StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1329    FEBRUARY 6, 2022:   “Dark” Satellites Challenging Astronomers
Have you ever watched the International Space Station glide silently across the arch of the heavens? It can be a spectacular sight, rivaling the planet Venus in luminescence when its orbital path takes it high overhead. My students get a real kick at watching flybys from Moravian’s Sky Deck on top of the Collier Hall of Science. Some individuals even wave. We also used to watch Iridium communication satellites glint as sunlight reflecting from their three silvered Main Mission Antennas sometimes became so bright that they actually strobed the ground with their vibrant flashes. They were genuinely mind-boggling to my students because their flashes could be timed to the second. The original Iridium constellation (group) had 66 active satellites and numerous spares that could be moved into position in the event of an orbiter failure, but all first-generation glinting Iridiums have now been deorbited and replaced with second-generation satellites that no longer produce reflective flares. • If the 1500 spent boosters, and 6500 satellites are added to the lot, the number of orbiting objects visible through binoculars at any one moment is about a dozen, not really a problem for amateurs and only a minor nuisance for professionals. However, adding an additional 100,000 proposed communications satellites to those numbers and professional Earth-based observations, both optical and radio, face a serious challenge to maintaining high-quality data acquisition. These satellites will eventually provide multiple networks of worldwide Internet coverage. • SpaceX, the leader in this new industry, has already launched 2042 satellites according to a late January report published in The company is authorized to launch an additional 2366 Starlink satellites in that specific constellation series, but the commercial space pioneer is already seeking permission to hurl an additional 30,000 second generation satellites into Low Earth Orbit. Presently, as many as 60 satellites can be propelled into space with just one launch. • Since SpaceX began deployment of its first-generation Starlink satellites, the Zwicky Transient Facility at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California has seen interference from flybys mount from one-half percent (2019) to currently 20 percent of the images recorded at that facility. Thankfully, there has not been any data loss according to a Caltech analysis. • Satellites become visible during the extended periods of dusk and dawn when the sun is near to the horizon, but it is still dark enough on the ground to make observations. At the altitudes that these satellites are “flying,” the sun is already shining, and they become visible. • SpaceX has been sympathetic to reducing the footprint of their Starlink satellites and to date has achieved a four-fold diminution through the shielding of reflective parts. The American Astronomical Society, the governing group of professional astronomers in the US, wants that to be a 6.5-fold dimming over earlier Starlink satellites placed in orbit. Still, with numbers that could approach 1000 or more satellites visible to observatories during the hours after sundown and sunrise, astronomers are not interested in looking at a sky similar to the city-planet of Coruscant, the Imperial Center during the rule of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. Photos are here. Thanks to Dr. Chris Jones for being a catalyst for this article. Ad Astra!

[Satellites over Germany]
Already before the recent increase in Satellite constellations, many satellites were visible in the night sky on any given night. This image is composed of 300 short 13-second exposures taken within 70 minutes from Waldenburg, Germany, on the night of the Perseids meteor shower 12 August 2018 from 00:57–02:07 CEST. The image has a field of view of 84°x62°. Most of the dozen of lines are made by satellites reflecting the sunlight from the Sun below the horizon. Caption from the International Astronomical Union; photo source, Eckhard Slawik...

[Coruscant-City Planet, Star Wars]
Coruscant, the planet that was all city in Star Wars had a really congested sky and not just from orbiting satellites. Lucasfilm, Ltd, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace...

1330    FEBRUARY 13, 2022:   Cosmos: Making Love Out of Nothing at All
YouTube:     Cosmos Trailer:
YouTube:     Featurette: The Making Of Cosmos
YouTube:     Cosmos: Feature Film

About six months ago my department chair, Kelly Krieble, mentioned the movie, Cosmos (2019), in an email. He said the first half was a little slow, but the second half of the film got better. S-l-o-w may not be the correct adjective; “glacially slow” might be better. Okay, that might be too harsh a criticism. I simply have difficulty getting into British drama because of the generally sluggish pace, but indeed the second half was much better as Kelly predicted. The film is about three PhDs that go out into the countryside to work on their “hobby” astronomy project. They are in search of the big discovery, ET, but there is conflict in the chilled British night air. One of the characters, Roy Kennedy (Arjun Singh Panam), after designing a state-of-the-art satellite called Goodman was fired after his tech company was bought by Astraeus Space Technology. Roy was replaced by the computer expert of this ET search, Mike Webster (Tom England). You might have thought that under these circumstances, they would have brought their guns to the O.K. Corral and duked it out, but in typical British fashion, Mike was never told about whom he had replaced. They are both pretty nerdy about the whole situation, and the conflict clumsily simmers throughout the first hour of the 128-minute film. • Interestingly, most of the film takes place in the cramped quarters of a hatchback station wagon where all of the computer equipment is housed. The astrophysicist in the front seat, Harry Night (Joshua Ford), seems to be the go-between, awkwardly trying to bring Roy and Mike to some type of resolution to restore the friendship and the camaraderie of their red-hat team called the Astronomy-Nuts. It was during this “high stakes” portion of the film that I dosed the first time I watched Cosmos (Yes, for this article, I saw it twice). • The second half of the feature moves at a much quicker pace. All visual and auditory sensors were on board as the trio made their great discovery and heroically attempted to bring the news to the known world. This is despite a host of pacing problems which were particularly annoying during the second viewing. • So why am I hyping a film that on the four-star rating system might just be warranted one and one half of them? It is because Cosmos had a budget of zero dollars. That’s right, nada, nix; no money was spent in making this film, according to its codirecting/producing/script-writing/film-editing brothers, Elliot and Zander Weaver. They had a big budget production in mind, but they couldn’t get the funding. They were told by their prospective investors to get cracking, to make a movie to prove themselves, and that is exactly what they did for the next five years with friends and family. Cosmos was the result. That is what made me watch it twice. • Cosmos does have a number of good qualities going for it. It certainly had the feel of a big budget production. The acting was adequate, the sound was good, the music by Chris Davey was sensational, and the nighttime lighting was well thought out. Keep in mind that the entire film takes place in the dark over just one night, but the viewer still needs the ability to see. Also, the computer equipment and other gear used in the production appeared accurate enough to win the day. The astronomy content was also accurate enough. If somehow the storyline was improved, the tension during the first half of the film escalated, and the pace quickened, I believe Cosmos would have had a much better chance of gaining success. Still in all, you have got to admire the Weaver brothers and friends for taking on what appeared to me an impossible challenge. In the truest sense, they were Making Love Out of Nothing at All. Watch these Cosmos clips in the order presented here to get the most from this feature film which is also included. Ad Astra!

COSMOS, you may just want to watch this feature film. The link and my review are above, but view the trailer and featurette first. Images from Elliander Pictures...

1331    FEBRUARY 20, 2022:   Super Volcanoes
My wife, Susan, has an incredible knack for picking out books that would interest me; so when Christmas comes around, I can always be assured that there will be good reading ahead. In the half dozen tomes that she presented to me this past Yule, Super Volcanoes by Robin George Andrews, W.W. Norton & Company, 2022, was the one that caught my attention first. With its flashy, coat-of-many-colors jacket, I thought I would be in for a really smooth ride, but it was bumpy at first. Andrews’ style is super volcanic in itself. His enthusiasm for volcanoes is so effusive that I thought I was being denied authenticity in exchange for the sparkly, dynamic, fresh prose that emanated from his writings. I was wrong here. I just needed to get used to his style. • And talking about enthusiasm, what is my most memorable travel experience? It was in a chopper hovering about 300 feet above Hawaii’s Puu oo (Pu'u'o'o) volcano while in eruption, watching bursts of intensely hot lava spraying and globing into its caldera. When the helicopter banked, offering me a better view into the pit, the blast of heat flash fried my face just like opening the door to an immense oven. Yes, volcanoes can be pretty exciting, even if you have only seen one of them in eruption. • Super Volcanoes is also written as a series of many, many interviews. I found this somewhat distracting in the beginning because it was hard to draw a consensus. Andrews has a PhD in volcanology, and I thought his opinions on the science might act as a unifying theme for the book. On the flipside, scientists often disagree on important matters in their specific areas of research. Perhaps Andrews was simply leaving the reader to form his or her own opinions about the conversations. • However, this issue has no compromise. I’ve had my share of geology courses, so I know how important it is to visualize the information that is being presented, no matter how talented the writing may be. Show the reader diagrams of seafloor spreading, subduction zones, and the like. Use maps to locate the places that are being discussed in the work. Super Volcanoes could be a textbook for Volcanology 101, if Andrews increased its visual appeal. • Robin Andrews also has a sense of humor. After explaining in great detail why it is highly doubtful that the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park will ever crackle, fizz, or pop—there is not enough liquid rock (magma) under it and the mantle plume (hot spot) responsible for the super volcano is moving over even more mountainous terrain making it less likely that an eruption will be able to push through the deepening crust in the future—Andrews continues to explain the scenario that everyone really wants to hear. What would happen if it really did explode? • He also sheds light indirectly on the age-old question asked by countless third graders during my 38 years in public education. What would happen if the sun suddenly stopped shining? “Well kids,” as my 1972 answer went with sheepish class laughter in the background, “we would all die and life as we know it would end.” The answer today with volcanism taken into consideration is not that simple. Yes, the surface of the Earth would get numbingly cold in most places, but those 10,000 to 100,000 active volcanoes, spewing out the Earth’s interior heat along the mid-oceanic ridges of the world would remain active, continuing to cultivate some of the most bountiful places for life that exists on this planet today. That could continue for billions of years into the future. Life is never a done deal if the warmth from volcanism is present, and when disruptions occur, life finds a way to readjust. This leaves open countless possibilities for a myriad of planets and moons in our own solar system to sustain living organisms too, even including the atmosphere of a hellhole like Venus. • If you like volcanoes; I believe that you’ll enjoy Super Volcanoes; just realize that you might have to Google images of some of the places and geologic terms that you will encounter along the way. Ad Astra!

[Super Volcanoes Book Jacket]

1332    FEBRUARY 27, 2022:   Just Three Millimeters Per Year
Just three millimeters per year. That’s all the world’s oceans are presently rising from melt waters generated mainly from that island northeast of us called Greenland. Just three millimeters; that is just over 1/10 of an inch per annum. It is equivalent to about 10,000 tons of water being dumped into the north Atlantic and Arctic Sea per second. But the oceans are huge and deep making up 76 percent of the world’s surface area. And let’s face it, humanity has been dumping “stuff” into them ever since they were discovered as a source of food, perhaps as far back as 165,000 years ago. So why get concerned about cold, pure, untainted drinking water being added to the mix? • Since a mean sea level was established in 1993, the total rise in worldwide ocean levels has been six centimeters or 2.4 inches. The oceans, however, do not rise uniformly as it can be seen in the video documenting this change, Global Sea Level Rise since 1993. Still, why get concerned about something that appears so trivial? • I believe the analogy is similar to what a good friend said to me nearly 50 years ago about individuals who smoked. If it didn’t take so long for people to die from smoking, they would just quit naturally. If the COVID pandemic would have been Ebola instead, everyone would have been screaming and killing each other to get a vaccine. To set the record straight, there are presently no licensed vaccines for Ebola. It just seems that humans have a real difficulty in comprehending the long-term consequences of how small incremental changes can lead to dire consequences in the long term. • The world is heating up. It’s doing so more rapidly than anyone ever expected, and that is causing problems in our planet’s ability to balance the flow of energy from the warmer equatorial regions to the warming but still much cooler polar areas. Since it is this heat engine (ocean and atmospheric currents) driven by the sun’s energy absorption which determines climatic change, it also naturally creates an uptick in more severe weather on a day-to-day basis. So towns get decimated in California wildfires because of a 22-year old western drought or damaged in catastrophic hail storms north of Denver. How about the village of Lytton in southern British Columbia, at just over 50 degrees north latitude, nearly the same latitude as London, England? Lytton experienced a record temperature of 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit on June 29, 2021? That is only 12.8 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the highest global temperature ever recorded in Death Valley, California in 1913. The next day, wildfires sparked by a passing train consumed Lytton too. Lytton’s record is warmer than any temperature ever recorded in Europe or South America. This excess human-generated heat over the past century has caused current annual sea levels to rise by 3.2 millimeters. • What if on a perfect planet, first world nations achieved zero carbon emissions by 2035 and third world countries did the same by 2050? Sea levels would still continue to rise because reflective Arctic ices are rapidly disappearing and being replaced by dark heat-absorbing ocean waters. Oh, and don’t forget, as the ocean waters warm, they also expand, exacerbating the rising sea levels to an even greater extent. It may take centuries to stabilize the damage and possibly millennia to return ourselves to a world that is once again in balance. Unlike smoking, climate change will eventually start killing people fast enough for the world’s nations to take notice; and hopefully, they will forge some heroic effort to solve the problem. Maybe by then, ocean levels will only be rising by 10 millimeters each year. It would be a shame for humanity to destroy four billion years of evolution because of our selfishness. Ad Astra!

[Global Temperature Extremes]
If you don't believe the Earth is warming, then perhap this graph will help convince you. Wikipedia...

[February Star Map]

[February Moon Phase Calendar]