StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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[Moon Phases]


388    FEBRUARY 1, 2004:   Brave New World
My students and I have been vicariously flying over the landscape of Mars during the past several weeks, reveling over images returned to Earth from the Red Planet by the Mars Global Surveyor, Spirit, and now Opportunity. Humans are walking on Mars through the robotic eyes of two very clever rovers, the inspirational genius of some incredibly inventive and exceptionally talented people. These are the kinds of achievements that make me proud to be an American, and as an educator, make me want to brave the cold and the snow to exclaim from my classroom doorway the exciting news of our latest discoveries. The images being returned are absolutely astounding. They tout and shout of a Mars that is in a continual pattern of change, a Mars that has abundant supplies of water, hidden as permafrost beneath its surface and with its effects visible in river channels and huge outflow surges that dwarf the greatest floods of our world. Mars enthusiasts saw direct evidence for water this past summer by peering through telescopes at Mars's frosty polar cap. Mars has dust storms that can hide the entire planet in an orangey haze, windblown dust that scours and polishes surface rocks, buries huge meteorite craters and leaves conspicuous long trails in the lee of obstacles that it encounters. There are even dust devils on the planet. We see their dervish tracks across the terrain and have even caught them in action from space. The fine dust perpetually suspended in the atmosphere gives Mars its pinkish sky and the feeling of an alien world, yet not so strange as to scare one away. Mars, in contrast to our bleak and barren moon, beckons us to explore, change, and sculpt this planet into a brave new world. In the future some of us will choose to become Martians.

[Polar Dust Storms on Mars]
Martian Dust Storms result from the differences in temperature between colder air coming off the polar cap mixing with the air over much warmer ground. Our mid-latitude weather patterns are the result of similar effects as Earth's atmosphere equalizes its temperature inequalities. Mars Global Surveyor image...

389    FEBRUARY 8, 2004:   Spinoffs from Space Exploration
Walking through the corridors of Allentown's public schools gives me the opportunity of seeing the entire spectrum of humanity-kids who will one day give back to society and those that will be the definite takers. In Allentown, as it is in most urban locales, it can be a struggle even for some of the better students. So how can I justify being excited about spending billions to send humans to Mars and to our moon when there are so many local and worldwide problems that need our attention? I believe the answer deals with balancing our own personal responsibilities to society with society's collective needs. I affect those individuals that I can with the hope that collectively we will be able to improve the world in which we live. Bettering the human condition is precisely what space exploration does. It stretches the imagination to solve problems that almost always have practical spinoffs. We have improved crop yields by monitoring diseases from space, and we use satellites to observe global changes in climate and the spread of pollutants. If you are against space exploration, then you should be shunning anything that deals with miniaturization, such as computers or cell phones. Forget about MRI machines and CAT scanners as well. Here are some more NASA spinoffs: improvements in breast cancer screening and non-surgical breast biopsies, cordless power tools and appliances, cardiac pacemakers, fetal heart monitors, firefighting equipment, heart pumps, kidney dialysis machines, insulation, insulin pumps, and water purification technology. Truly, if you're going to talk the talk about not backing basic R & D which our space program fosters, then you need to walk the walk right back into the mid-twentieth century.

390    FEBRUARY 15, 2004:   High Time for Orion
Have you noticed the lengthening days? Sunset is occurring this week over an hour past the 4:34 p.m. sundown of December 8, 2003, which was the earliest of the season. That must mean it is mid-February the best time for viewing the winter constellations during the early evening hours. By 7 p.m. when it is fully dark, the winter group of Orion the Hunter and Taurus the Bull is reaching maximum altitude in the south. It is Orion's three belt stars of equal brightness and equal separation that make the Hunter so discernable. Above and to the left of the belt is red, old Betelgeuse, nearly ready to supernova, and to its right, bluish Bellatrix. They create Orion's shoulders. Above the shoulders is a small triad of stars that forms the head, easily visible through binoculars. Orion, although handsome in physique, was not the "sharpest tool in the shed," according to some mythologies. Below the belt Rigel shimmers with a diamond-blue brightness unmatched by any other luminary. To Rigel's left is Saiph, the tip of Orion's scimitar or sword. Not to be forgotten is the shank of Orion's sword, which appears as three faint stars beneath the belt. In reality, the middle star is really the Orion Nebula, a birthing place for new stars. It looks like a small patch of misty sky through binoculars. Orion holds a shield as he faces towards the west in February. Some of its stars will be faintly visible as a vertical line to Bellatrix's right. In Orion's other hand is a club invisible from even suburban areas, but from rural locations, it completes one of the finest star patterns that the heavens have to offer. There'll be more about Orion next week, but for now, go outdoors and find the Hunter for yourself. Download the map that can be found with the web edition of this article.

[Orion and Taurus]
Look South at 7 p.m. to see the Winter Group constellations of Orion and Taurus.


391a  FEBRUARY 22-26, 2004:   StarWatch at Dieruff on Thursday
The public is invited to view the heavens from the campus of Dieruff High School, 815 N. Irving St., Allentown, Thursday, February 26, from 7-9 p.m. Telescopes will be set up in the middle and the upper parking lots that parallel N. Irving St. This is in the same area where hundreds of Valley residents viewed Mars in September of 2003. Although the Red Planet has drastically faded, there will be plenty of other celestial wonders that will be accessible. A "must see" object will be the "fat" waxing crescent moon. The moon's terminator, where the sun will be rising, is a beautiful region to espy with a telescope. You'll easily see craggy mountains throwing huge shadows across the gray lunar landscape, and we'll show you where Neil Armstrong walked upon its surface nearly 40 years ago; however, you won't see the flag. Telescopes will also be gaping at brilliant and beautiful Venus high in the west. Its shape will look like a miniature version of the moon. By 8 p.m., bright Jupiter, with Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, its four largest satellites, will be rising in the east. The showstopper of the evening will undoubtedly be Saturn, visible high in the south. The planet will be tipped so that its rings will appear nearly as open as they can possibly be, a magnificent sight. Also on tap will be the Orion Nebula a birthing place for stars, just below the belt of the Hunter. We'll also be viewing the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, a relatively new cluster of stars formed between 50-100 million years ago. Just like in September, there will be specialty telescopes on hand to maximize your views. Inclement weather, clouds, or icy conditions will cancel the event. Please check the URL below or call 484-765-5557 after 5 p.m. for a go, no go message.

391b  FEBRUARY 27-28, 2004:   Star Birth in Orion
At 7:00 p.m. the belt of Orion the Hunter is due south, three equally bright stars equally spaced in a straight line. Below the belt are what appear to be three fainter stars, Orion's sword, but casual inspection with binoculars will reveal small clusters of luminaries as the top and bottom "stars" and a hazy patch of light as the middle star. This central wisp of dimly glowing sky is one of the heaven's best examples of a stellar nursery, a place where stars are being born. Called the Orion Nebula, it will appear greenish in binoculars and telescopes even through most of the light being created is coming from glowing or fluorescing hydrogen gas which produces a deep, reddish hue. Our eyes are very insensitive to red light but extremely sensitive to green light. Oxygen glows in the green, and even through oxygen is not very abundant within the nebulosity, it is this greenish color that our eyes perceive. But what is causing the gases to glow? With a small telescope or spotting scope at 50-power, it will be possible to discern four faint stars at the bright center of the Orion Nebula known as the Trapezium. These new, hot stars are about 300,000 years old, by star standards just out of the womb with their "umbilical cords" still attached. Nearby, the Hubble Space Telescope caught many protostars, blobs of gas and dust trying to collapse into new suns. In one famous HST image these protostars were being ripped apart by the energy given off by the Trapezium. While looking at the Orion Nebula, keep in mind that it is 16 light years across and it has taken its light 1,600 years to travel to your eye. When you are seeing the light coming from this stellar maternity ward, you are viewing the nebulosity as it appeared shortly before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.

[Orion Nebula]
Above: John Sefick of Albuquerque, NM masterfully photographed the Orion Nebula from Siding Spring Observatory in Australia in February of 2001.
Below: A Hubble Space Telescope composite photograph was created near an area where stars are trying to form in the Orion Nebula.

[Star Formation in the Orion Nebula]

392    FEBRUARY 29, 2004:   The "Heavenly G"
The moon grows brighter this week, passing Saturn on March 1, heading towards its full phase on the evening of March 6 when it will be less than three degrees from Jupiter, an impressive sight during the early evening hours when the pair will be low to the horizon. As the moon's luminosity increases from just over 10 percent to 100 percent during the week, the stars will gradually fade until only the brightest are visible. This might be a good time to search for the "heavenly G," an asterism composed of the brightest stars of the winter sky found in a half dozen constellations. Central to discerning the "G" is Orion which is due south and mid-sky by 7 p.m. High above Orion's belt and shoulders, near the top of the sky is Capella, the sixth brightest star of the night. Start there. Stretching a line upward from Orion's two brightest stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, will bring you near to two bright stars that are fairly close together. You have found the heads of the Gemini Twins, Castor (right) and Pollux (left). Start your arc with Capella and proceed to Castor and Pollux. Nearly straight down from the Gemini Twins will be the bright and solitary star, Procyon, the principal star of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. Below Procyon will dazzle Sirius of Canis Major, the Big Dog, the brightest star of the night. Move right to the brightest star of the Hunter, Rigel and upward towards the right to Aldebaran of Taurus the Bull. You can confirm the location of Aldebaran independently by following the three belt stars of Orion upward to just below Aldebaran. Move left to the top left shoulder star of Orion, red Betelgeuse. You have now completed the "heavenly G." You can find a map outlining the stars of the "heavenly G" at the URL given below.

[The Heavenly G]
The "Heavenly G" covers a huge area of the sky which cannot be seen in one field of view of the eye. You will have to move your head to encompass all of its grandeur. The bright waxing gibbous moon is positioned on the map for Wednesday, March 3. It will block all but the brightest stars. The moon is full on March 6. Gary A. Becker map...


February Star Map

February Moon Phase Calendar