StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley

MAY  2022


Print Large Sky Charts For 10 p.m. EDT:   NORTH | EAST | SOUTH | WEST | ZENITH

[Moon Phases]


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1341    MAY 1, 2022:   Call me an Umbraphile
"Call me Ishmael," is probably a little more dramatic of a beginning than calling me an umbraphile, coronaphile, eclipsoholic, ecliptomaniac or just a plain eclipse-chaser. After all, I'm not the maniacal Captain Ahab trying to hunt down a white whale, but I am attempting to pursue the darkness created by a solar or lunar eclipse. * I’m not even sure that most of these eclipse words are officially in the dictionary, but they represent a mindset about an astronomy enthusiast who enjoys living in the shadows, that is the shadows of the moon falling onto the Earth's surface, more commonly known as a solar eclipse, or witnessing the colorful splendor of the Earth's shadows falling upon the full moon, darkening the landscape and reddening Luna to produce a lunar eclipse. * In the case of a total solar eclipse, you virtually have to chase it down, travel to a different part of the country or even the world to see two sunsets and two sunrises in one day. That's because the moon's shadow cone starts as the diameter of the moon, 2159 miles across, then narrows appreciably, reaching the Earth's surface, with a breadth for a total solar eclipse between technically zero and a maximum girth of about 150 miles. The average width of the moon's shadow falling onto the Earth's surface, the umbra, is between 60 to 100 miles across. Most umbraphiles don’t chase down lunar eclipses because in a real sense they come to you. If the full moon is going to pass through the main shadow of the Earth, called the umbra, and the moon happens to be visible in your area of the world, you will have the opportunity of viewing it if weather conditions are cooperative. In fact, during the approximately 3.5-hour duration of a total lunar eclipse, parts of the Earth will rotate into and out of the eclipse zone increasing the chances of viewing at least part of the event. * The precision of the alignments is what always has intrigued me. My former teaching assistant, Peyton Zankel, in 2020 recorded a short video of my Moravian University class creating a scale model of a solar and lunar eclipse in the hallway outside of my classroom. The moon which I used was six inches in diameter, while a large inflatable Earth ball measured exactly two feet across. That ratio of sizes was perfect because the moon is approximately 2000 miles in diameter (2159 miles) while the Earth is about 8000 miles across (7917 miles). The moon had to be moved to a distance of 30 Earth diameters (240,000 miles) or 60 feet from the Earth. On average, the sun is roughly 400 times more distant than the moon is from the Earth. Its placement would be just under five miles from Moravian's north campus where we were creating the scale model. A link to the video is here. * Why am I once again getting excited about eclipses? Simply, it's because a total lunar eclipse is coming to the Americas, western Europe, and Africa starting on the evening of May 15 and continuing through the early morning hours of the 16th. We had a wonderful partial solar eclipse at sunrise on the morning of June 10, 2021, and a very deep partial lunar eclipse in the post-midnight hours of November 19. * Now the stage is set for the first of two total lunar eclipses this year, May 15/16 and November 8. The partial phases of the May eclipse begin on the 15th at 10:27 p.m. EDT, totality at 11:29 p.m. through 12:54 a.m. on May 16, with the partial phases of the eclipse ending at 1:55 a.m. More about the May total lunar eclipse over the next two StarWatch blogs. Ad Astra!

[Mercury and the Pleiades, April 29]
Mercury (lower left) plays with the Pleiades star cluster on the evening of April 29. Image by Gary A. Becker...

1342    MAY 8, 2022:   Total Lunar Eclipse Set for May 15/16
The heavens are set for the total lunar eclipse of May 15/16 in just one week from today. If you have been watching the moon wax (grow) during the last seven days, it is headed for a beautiful rendezvous with the Earth's two shadows. * Here is how the eclipse will unfold. The moon begins to enter the secondary shadow of Earth, the penumbra at 9:32 p.m., and the main shadow of Earth, the umbra at 10:27 p.m. The eclipse is total between 11:29 p.m. on May 15 and 12:54 a.m., on May 16. Greatest eclipse, the deepest intrusion into the umbra, happens at 12:11 a.m. on May 16. The moon leaves the umbra at 1:55 a.m. and passes from the penumbra by 2:51 a.m., meaning that all aspects of the eclipse have concluded * Besides saying a little prayer for clear weather or planning a chase to a better location if clouds or rain are in the forecast, there is little that can be done except to prepare your equipment and play the waiting game for the eclipse to unfold. * There is something magical about any eclipse, whether lunar or solar. On November 18/19 when the deep partial lunar eclipse occurred (photo here), I was teaching in the early evening at Moravian University. When I drove home from class around 9:45 p.m. on the 18th, it was raining, but the forecast was for a quick change in conditions, and that is exactly what happily happened. The wind picked up and by midnight, thinning clouds were scudding in front of the brilliantly lit full moon. By the time that Luna entered the Earth's penumbra, the secondary shadow, where an astronaut on the moon would witness part of the Earth covering part of the sun, the sky was mostly clear and continuing to improve. By first contact with the Earth’s main shadow, the umbra, where an observer on the moon would see the Earth completely covering Sol, the heavens were totally clear and remained that way throughout the entire night. * I took images through my refractor every 10 minutes while watching the eclipse unfold from my backyard, observing with binoculars between image sequences, watchful as more and more stars became visible as the moon drove deeper and deeper into the umbra. * Somewhere around 2:45 a.m., I remember looking around my backyard, witnessing the subdued lighting against the blackening star-filled winter sky, and the muted shadows being cast by my neighbor’s trees, in a real sense similar to a total solar eclipse, only thousands of times fainter. Ten or so minutes later, ground shadows became nonexistent. Through binoculars, the entire disk of the moon, including the darkened portions, were observable throughout the entire eclipse with the onset of a reddened hue becoming visible well before the moon was immersed halfway into the Earth’s main shadow. * There is a pageantry to a lunar eclipse that the average individual who pops outside at half hour intervals from a brightly lit house doesn’t get to experience. I would advise trying to make it to midnight because you will observe the moon well within the Earth’s main shadow, near the darkest part of the eclipse. * It is profoundly moving to witness a phenomenon that links you to millions of other enthusiasts who are watching the same event occurring simultaneously around the world as well as to all of the other observers in the past who have done likewise. Wishing everyone clear skies. Ad Astra!

[Mercury and the Pleiades, April 29]
The almost total lunar eclipse of November 18/19 is seen here at maximum coverage (98 percent), or greatest eclipse, on the morning of November 19. Image by Gary A. Becker...

1343    MAY 15, 2022:   Total Lunar Eclipse Set for Sunday Evening
The best way to prepare for the total lunar eclipse of May 15/16 is to understand the graphic below. It is read from right to left and shows the moon having passed the descending node of its orbit. This is where it intersects the plane of Earth�s path around the sun, the ecliptic, shown as a broken line. This should not be confused with the moon getting lower in the sky. In fact, for the East Coast the moon will rise very close to sundown and be getting higher in the sky as the eclipse progresses. The letters within the moon represent the general direction of the moon for that time of the evening. The number below indicates the altitude of the moon at the specific times of entrance and passage through the penumbra and umbra, the two shadows of the Earth. As an example, at 10:27 p.m., EDT, the moon will be entering Earth�s main shadow in the southeastern part of the sky at an altitude of 20 degrees. That is not very high in the sky, so make sure that your southeastern and southern horizons do not have tall trees or buildings that will hide (eclipse) your observations. The leading limb (side) of the moon should start appearing dusky around 10 p.m., EDT as it enters deeper into the penumbra. Clear skies and good observing to everyone. Ad Astra!

[May 2022 Lunar Eclipse Graphics]

[12-day Moon]
Practice makes perfect unless the weather decides to interfere. In preparation for the May 15-16 total lunar eclipse, I checked out my telescope and camera gear on the 12-day old moon on May 12. Note the elongated crater, Schiller, in the image that has the entire lunar disk (above image-near bottom of picture) and find it in the enlarged section taken with a 4x Barlow attachment below. Gary A. Becker single frame images.

[Western Limb of 12-day Moon]

1344    MAY 22, 2022:   Chasing the Sky
When it comes to the weather, viewing any major celestial event on the East Coast is more or less of a crapshoot. Learning to deal with disappointment has been a hallmark of my astronomical experiences over a lifetime of making observations. That being said, it was not going to happen with the best sky show of the year, the total lunar eclipse of May 15/16. I had practiced my astrophotography several days earlier on a very clear, tranquil evening. Photos are here. Then the clouds rolled in. * During the days preceding the eclipse, there seemed to be no reasonable place within 400 miles to chase down a location with mostly clear skies. The Midwest, the mid-Atlantic, and the New England states were all plagued by clouds, drizzle, and T-storms. We were squeezed between two frontal boundaries that were moving at a snail's pace. Alas, it seemed as if the lunar eclipse was going to be eclipsed by clouds. * However, changes began to occur about 24 hours before the event. The low off the Atlantic coast that had been stagnant for days began to exit and a weak cold front that would usher in a better chance of successful viewing began to make its way across Pennsylvania. * Peter Detterline and I decided to chase better sky conditions on the western side of the system. We found our haven in Fulton County near a small town called Fort Littleton where we stopped my Jeep at a well-maintained farmstead. Edna, a small stocky woman, came to the door, and after introductions, gave us permission to set up our telescopes on a beautifully mowed clover field just on the other side of her barn. It was a perfect location, high up on a hillside with a beautiful southeast to southwest vista that quickly filled in with clouds to our dismay. Then it cleared. * Meteorologically, it was an odd sort of night with clouds rolling in and then retreating almost like waves on a beach, but in ultra-slow motion. * As soon as we thought we were doomed, the clouds would dissipate, leaving a darkening sky as the moon pushed deeper into the Earth's main shadow. During one cloudy session, I texted a friend and called others to see how they were fairing. I was content that we had journeyed to Fort Littleton, although happily it seemed as if everyone was catching glimpses of the event too. My first teaching assistant at Moravian University, Alex Pena, phoned to chat and declare that it was crystal clear in Williamsburg, VA where he was watching the event unfold. * Alex's sky, however, was not as dark as south-central PA. The eclipse was also darker than expected. Colors were muted through binoculars with more yellows than reds being witnessed. Ironically, the moon appeared redder with the unaided eye than when viewing with an optical aid. Another indication that the eclipse was more subdued were the longer exposures I was able to take in comparison to other lunar eclipses that I had photographed. Thirteen seconds recorded at a higher sensor sensitivity (ISO) was the maximum length, whereas in other total lunar eclipses, 3.2 seconds was the time that the moon could sustain before beginning to whiten the sky around it. The focal length of my refractor was also shorter, adding to the amount of light registering on the sensor. My favorite images of the eclipse are posted here. Note all of the stars that are visible, partly attributed to the darker skies and partly to the longer exposures that were taken to record the moon. With longer exposures, the colors become vivid with saturated reds and yellows that had to be subdued slightly in the processing routines. As Luna was egressing from the shadow around 1:30 a.m., a final batch of clouds rolled in. We decided to wrap up things and were headed east by 2:15 a.m. By 7 a.m., I was home, showered, and in a deep, coma-like sleep. Chasing the sky had proven wonderfully successful. Ad Astra!

[May 2022 Lunar Eclipse Partial Ingress]
Partial eclipse as the moon enter Earth's main shadow... Gary A. Becker image...

[May 2022 Lunar Eclipse Near Totality]
A few minutes before totality... Gary A. Becker image...

[May 15/16 Total Lunar Eclipse]
At the beginning of totality... Gary A. Becker image...

[May 15/16 Total Lunar Eclipse]
Nearing the end of totality after a cloudy patch of sky retreated... Notice all of the stars in the picture. Gary A. Becker image...

[May 15/16 Total Lunar Eclipse]
Eclipsed moon leaving Earth's main shadow, the umbra... Gary A. Becker image...

[May 15/16 Total Lunar Eclipse]
Moon moving from Earth's shadow, the umbra, before the clouds rolled in for good... Gary A. Becker image...

1345    MAY 29, 2022:   Luminaries of the Spring
Spring produces the least spectacular of all the seasonal skies unless you possess a larger telescope with some major light gathering capabilities. In the early evening, the Milky Way our home galaxy, straddles the entire horizon, only visible from the darkest of locales. Throughout summer it turns upward as the Earth rotates through the night and revolves around the sun. We can observe the center of our galaxy low in the south and a multitude of spectacular objects waiting for binocular and telescopic scrutiny. * However, during the spring we are looking away from the Milky Way's center into the realm of the revealed galaxies because we are not gazing through the haze, the dust and gases of the galaxy itself. Still, the spring sky is not all doom and gloom for the visual observer. * I suggest starting in the north. Just after dark, you’ll find the Big Dipper, not a constellation, but part of the official star pattern called the Great Bear, high in the north and fully up-side down, spilling its contents into the Little Dipper. The Big Dipper's two pointer stars, Dubhe (bottom) and Merak located on the left of the asterism, strike a downward path to Polaris, the North Star, the pivotal point of the entire northern hemispheric sky. The reason for this effect is simple; Polaris lies very close to where the Earth’s axis of rotation is situated. * Way over to the left nearing the horizon, you may glimpse the swansong of two bright stars relatively close together, skimming the leafing treetops or even caught within their spiderweb branches. You're viewing the last holdouts of the late winter sky, Castor and Pollux of the Gemini Twins. Pollux is just a little brighter than his brother, Castor, and it also has a warmer hue if viewing with binoculars. * Returning to the Dipper, sweep along its arcing handle, downward and to your right, to find Arcturus, the fourth brightest luminary of the nighttime sky and the brightest star north of the celestial equator. Shining with a soft orange hue, the "Bear Watcher" is about 1.5 times as massive as the sun. It is an old, bloated red giant, about 25 times the sun's diameter, fusing helium in its core, surrounded by a shell of fusing hydrogen gas. It probably has only a few hundred million years of existence left, over what should be its 3.6-billion-year lifespan, before instabilities in its core render it to become a white dwarf surrounded by shells of expanding hydrogen and helium gases diffusing into space; something called a planetary nebula. * Continue past Arcturus, along the same curvature from the Dipper's handle that brought Arcturus into view, and you'll encounter brilliant Spica, actually two blue supergiants, hydrogen burning stars, the more luminous of the pair a possible supernova candidate millions of years into the future. At a combined luminosity of about 14,000 suns, the stars orbit each other in a period of just over four days and are so close together that their mutual gravitational attractions cause them to be ellipsoidal in shape. If you have found Spica, then you have also located the region of the sky which contains one of the most obscure but famous constellation in the heavens, Virgo the Virgin, to which Spica is by far its brightest luminary. Take a quick tour of the spring sky some warm evening, if the clouds will permit, and you will discover luminaries of interest which should please your visual senses. Ad Astra!

[May Star Map]

[May Moon Phase Calendar]