StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1272    JANUARY 3, 2021:   Sequel to the “Star”
The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that brought memories of the Star of Bethlehem into focus this past Christmas is fading, but one last saga of the story needs to be highlighted: what ensued after the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and how there is a similar grouping of planets that will be happening from January 9 through the 11th. I would also like to provide a comparison with the conjunction of today and the one of yesteryear that possibly heralded the birth of the Christ Child over 2000 years ago. There are some notable differences. Our 2020 conjunction was rare only because of the closeness that Jupiter approached Saturn (1/10th degree), and it was a relatively short event lasting throughout the latter half of December. Convergences of Jupiter and Saturn occur every 20 years. The most popular astronomical explanation for the Star of Bethlehem took about a year to transpire and began with Jupiter and Saturn emerging from the glare of the morning sun in the predawn winter months of 7 BC. Jupiter then caught up to and passed Saturn on May 29 of 7 BC, similar to what we have just witnessed. The separation of Jupiter and Saturn was one degree, 10 times greater than what has just occurred. By the summer of 7 BC, the Earth was catching up to both planets which were still near to each other in the sky. The analogy is identical to a car passing a group of trucks on a long, steep hill. During the act of driving past the trucks, the 18-wheelers appear to move backwards or to retrograde. This is exactly what occurred with Jupiter and Saturn as the faster orbiting Earth caught up to and passed the two slower orbiting Jovian worlds. This caused Saturn and then Jupiter to retrograde, to begin moving backwards in July of 7 BC. Since Jupiter was closer to the Earth, its retrograde motion was more exaggerated, and it passed Saturn while both planets were moving westward for a second time on September 30 of 7 BC. This must have piqued the Wise Men’s attention because retrograde motion was not a well understood phenomenon at that time. As the Earth passed Jupiter and Saturn, both planets assumed their normal eastward motion in the heavens, causing faster orbiting Jupiter to overtake and pass Saturn high in the evening sky for a third time on December 5 of 7 BC. If that was not enough, Mars brought a conclusion to the “Star” by entering the scene and catching up to Jupiter and Saturn to form a loose triangle in the western sky during late February of 6 BC. This brings us full circle to what will be occurring on January 9-11 when Mercury, instead of Mars, will enter the scene to form a loose triangle with Jupiter and Saturn. Mercury will be the planet to the left. Jupiter will be ahead of Saturn which will be the faintest of the three. All three planets will be visible in the same binocular field of view. To see this association, you’ll have to scout a location with an impeccable southwestern horizon. The center of the triangle will be only three degrees above the horizon, 35 minutes after sundown, so the sky will still be bright. You may catch Jupiter and Mercury with the unaided eye, but I think binoculars will be needed to reveal Saturn. While the 6 BC conjunction involving Mars would have been placed a little higher in the sky, the convergence of Mercury with Jupiter and Saturn is another similarity with respect to the “Star” which prodded the Wise Men to journey to Judea to pay homage to the Christ Child.

[Jupiter-Saturn-Mercury Conjunction]
The last segment of the Great Conjunction of 2020 featured Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury gathered in a loose association on the evening of January 10. This image taken around 5:40 p.m. and is at a magnification of 6.4 power. The separation of Jupiter and Saturn was just under five lunar diameters, or 2 degrees, 21 minutes of arc. Unfortunately, only Jupiter was visible to the unaided eye. Gary A. Becker image...

1273    JANUARY 10, 2021:   Winter Halos
On December 30, I witnessed the most vibrant lunar halo (See here) of my 60+ years of observing the heavens. November 30 and January 3 were halo nights too. These types of atmospheric phenomena are more common during the winter months. They can be created by the sun or the moon and generally form at high altitudes in cirrus clouds where small, pencil-shaped (hexagonal) ice crystals are prevalent. Without dark adaptation, the red interior and blue exterior of the December halo was immediately apparent upon going out-of-doors from a brightly lit room. Part of the halo was diffuse which I first thought was due to cloud structure, but I later discovered that it was really a distinct entity called a circumscribed halo. It was also more intense than the inner, more common 22-degree halo. Also, when I digitally processed my images, an additional whitish halo became visible known as a parhelic circle. It intersected the moon and fanned away from both sides. This was not detectable as I visually observed the other two halos. • The 22-degree lunar halo and circumscribed halo are refraction phenomena caused by light entering and passing through mediums of different density, air to ice to air. Each wavelength of sunlight (color) is bent uniquely, separating the different energies to create the rainbow of colors which emerge from the crystal. Blue light is bent at a steeper angle than red light, thus causing the observer following the line of sight of these chromatic “rays” to see the blue light forming the outer regions of the halo and the red light creating the inner boundary. The interior edge of the halo represents the minimum deviation (refraction) angle (22 degrees) of red light emerging from the tumbling ice crystals, thus giving rise to its name, the 22-degree lunar or solar halo. • In order for the circumscribed halo to form, light must pass through alternate faces of hexagonal (pencil-shaped) ice crystals that are falling through relatively still air with their long axes parallel to the ground. This is analogous to the way leaves fall from a tree or what occurs to grass when thrown into tranquil air. Here is where halo research becomes mind-boggling because the circumscribed halo takes on radically different shapes for different moon and sun altitudes. You might guess that in halo research computer simulations play a primary role in understanding these shapes. I found a computer simulation for a circumscribed halo at a moon/sun altitude of 70 degrees which provided excellent agreement to my image with a moon altitude of 72.5 degrees. • That brings me to the white parhelic circle that I first thought was a lens defect. Delving into Robert Greenler’s, Rainbows, Halos, and Glories, Cambridge University Press, 1980, I found the answer. This halo was created by moonlight reflecting off the narrow sides of hexagonal plate crystals or the ends of pencil crystals. In both cases the plate surfaces and the long axes of the hexagonal crystals had to be parallel to the ground. This causes the parhelic circle to sweep around the sky parallel to the horizon and at the same altitude of the sun or moon creating it. • Besides the sheer beauty of these apparitions, everyone sees a unique halo. When my wife, Susan, joined me, a distinct set of hexagonal crystals created the halos she saw. Even the individual colors are created by different crystals, each positioned at their specific refraction angles from the moon or sun. • Halos are truly one of the most wonderful and intriguing gems of the atmospheric optics family. Keep looking up, and eventually you will be bound to get the opportunity to see this spectacular sight.

[Lunar Halo]
The annotated 22-degree halo of December 30, 2020 is shown after digital processing. The true size of the highly overexposed moon would be the size of one of the "Os" that spell moon. Gary A. Becker image...

[Lunar Halo]
The 22-degree lunar halo of December 30, 2020 was captured at 1:41 a.m. with the moon positioned at an altitude of 72.5 degrees. After digital processing the skeletal trees were added to enhance the aesthetics of the photo. Gary A. Becker image...

1274    JANUARY 17, 2021:   Snapple Caps: True or False
When I taught in the Allentown School District Planetarium, now the Learning Dome, Jesse Leayman, a former student and friend, gave me a mini-fridge with a broken thermostat. Apparently when it malfunctioned, it was at its lowest setting, just at the freezing point or slightly below. I stored my diet peach Snapple in that fridge, but the liquid never froze. The bottles would sit quietly, sometimes for weeks, waiting for a quick shake or simply a pop of the cap. That would cause the water to crystallize, sometimes creating a fast-moving haze that descended down the container as the water solidified. I would consume my cold Snapple slushy with my lunch, a really great treat after three, fast-paced classes in a row. • In order for water to freeze, it needs impurities (nuclei) around which the ice crystals can form (nucleate) and lock into a rigid shape. Supercooled water can also be made to freeze if the pressure on the liquid is increased. Shaking the bottle can dredge up some of the tea leaf impurities at the bottle’s bottom while popping the cap increases the pressure on the liquid which can cause freezing to commence immediately. Snapple is bottled hot; so as the liquid cools, the remaining air space decreases in energy, reducing the pressure and creating a partial vacuum. I saw both instances with the Snapple that I consumed. • That brings me to the wonderful world of Snapple caps, another source of fun for the random information which they contain; however, are they always correct? Actually, most of the astronomical ones are good, but here is an example of a Snapple Cap ( that was not, Number 353: The weight of the moon is 81 billion tons. No way, José: False… Weight is a force acting on a mass in a gravitational system. I weigh 175 pounds on Earth, but I would only weigh about 29 pounds on the moon. That is because the mass, the amount of matter that the moon contains, is only 1.2 percent of Earth’s mass. Surface gravity is also a function of the distance (d²-distance times distance) of an object’s location from the center of the attracting body. The Earth’s radius is four times greater than the moon’s radius, reducing Earth’s attraction to only 1/16th of what it would be if the Earth were the same size as the moon, but with an equivalent amount of matter. If the moon were gently set upon the Earth’s surface, it would have an approximate weight of 8 x 1019 tons. That is 19 zeros to the right of the eight before the decimal. If the moon were placed on the sun and did not immediately begin vaporizing, it would have a weight 28 times greater. The weight of you or me at the surface of, let’s say, a planet is really the amount of force acting upon a less massive body (you or me) at the radius of a more massive object. Eighty-one billion tons is about one billion times too small an amount. • Snapple Cap 445: If there are two full moons in a month, the second one is called a blue moon. Correct, with this addition… The current definition of a blue moon actually arose from a mistake in the March 1946 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine. The original definition came from the 1937 edition of the Maine Farmers’ Almanac. It is called the third full moon in a season where four full moons occurred, the blue moon. The last blue moon was seen on Halloween 2020. The next blue moon willhappen on August 31, 2023. More about Snapple bottle caps at some future time. Ad Astra!

[Snapple Caps]
Snapple: The Best Stuff on Earth, but sometimes the "Real Facts" need a little tweaking. Gary A. Becker image...

1275    JANUARY 24, 2021:   Rescued by Rosa
Spinning my tales about space and the universe, I’ve had my share of enjoyment working with newspaper reporters. Despite what some individuals think about the press, reporters never gave me a hard time. They were eager to glean the facts and write accurate, coherent articles. Most of all, I found them grateful for the time taken in helping them to achieve their goal. My favorite reporter was Rosa Salter, who worked for The Morning Call nearly 32 years before moving to Ft. Wayne, IN where she joined The Journal Gazette. She was smart, meticulous with the details of the many subjects she tackled, was often poetic in her writing style, and like me, Rosa had a passion for the dark skies and astronomical sites in the Southwest. • In the spring of 2000, Rosa literally came to the rescue, saving one of my high school astronomy field experiences to the Four Corners region of the US and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in NW New Mexico. The trip was designed to gain a visceral feeling for the astronomical sites of the Chacoan Phenomenon that flourished a millennium ago. The idea was seeded by a question posed by one of my Allen students while I was teaching a unit on archaeoastronomy. He queried whether we might actually see some of the sites we were discussing in class. I must have surprised everyone when I said, “Sure. Give me the weekend to create a rough itinerary.” The following Monday, I handed an outline of a 9-day field experience to my Allen and Dieruff pupils, and within a week seven of them, mostly from Allen, were committed to go. • Two months later, Board permission had been acquired, money had been collected, and everything was set. The trip priced out at $565.58. Everyone paid, students and adults, no exceptions. The cost included all air and ground transportation, all lodging, and about half of the meals. Friends, Mark Balanda, a nurse, working then in Easton, PA, along with IT guru, Adam Jones, a former student then employed by the ASD, had both signed on. • Everything was in order until I was informed by the superintendent that since I did not have an adult female on the trip, I would need to cancel. Well, you might guess what happened. I called Rosa, and with little persuasion by the end of the day, she had cleared her schedule and was booked on the field trip. You can imagine the surprise of the superintendent when I informed her that same afternoon that I had a female chaperone, a reporter who was Pennsylvania’s news writer of the year multiple times, and who taught English at Muhlenberg College. Rosa Salter could also cook, a wonderful trifecta of skills. • What a phenomenal field experience that became! Rosa organized rotating teams of students to fashion the meals and provided creative writing lessons in the morning. I took over in the afternoon with hiking trips and teaching lessons about the astronomy of the indigenous native Americans who had thrived at Chaco. We also visited Acoma Pueblo, El Morro National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep NP, and Aztec Ruins NM. While at Chaco, park interpreter, Great Bear Cornucopia, also presented numerous lessons which highlighted the archeoastronomy of the Ancestral Puebloan culture. We observed the heavens at the end of the day while using Chaco’s big reflecting telescope as well as writing and posting the day’s events on the Internet, with Adam and Rosa overseeing those activities. My favorite experience was the lesson that I taught about the astronomy of Pueblo Bonito which I presented in the plaza of the 700 room Great House. Teaching could not get any better than that. Pictures are here.

[Participants SWFE-2000]
Southwest Field Experience Participants, left to right, Adam Jones, Sam Hopkins, Ronya Younes, Mark Balanda, Dereck Rivera, Rosa Salter, Rachel Harmony (partally hidden), Gary Becker, Paul Kantzaridis, Lisandra Collazo, and Brandon Velivis.

[Rosa Salter's Article about 2000 SWFE]

[Adam Jones and Rosa Salter]
Adam Jones confers with Rosa Salter before sending the day's writings and images from Chaco up to the server for public consumption. Sam Hopkins digital photography...

[Supernova Hike]
Mark Balanda poses under the supernova pictograph depicting the exploding star of 1054 AD that was seen around the world but recorded by only a few cultures. On the right is the group's dilapidated state after the five mile hike. Sam Hopkins digital photography...

[Great Bear Presents]
Great Bear Cornucopia, who in later years I called the soul of Chaco Canyon, presents behind the massive north wall of Pueblo Bonito. There was no one in the Park Service that had the depth of knowledge or the passion for the history of the Chacoan Phenomenon that GB possessed. He also loved astronomy. Sam Hopkins digital photography...

1276    JANUARY 31, 2021:   Will Winter Last Six More Weeks?
Astronomically speaking, the year is divided into four quarters, the two equinoxes and the two solstices. In 2021 the equinoxes, where days and nights are equal in length, occur on Saturday, March 20 (vernal) and Wednesday, September 22 (autumnal). The solstices or sun still points, when Sol is highest or lowest in the sky, happen on Sunday, June 20 (high sun) and Tuesday, December 21 (low sun), respectively. • Often in a more dramatic way, we celebrate the midpoints between the seasons which are called the cross-quarter days. The best example is Halloween, the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. At this time, according to Celtic legend, the veil between the living and the dead thinned, so that the departed could pass into the world of the living. After All Hallows Eve, cold, bleak, and dark winter ensued. Likewise on February 2, we pass the halfway point between the winter solstice and vernal equinox, a day when medieval farmers considered whether there was enough food and firewood available to last the rest of the winter. It is now called Candlemas. • Earlier still, the Romans used the hedgehog on this same date as a weather prognosticator. If the hibernating hedgehog woke and emerged from his den on February 2 and saw his own shadow cast by the “clear” moon, the scared hedgehog would retreat into his burrow to continue hibernating. Six more weeks of winter would result. • We celebrate Groundhog Day on February 2, slightly modified from the German tradition that substituted the burrowing badger. When Germans immigrated to America, badgers were nonexistent, so groundhogs, another burrowing, hibernating mammal was substituted. If spring was early, groundhogs, living amongst Earth’s roots and tubers, would be among the first animals to awake and realize this truth and convey the information to humans. • On Tuesday, Punxsutawney Phil on Gobbler’s Knob, just southeast of Punxsutawney, PA will speak to his stove top hat handler, president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, in a language known as “groundhogese,” a word that is absent from the dictionary, conveying his sentiments on the seasonal forecast. If conditions are gloomy on February 2, and Phil does not see his shadow, an early spring is at hand. If, however, the sun is shining and Phil observes his silhouette, he will be startled and retreat to his burrow to hibernate for another six weeks, meaning that the cold will continue for the foreseeable future. • Keep in mind that whether Phil is correct or incorrect, astronomically speaking, spring will not arrive officially until March 20, an additional seven weeks. Since 1887, when records were first kept, Phil and his descendants have been correct only 39 percent of the time. Of course, if you are a member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, you stand by your “hog” despite what happens meteorologically. Here is what they say. “Punxsutawney Phil is the only true weather forecasting groundhog. The others [at least 20 others] are just impostors. How often is Phil’s prediction correct? One hundred percent of the time, of course!” We will see, as the second big snow of the season approaches.

[The Groundhogese]

[January Star Map]

[January Moon Phase Calendar]