that they are very thin. The present estimate of ring thickness is about 3200 feet (one kilometer), but they are over 175,000 miles (280,000 km) in diameter. “If you had a model of Saturn that was a meter stick wide (39.4 inches), its rings would be about 10,000 times thinner than a razor blade (Cool Cosmos, Caltech)!” However, that is not the current state of affairs with Saturn. We are observing the planet from below the ring plane at just about its optimum position to see them easily. Viewing will still be good through 2022, but after that we will be observing Saturn more and more in its ring plane. By 2025 the rings will disappear for a while. Take advantage of viewing Saturn now, while its rings are wide open and late summer warmth still allows for comfortable evenings and observing conditions.

[Changing View of Saturn's Rings]
As Saturn revolves around the sun its axial inclination of 26.7 degrees plus its orbital inclination to the plane of the ecliptic of 2.5 degrees allows us to look above and below the ring plane. At other times we look at Saturn in the ring plane and see the rings begin to thin and eventually disappear. Wikipedia image...

1204    SEPTEMBER 15, 2019:   Down—Up—Sangre
As the autumn season beckons, we are experiencing the greatest yearly contraction of sunlight, about three minutes per day. The autumnal equinox will begin early on September 23 at 3:00 a.m. Not only will the leaves be dropping from deciduous trees during the next month, but the sun is literally in a free-fall, moving southward at its greatest rate. As it does so, the autumnal equinox marks the sun crossing from the northern into the southern hemisphere, “leafing” us behind and favoring our southern neighbors for the next six months. Ironically, all of this is a result of the Earth’s axial tilt, the northern hemisphere now beginning to lean back, receiving the sun’s energy less directly, even though the Earth’s orbital path is bringing it ever closer to Sol. As the noontime sun drops southward, its rising and setting positions along the horizon will also shift to the south. No longer will Sol break the horizon north of east and set north of west as it did from spring through summer, but it now rises to the south of east and sets to the south of west. Its path from rising to setting is shorter, causing the sun to be above the horizon for a briefer amount of time. Indirect energy and a much shorter time span of daylight leads to the cooler temperatures of fall and the upcoming winter weather that we experience. There is hope, however. After Sol bottoms on December 21 at 11:21 p.m., EST, it is up—up and away, slowly at first, maxing its northward movement at the time of the vernal equinox on March 19, 2020 at 11:54 p.m., EDT, then continuing to its highest point in the sky, and the longest day of the year at the summer solstice which occurs at 5:45 p.m. on June 20. I could make a suggestion where you might be at that time. Try the town of Westcliffe, Colorado at the Sangre Star Festival, June 19-21. In a way, Westcliffe reminds me of a smaller New Hope, PA, but with a distinctive western flavor. One of my favorite stores is the Sangre de Cristo Gallery and Rockshop (114 Main St.) where I have never failed to find something interesting to purchase. A little to the east is the Loan A Ranger pawn shop (206 Main) that will blow your mind with its used and abandoned “stuff.” Your two Moravian astronomers, Pete Detterline and I, will be presenting four afternoon popular talks Planets—Wanderers of the Night; The Moon—Not a Place to Raise your Kids; Constellations—A Beer Might Help You See Them Better; and Deep Sky for a Dark Sangre Night, along with many other presenters and keynote speakers who will focus on the night sky, NASA, imaging, and light pollution. The evening epicenter of the Sangre Star Festival, “Galaxy Central,” will be held at A Painted View Ranch, just three miles west of downtown Westcliffe, nestled in one of Colorado’s most beautiful and unspoiled valleys. Boasting 160 acres, A Painted View Ranch has ample space for RV and trailer camping as well as opportunities to view and photograph the evening sky. How did Pete and I get “hogtied” into this event? Every year, when we visit the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, UT where Moravian has its robotic telescope, we stay in Westcliffe with a mutual friend, Joe Smith, who lives about 20 minutes from town. It seemed a natural to be part of the inaugural event. Stay up-to-date with festival details, tickets, and more by visiting

[Sangre Star Festival Backdrop]
No wonder John Denver loved Colorado. It is under these types of scenes that the 2020 Sangre Star Festival will be held near near Westcliffe. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

1205    SEPTEMBER 22, 2019:   Shooting Star—The Real Deal
Last week was one of the best stretches of stargazing that I can remember in recent history. Day after day of crystal clear, saturated blue skies with nights that were at maximum transparency. During this time period my Moravian students participated in their dark sky field experience, savoring the starry night at Shooting Star Farm, north of Quakertown, PA. My telescope and the wonderful instrumentation of five friends, Terry Pundiak, Bill Dahlenburg, Marcella and Matt Gustantino, and Tom Duff, transformed the heavens from classroom discussions, PowerPoint slides, and even observations from light-polluted Bethlehem to the real deal, creating a practical reality that no computer simulation can match. As much as I enjoy the technological aspects of teaching astronomy, the excited voice of a college student exclaiming “Wow!” at her first telescopic look at ringed Saturn steals the show. Another student exclaimed, “Now we have to go back to looking at objects from the Sky Deck at Moravian!” I quickly gave him the choice of accepting the light pollution or listening to me present the same material. He chose the Sky Deck hands down; and why not? He and his team would be operating a telescope and making their own observations. There was yet another student who queried why should he be looking through the eyepiece of a telescope when Tom Duff was using his mobile phone to show his incredible astrophotography of the same object, a hundred times brighter than my live image? “Why get dressed, battle traffic, parking, and pay $100 to stand for five hours at a live concert of your favorite band?” I replied. The answer is simple. It is the real deal, and it’s electrifying. You remember the good aspects of that experience for the rest of your life. The traffic, parking, concert fees, and standing fade into the mist. More importantly, you tell others about it, and they get to relive the experience vicariously, envious of your proprietary knowledge. I explained that the photons of light that were being observed had been traveling for thousands of years, and you just happened to catch the image live through the eyepiece of the scope—the real deal. To paraphrase Tom, the photons that had been captured to make his image were essentially dead, even though his photo was brighter and more vibrant. Students were viewing a secondhand image on Tom Duff’s mobile phone. The highlight of the evening occurred when another student overhearing that conversation just couldn’t grasp the fact that the light he was seeing coming from the Ring Nebula, the death of a low mass star, had been traveling towards his eye for 23 centuries. He wasn’t viewing the object today, but rather as it appeared before the birth of Christ, 2,300 years ago. The object was 2,300 light years distant. I had already discussed the universe as being a window into the past, but it wasn’t concrete enough to sink into long term memory, but now it made sense. No computer simulation, no PowerPoint presentation, no classroom discussion, no online course, no astronomy app can match the real deal. Kudos are extended to our gracious hosts, Bill Jacobs and Johnny Killwey, owners of Shooting Star Farm, for cordially allowing my Moravian astronomy students and friends the opportunity to use their beautiful farm to soak in the night. They have been providing their dark sky site to Moravian College for almost a decade. Thank you! Ad Astra!

[Moravian at Shooting Star]
Dr. Terry Pundiak, a retired physician from Easton, PA, explains to Moravian College astronomy students the finer points of observing through a Dobsonian mounted reflecting telescope at a dark sky star watch at Shooting Star Farm on September 18. Photography by Gary A. Becker...

1206    SEPTEMBER 29, 2019:   Ad Astra: Atypical of Space Adventures
If you are expecting the flash and bang of a Star Wars movie or conquering the difficulties of a new world as witnessed in The Martian, then Ad Astra isn’t for you. Not to say it doesn’t provide for some tense moments and action sequences, but they are few and far between. Mostly it gives the audience a more realistic view of the perils of space travel that includes other dangers besides aliens and predators. It is about Major Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt’s) epiphany to understand the key ingredient that makes humanity human. Set in the near future, the Earth is in peril, being blasted by an unknown source of gamma ray bursts called “the Surge” which is destroying the solar system’s commutations infrastructure. Military assets have determined that the signals are coming from Neptune, possibly from the considered destroyed Lima Project sent to the outermost planet to search for extraterrestrial life. The entire crew thought to be dead was commanded by Clifford McBride, Roy’s father, (Tommy Lee Jones), who in his zeal to be successful at any cost abandoned his family 32 years earlier for the mission. After decades of unsuccessful results, McBride’s rebellious crew wants to go home, but they are killed by a captain gone mad who will stop at nothing to be victorious. Roy McBride, equally driven and unable to connect with humanity because of his father’s abandonment, is first sent to contact Clifford from Mars where the last functioning communications station exists, then steals passage on the ship deployed to destroy the project. Everything goes horribly wrong right from the blastoff. The three-man crew is killed by Roy McBride, and he finds himself alone voyaging to Neptune to confront his father and to end the Lima Project. Throughout the movie Roy is wrestling with his own inner monsters—the loneliness of space, abandonment, the inability to connect with anyone in a meaningful fashion, and the intense physical isolation from everyone on Earth. On the outside Roy McBride is the most successful astronaut in the space program. He appears serene, normal and functioning, but on the inside, astronaut McBride gives the viewer a glimpse into the dark “landscape of his mind” through voiceover monologues which get horribly realistic. The feature film asks us deep questions about our choices, our careers, our concepts of success, and our innermost fears. In the end Roy McBride meets his father, then leaves him go physically and spiritually before destroying the project and returning back to Earth. Human beings are complicated and fragile. They aren’t composed of just a corporeal essence. There is a rich spiritual dimension, that if ignored, no amount of productivity can compensate or balance for it. On the long voyage home Roy McBride begins to understand how his life must be shaped if he is not meant to embrace the fate of his father. There is hope, but it is muted against the vast and lonely landscape of space. Ad Astra challenges us to be more thoughtful in a world where shades of grey cloud the easy black and white decisions that most of us seek.

[Moravian at Shooting Star]
Space is too lonely in Ad Astra. a feature film that I would not want to see again. Released on September 20, its 100-million-dollar budget had brought in about 111 million by October 6 in worldwide ticket sales.

[September Star Map]

[September Moon Phase Calendar]