StarWatch for the greater Lehigh Valley



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1311    October 3, 2021:   “G.O.A.T. Mode”—Capricornus Revealed
Almost hidden among the 12 original zodiacal constellations is Capricornus the Sea Goat, the most difficult star pattern to be seen along the yearly path of the sun. Half goat, half fish, Capricornus can be found in the southeast, right after it gets dark, in the water section of the heavens, along with other obscure fall constellations like Pisces the Fish, Cetus the Whale, and Aquarius the Water Bearer. • Currently, the location of the Sea Goat is more readily observable because it is flanked by the bright planets, Jupiter on the left and Saturn on the right. See the map which can be found here. From the Sky Deck at Moravian University, that region of the sky is devoid of stars. Even from suburbia, only a few of Capricornus’ brighter stars are revealed. However, using binoculars in the suburbs will uncover a host of fainter luminaries, starting just below Jupiter that lead like a well-heeled trail from Jove downward to a broad angular vertex which is the base of the constellation, and then up again past Saturn to a peak. A less conspicuous path leads back again to Jupiter. The whole ensemble might look like the mouth of a laughing giant, or if you are into Star Trek, the insignia of the United Federation of Planets worn by Captain Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew. • So why choose a goat for that region of the sky? Perhaps you are familiar with “G.O.A.T. mode” as portrayed in recent Ford Bronco Sport commercials. It’s that gear you engage when you take your vehicle off-road and want it to Go On Any Terrain and have the Greatest Of All Times. That is exactly what the ancients had in mind when they envisioned a goat as the manifestation of that part of the heavens. • Two thousand years ago, it was at the border of Capricornus and Sagittarius that the sun after a six-month descent reached its nadir, its lowest position in the sky, marking the winter solstice as well as the shortest day of the year. Since the sun was considered a god, and gods could be capricious, there was no promise that Sol would reverse its trek and ascend back into prominence, even though its descent had slowed, indicating that a reversal might take place. Then as the sun entered Capricornus, it went into “G.O.A.T. mode” and began to climb higher into the sky making everyone very happy. • If you have your binoculars handy, the two fairly bright stars above Saturn at the right apex of Capricornus are double stars. The upper luminary is fourth magnitude, Algedi (the baby goat). It has a fourth magnitude companion star just 1/10th of a degree to the right. That’s bright enough and far enough away to be a visual double star not requiring any optical aid if you are in a rural locale with keen eyesight. Binoculars will be required from the suburbs or the city. The third magnitude star below Algedi, which is named Dabih (lucky stars), is a double too, but it needs binoculars to be discerned. Its fainter sixth magnitude companion can also be seen to the right of Dabih, separated by 1/20th of a degree. Have fun going into “G.O.A.T. mode” with the star pattern of Capricornus. Ad Astra!

[Capricornus the Sea Goat]
Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's, The Sky...

1312    October 10, 2021:   Binoculars for Christmas
I realize that it doesn’t look a lot like Christmas outside with the fall foliage just beginning its display, but with COVID still a major problem, some families for the past year have been exploring astronomy as a hobby. Good telescopes may be hard to procure at present, but binoculars are still in pretty good supply. • I really believe that binoculars represent the most cost-effective means for people to get introduced to sky watching. Right out of the box, there is a learning curve with telescopes, and if your instrument is a Walmart or K-mart special, that curve will have so many obstacles that your telescope will become a permanent resident of your darkest closet and not a companion to help you to enjoy the nighttime sky. Bad optics, shaky mounting systems, and unrealistic magnifications will rapidly temper any observer’s enthusiasm to learn more about the universe. • Binoculars, on the other hand, are immediately ready to open up the heavens to you. Take them from their case, remove the lens caps, adjust the pupillary distance between your two eyes, look up, and focus. You will immediately be drinking in a wide field portrait of the firmament, seeing stars 5-10 times fainter than what the unaided eye can perceive from your observing location. You can spend 10 minutes with your binoculars as I often do when I make quick sojourns into my backyard and then upon coming indoors have them capped and stowed in just a minute. It is no fuss, no muss observing. • Consider purchasing a small star atlas, such as Wil Tirion’s Cambridge Star Atlas 2000 or The Concise Atlas of the Stars by Sege Brunier or Gary Seronik’s Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users. Add a comfortable cot or zero gravity lounge chair, a pillow, a headlamp, and you have created a perfect nesting place to start discovering the beauties of the night sky. • Another reason that I like to hype binoculars is the price. When I advise individuals about purchasing a telescope, I tell them that $500 is a good starting point to acquire an instrument that will not disappoint. If you really get hooked on astronomy, that $500 telescope will undoubtedly be traded up to an instrument worth several thousand dollars. For binoculars, half that amount will get you a decent pair that will last a lifetime. My travel binoculars were procured nearly 50 years ago, and they are still serving me well. • In addition to all of these positive astronomical attributes for binoculars, they have terrestrial applications too! They create an image that is right side up. Birding, hunting, and people-watching, among many other activities, all fit nicely within the aspects of binoculars, much better than telescopes which often invert the image, as well as reverse right and left. • Do I have specific recommendations? The answer is yes. Celestron makes a SkyMaster series which I think is excellent. Their DX 8x56 (eight power by 56mm aperture) Porro prism binoculars are well suited for terrestrial and astronomical applications while their 9x63 (nine power by 63mm aperture) are slanted a little more toward astronomical applications. Costing $229.95 and $249.95 respectively, I have given them as presents to friends. I call it “the gift that keeps on giving.” You can purchase SkyMaster binoculars locally at Skies Unlimited, 46 Glocker Way, Pottstown, PA 19465 / 610-327-3500 or simply Google the binoculars for other dealers that may be nearer to you. Consider binoculars before investing big in astronomy. It will be a choice that you won’t regret making. Ad Astra!

1313    October 17, 2021:   The Square and the Circlet
High in the south around 10 p.m. can be found two asterisms which are prominent in the fall sky, the Great Square of Pegasus the Flying Horse and the Circlet representing the western fish of Pisces. • Asterisms are constellation wannabes, culturally or nationally defined, that did not make it into the official 88-star patterns. For the Northern Hemisphere, the fixed boundaries of these star configurations were officially laid out by the International Astronomical Union, the world congress of professional astronomers, when they assembled in New Haven, Connecticut, in December of 1927. By 1930, Eugène Delporte listed all 88 “modern’ constellations on behalf of the IAU Commission 3 (Astronomical Notations) in Délimitation Scientifique des Constellations (IAU website). • Many aspiring constellations like America’s Big Dipper (Drinking Gourd) were left behind becoming asterisms because they were not universally accepted. • Most of the asterism of the Great Square belongs to the star pattern of Pegasus the Flying Horse, and represents Pegasus’ body. He is flying across the sky upside down. Starting with the brightest luminary of the square in the upper left corner and proceeding clockwise are Alpheratz; Scheat, Markab, and Algenib. Interestingly, they become fainter in that order, but I “triple dog dare” you to notice a difference between Scheat and Markab, even when using binoculars. They only vary by 1/20 of a magnitude in brightness. Observe all four stars with binoculars, and you’ll notice three of the four have a bluish-white tint because they are hot, massive B-type stars, but Scheat is quite different. It has a warmer hue indicative of its lower surface temperature, and it is, in fact, a bloated red giant nearing the end of its life. • If you would really like to see red, then drop down to the Circlet, the western fish of Pisces where a ruby red carbon star can be located. Binoculars will take in most, but probably not all of the stars in the Circlet. By wobbling them back and forth, the perimeter of the Circlet, which looks more like an oval, will be easily defined. None of the stars are particularly bright, but the faintest one (farthest to the left), 19 Piscium at nearly fifth magnitude, is the red carbon star to which I was referring. • At first you may not be impressed because the star has just a hint of garnet in it. Its redness is better perceived through a telescope that is drinking in hundreds of times the amount of light that the human eye can gather, rather than the 10 to 20 times that binoculars transmit to the eye’s retina. Still, it is the Circlet star that possesses the warmest hue. • Carbon stars are red giants to begin with, but convection in their internal structure allows the carbon being manufactured in their helium fusing shells to be carried to the surface, creating a sooty haze. This makes the star appear even more red, similar to the change in color that the sun undergoes when it is viewed near the horizon on a hazy or smoggy day. Check out the Square and the Circlet in the map found here, then go to visit them with binoculars in the real sky tonight. Ad Astra!

[The Square and the Circlet]
Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's, The Sky...

1314    October 24, 2021:   The Night of the Living Dead
One would not think that astronomy has anything to do with witches, ghouls, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night, but the celebration of Halloween has its timing deeply embedded in the heavens. We commemorate the days of the high and low sun in the summer and winter solstices and the times of equal day and night with the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. We also acknowledge the midpoints between the seasons too! Groundhog Day on February 2; May Day on May 1; Lammas on August 1; and Halloween on October 31, reflect these important cross-quarter events. By far, Halloween has gained the most traction with respect to popularity during my lifetime. The average US consumer spent $92.12 on Halloween in 2020 (National Retail Federation). • If you think about it, the end of October is an excellent time to consider humanity’s celebration of vanquishing death for yet another year. The warmth and plentiful days of summer have passed beyond the harvest into the cooling conditions of autumn; but as November dawns, the sun has traveled into its “winter home,” the days have shortened, and shadows have stretched across the browning landscape as nature retreats into hibernation. Our focus upon the encroaching darkness and the cold of yet another invading winter season overwhelms our psyches as the sun treks lower in our daily noontime sky, rising later each morning and setting earlier each evening. • Leave it to the pastoral Celts to have envisioned the harvest festival, Samhain (sa-win), meaning summer’s end, and the Gaels (also Celts) of present-day Ireland and southwestern Scotland to have added a touch of the macabre to this celebration. • The sun’s retreat was accentuated more for these groups because Ireland and Scotland are located more than one dozen degrees farther north of the Lehigh Valley, lowering the sun by the same amount and increasing the time of darkness by about an hour (Dublin—56 minutes more on Halloween). When the Irish immigrated to the US during the nineteenth century, they introduced Halloween to the Americans, and eventually, America to the world. • The ancient Gaels and Celts believed that the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead thinned on All Hallows’ Eve permitting the creatures of the netherworld—the souls of the dead, ghosts, and demons to move freely about our world. Sacrifices of animals and plants were made to the deceased, and bonfires were lit to help to guide these ghouls along their pathways and keep the departed separated from the living. Offerings of food and drink were left outdoors to appease and persuade these creatures from entering homes. Later, people dressed in costumes, performed tricks and antics on others to receive a treat, thus ushering in our more modern ritual of “trick or treating.” The response of the Catholic Church to these popular frolics was to usher in the more serious All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd; but in the end, Christianity could not totally end the traditions of Halloween, the Night of the Living Dead. Happy All Hallows’ Eve to everybody! Ad Astra!

1315    October 31, 2021:   Mama Cass: The Ultimate Betrayal
Life in the fast lane for the Queen of Ethiopia, Cassiopeia, was going just fine until she boasted about being the most beautiful woman in the world. It was that old “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” disorder that started her undoing because her rivals, the Sea Nymphs (Nereids), were considered by everyone to be the undisputed Sirens of the ancient lands. • The Sea Nymphs lived by lakes and rivers and streams; some were even the attendants of Poseidon, God of the Oceans. They were rightfully angered at Cassiopeia’s boasting and vowed revenge against the woman who had challenged their loveliness so audaciously to the world. The Nymphs petitioned their father, Nereus, to punish her. He did comply, destroying much of the country by causing the ocean waters to roil into a gigantic tidal wave that swept across Ethiopia. Cassiopeia, however, lived in her palace high on a hilltop and was spared from Nereus’ actions. • Determined to avenge Cassiopeia’s proclamation, Nereus sought out his good and powerful friend, Poseidon, the God of the Oceans and the brother of Zeus, to seek vengeance against the Queen. Combining barnacles and brine with the froth from the turbulent waters receding from Ethiopia, Poseidon carved out a hideous, snaky creature, Cetus the Sea Monster, and set him loose along the shores of the land. There he gave chase, consuming fisherman and their catch, grabbing children playing by the sea, and snatching women washing clothing by the surf. • When word of the terrible creature reached Cassiopeia’s palace, she sought the advice of the Oracles, women who were responsible for giving direct and immediate answers to questions posed. What would make the monster depart her country? Their answer even surprised the Queen who was instructed to sacrifice Andromeda, her teenage daughter, to the repulsive Cetus. Cassiopeia consented. Soldiers were summoned to escort Andromeda to a small island off the coast where she was chained to a rock to await her fate. • “On came the sea monster, coasting along like a huge black galley, lazily breasting the waves… His great sides were fringed with clustering shells and seaweeds, and the water gurgled in and out of his wide jaws as he rolled along, dripping and glistening in the beams of the morning sun” (Charles Kingsley, The Heroes). • Little did Andromeda or Cetus know that at that very moment, Perseus the Hero was flying overhead, observant of the impending catastrophe that was unfolding below him. Involved in his own mythology where he had just beheaded the snake-ladened, granite-turning Medusa, Perseus was returning to his homeland to restore order from the evil king, Polydectes. It must have been love at first sight as Perseus swooped down to rescue the princess. From the leather sack he stealthily exposed the eyes of the Medusa to Cetus, instantaneously changing him into a “stoner,” where he sank from sight to the bottom of the ocean. • The story does not end well for Cassiopeia, however. Her countrymen, fraught with anger over the destruction of their beloved country, stormed the palace. Clutching Cassiopeia by her long, black hair, they swung her around and around until she was pitched high into the northern heavens where she fell into a great wooden chair with a crooked back. Destined to pivot eternally around the Pole Star, spending half of her time tied upside-down into the chair, was just part of her punishment. Always above the horizon, ever vigilant, meant that Cassiopeia could never sleep or gain sustenance as other star patterns do when they set and have a few hours of rest. Find Cassiopeia’s chair with its bent back high in the NE by 10 p.m. Use binoculars to spot her eyes as shown in the map found below, and revel in one of the great mythologies of the Greco-Roman World. Ad Astra!

Map by Gary A. Becker using Software Bisque's, The Sky...

[October Star Map]

[October Moon Phase Calendar]