Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/1/14

Saturday: Don’t forget to “fall back” tonight. Before you fall back on to your bed, set your clock back one hour to the real time. Daylight savings ends early Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This means one more hour of sky watching at night because the Sun will set one hour earlier. Ben Franklin proposed the idea of “saving daylight” by adjusting our clocks way back in 1784. Daylight savings time was first utilized during World War I as a way to save electricity. After the war, it was abandoned. It was reintroduced during World War II on a year-round basis. From 1945 to 1966, some areas implemented daylight savings and some did not. But, it was not implemented with any uniformity as to when it should start and stop. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 codified the daylight savings rules.

Sunday: Happy Celtic New Year! Many historians think that November 1, known for the festival of Samhain, was the ancient Celtic New Year’s Day. Samhain, Old Irish for “summer’s end”, was a harvest festival that may have contributed to some of the customs of our current “holiday” of Halloween.

Monday: Lacerta, the faint lizard constellation, is straight overhead at 7 p.m. It was named by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687 to fill the space between the much brighter and well-defined constellations Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus going clockwise from the constellation just south of Lacerta. Chinese know this group of stars as a flying serpent or dragon.

Tuesday: Did you look up Maria Mitchell and Johannes Fabricius based on last week’s Halloween costume suggestion? Maria Mitchell lived in the 1800s and was the first American woman known to work as an astronomer. She used a telescope to discover a comet too dim to be seen with the naked eye, earning a gold medal prize from Danish King Frederick VI. Johannes Fabricius was one of the first astronomers to discover sunspots. He wrote the first publication about sunspots at the young age of 24. Unfortunately, he died five years later.

Wednesday: Mars is one fist above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

Thursday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation Pisces the fish. Tonight’s other Moon is…. Wait a minute. The Earth has only one Moon. True. And it has always had only one Moon. Not necessarily true. According to the best existing model, about four billion years ago, a Mars-sized object collided with the young Earth. The resulting debris coalesced to form the Moon. However, this model left a mystery: why is the Moon so asymmetric? Hardened-lava lowlands dominate the near side while the far side is dominated by mountainous highlands. According to a recent revision of the prevailing model, the early collision formed a large Moon and a small Moon. Over the years, the small Moon caught up to and collided with the large Moon. The highlands are the material from the collided small Moon. For more information about this theory, go to http://goo.gl/O801zk.

Friday: Jupiter is a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon at midnight. It will be high in the southern sky by 6 a.m. But if you are up at 6 a.m., try to spot the elusive Mercury. It is a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon, just ahead of the rising Sun.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 10/25/14

Saturday: Dead October flowers lead to November meteor showers. While the Leonid meteor shower is the big name event, the few bright and surprisingly colorful fireballs per hour you can see during the typical Southern and Northern Taurids meteor showers may make it worth your while to stay up late for a while. These two showers overlap from about October 19 to November 19. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull. This point is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist to the right of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.

Sunday: What do Justin Bieber and Betelgeuse have in common? Both are superstars. One will shine brightly for about a few hundred thousand more years. The other will only seem to be around for that long. Baby, baby, baby, ohh, you need to learn more about Betelgeuse, the real super giant star that is big enough to hold about one million Suns. For more information about Betelgeuse, go to http://goo.gl/0MyfHT. You’ll find it one fist above due east at 11 p.m.

Monday: The Stargate movies and TV shows have access to a portal to other planets. Harry Potter has access to a portal to the Chamber of Secrets. You have access to a Portal to the Universe. This portal is not in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom but on the web at http://www.portaltotheuniverse.org/. It is a repository of up-to-date astronomy news, blogs, and podcasts. A recent story highlights the discovery of a 12 billion year old galaxy surrounded by a ring where new stars are forming. Astronomers want to study this galaxy because of the vast difference in age of stars in the center and those in the ring. You’ll want to study this galaxy because it looks like the Chakram weapon used by Xena, Warrior Princess. Read more about the discovery at http://goo.gl/Av9ZDN.

Tuesday: Deneb, one of the three bright stars in the Summer Triangle, is nearly straight overhead at 7 p.m.

Wednesday: Jupiter rises in the east-northeast sky at about 1 a.m. By 7 a.m., it is four fists above the southeast horizon.

Thursday: Late October to-do list. Buy costume. Check. Watch Orion rise in the east-southeast sky just before midnight. Check. Take kids to Boo Central. Double check. Once again, CWU clubs and organizations will turn the SURC Ballroom into a monstrously fun, safe, and educational place to trick or treat. In fact, it will be “science or treat” for the pre-school through fourth graders who visit all of the science club booths. Boo Central runs from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. in the SURC Ballroom on the CWU campus tomorrow night. Contact Campus Activities at 509-963-1450 for more information.

Friday: Halloween. The pumpkins. The candy. The children going door-to-door dressed up as their favorite astronomers Maria Mitchell and Johannes Fabricius. At least they should because Halloween is, in part, an astronomical holiday. Halloween is a “cross-quarter date”, a day approximately midway between an equinox and a solstice. Historically, the Celts of the British Isles used cross-quarter dates as the beginnings of seasons. For the Celts, winter began with Halloween. So when all those little Mitchells and Fabricii come to your door tonight night, honor the Celts and give them a wintry treat. If they ask you for a trick, point out Mars, one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 6 p.m.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 10/18/14

Saturday: The Milky Way makes a faint white trail from due northeast through straight overhead to due southwest at 9 p.m. Starting in the northeast, the Milky Way “passes through” the prominent constellations Auriga the charioteer, Cassiopeia the queen, and Cygnus the swan with its brightest star, Deneb, nearly straight overhead. After Cygnus, you’ll see Aquila the eagle with its brightest star Altair about four and a half fists above the southwest horizon.

Sunday: Halloween is next week so make sure you load up on peanut clusters, almond clusters, and open star clusters. That last one will be easy (and cheap… actually free) because two of the most prominent open star clusters in the sky are easily visible in the autumn sky. The sideways V-shaped Hyades Cluster is two fists above due east at 10 p.m. Containing over 300 stars; the Hyades cluster is about 150 light years away and 625 million years old. The Pleiades Cluster, a little more than three fists above due east, is larger at over 1000 stars and younger. Compared to our 5 billion year old Sun, the 100 million year age of the Pleiades is infant-like. The moon will help you find these clusters. This morning at 6:30 a.m., the Pleiades cluster is less than one fist to the upper right of the moon and the Hyades cluster is about one fist to the upper left of the moon. Tomorrow morning, the moon sits in the “V” of the Hyades cluster.

Monday: The Orionid meteor shower consists of the Earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail. This shower peaks for the next three mornings. This is not a meteor shower that typically results in a meteor storm. There will be about 15-20 meteors per hour, many more meteors than are visible on a typical night but not the storm that some showers bring. Luckily, the moon is new so it won’t be obscuring many meteors. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about six fists above due south at 5 a.m. this morning. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews) which rises in the east-northeast sky at about 11 p.m. The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. If you fall asleep tonight, you can catch the tail end of the shower every night until early November. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/35wHaN.

Tuesday: At 6:30 p.m., Saturn is a half a fist above the southwest horizon and Mars is one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon.

Wednesday: Jupiter is five fists above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Thursday: “Turn around, every now and then I think eclipses aren’t real and they’re never coming around” starts the lesser-known Bonnie Tyler song “Partial Eclipse of the Sun”. Of course, solar eclipses are real and they come about twice a year. Fresh off of a late night total lunar eclipse two weeks ago, there will be a partial solar eclipse visible in the western and central United States and Canada. In Washington State, the eclipse starts at about 1:30 p.m. The peak eclipse occurs at 3 p.m. when more than 50% of the Sun is blocked by the moon. The partial eclipse ends at 4:20 p.m. For more information about the eclipse, including a simulated picture of what the properly filtered Sun will look like during the peak eclipse in your city, go to http://goo.gl/19f07P.

Friday: “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” Constellations can be considered neighborhoods in the nighttime sky. But, the stars in those constellations are not necessarily neighbors in real life. For example, the bright stars in the constellation Cassiopeia range from 19 to over 10,000 light years away from Earth. One constellation that consists of real neighbors is Ursa Major. Or, more specifically, the Big Dipper. Five stars in the Big Dipper are all moving in the same direction in space, are about the same age and are all about 80 light years from Earth. “Please won’t you be my neighbor?” Skat, the third brightest star in the constellation Aquarius is a neighbor to these five Big Dipper stars, all of which are about 30 light years from each other. They are thought to have originated in the same nebula about 500 million years ago. Just like human children do, these child stars are slowly moving away from home. Skat is about three fists above due south at 10 p.m. The much brighter Fomalhaut is a fist and a half below Skat. And, it’s not fun being below Skat.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 10/11/14

Saturday: Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a dolphin. A dolphin? The constellation Delphinus the dolphin is nearly six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 8:30 p.m. The constellation’s two brightest stars are called Sualocin and Rotanev, which is Nicolaus Venator spelled backwards. Venator worked at the Palermo Observatory in Italy in the mid nineteenth century. He slipped these names into Giuseppe Piazzi’s star catalog without him noticing. The Daily Record (shop Ellensburg) would never let anything like that get into their newspaper. Their editing (shop Ellensburg) staff is too good. Nothing (pohs grubsnellE) evades their gaze.

Sunday: The constellation Vulpecula, the fox, stands high in the south at nightfall. It is in the middle of the Summer Triangle, which is defined by the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair. The fox is so faint that you need dark skies to see it.

Monday: Saturn is a half a fist above the west-southwest horizon and Mars is one fist above the south-southwest horizon at 7 p.m. Over the next few weeks, Saturn will move towards the Sun in the sky while Mars will hold a fairly steady position.

Tuesday: What time is tea time? Certainly not during an autumn evening. The constellation Sagittarius the archer, with its signature teapot shape, is sinking into the south-southwest horizon by 8 p.m. The handle is on top and the spout is touching the horizon ready to pour that last cup of tea.

Wednesday: According to the Maasai people in southern Kenya, Olapa, the goddess of the moon, is married to Ngai, the god of the Sun. The argumentative couple can be seen 90 degrees apart from each other all morning. Only the left side of Olapa’s face is illuminated. Hummm. 90 degrees apart in the morning sky. Left side of the moon illuminated. It must be a third quarter, also called last quarter, moon.

Thursday: If the Dawn spacecraft didn’t know any better, it may have played “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “It’s like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”. That’s because most movies show an asteroid belt as millions of large rocks close together, moving through space and difficult to navigate. A “jungle” of asteroids. In reality, the objects in the asteroid belt are far apart from each other and easy for Dawn to move through without danger. Follow the trail of the dawn spacecraft using images found at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/live_shots.asp.

Friday: Jupiter is less than a fist to the left of the moon at 7 a.m., fairly high in the southeast sky.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 10/4/14

Saturday: Since Halloween is later this month; the stores are filled with bags of candy clusters. Instead, take time to look at a star cluster. The Hyades cluster is an open star cluster that represents the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull. It is one of the biggest and nearest star clusters with about 200 stars 150 light years away. The Hyades cluster was the first cluster to be the subject of detailed motion studies. These studies allowed astronomers to pinpoint the distance to the Hyades and provide important information about the scale of the universe. Aldebaran, nearly two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m., is a foreground star and not a part of the Hyades cluster.

Sunday: At 7 p.m., Saturn is one fist above the southwest horizon and Mars is one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon.

Monday: Along with the not-so-subtle drug reference in their name, The Doobie Brothers made an astronomy reference in their song lyrics: “Old black water, keep on rollin’, Mississippi moon won’t you keep on shining on me.” Astronomers now think that some of the water on Earth may be older than the Solar System. The chemical signature of the water indicates it came from a very cold source, just a few degrees above absolute zero. The early Solar System was much warmer than this meaning the water came from a source outside the Solar System. For more information about the old Earth water, go to http://goo.gl/QsEu5P.

Tuesday: The Draconid meteor shower peaks for the next three nights. The meteors appear to come from a point in the head of Draco, the dragon constellation. This point is about five fists held upright and at arm’s above the northwest horizon at 10 p.m. tonight. This point remains near the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco throughout the night. Typically, this is a minor shower. However, Draconid meteors are slow moving which means you will have a easy time differentiating true Draconid meteors, from Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, from stray grains of dust that happen to enter the Earth’s atmosphere near where we see the constellation Draco. The moon will be out nearly the entire night so all but the brightest meteors will be obscured. Luckily, tomorrow night brings its own show. For everything you need to know about the Draconid meteor shower, go to http://goo.gl/HGkw0w.

Wednesday: “Red Moon, you saw me sleeping alone. Before the Sun rises up. Before I turn on my phone.” Early risers and late nighters will see a total lunar eclipse this morning. During a total lunar eclipse, the Moon enters the earth’s shadow. Total lunar eclipses are not as obvious as total solar eclipses because light still reaches the Moon even when it is directly behind the Earth. That is because the Earth’s atmosphere acts like a lens and bends rays of light that would normally miss the Moon such that they hit the Moon. That doesn’t mean the Moon looks the same during a total lunar eclipse as it does during a normal full Moon. Sunlight is white. White light is the sum of all of the colors in the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet). Our atmosphere scatters the blue component of the Sun’s white light. That is why our sky is blue. When the Sun or Moon is near the horizon, the light passes through a lot of the atmosphere meaning a lot of the blue light is scattered and the Sun or Moon looks redder than when it is high in the sky. During a total lunar eclipse, sunlight passes through a large slice of the Earth’s atmosphere. The remaining light that reaches the Moon is reddish. Thus, the Moon looks red during a total lunar eclipse. From our perspective in Washington, the Moon will start to enter the Earth’s shadow at 2:15 a.m. Totality starts at 3:30 a.m. By 4:25 a.m., the total eclipse will be over with the partial eclipse ending about an hour later. For more information about this eclipse, and lunar eclipses in general, go to the Science@NASA video at http://goo.gl/iCnkAu.

Thursday: Jupiter is about four and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Friday: While you are resting after looking for Draconid meteors for two nights, start thinking about the Orionid meteor shower. This shower, which consists of the earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail, peaks on the morning of October 21 but produces meteors from now until early November. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about three fists above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 9/27/14

Saturday: Saturn is about a finger-width to the upper left of the moon at 8 p.m., very low in the west-southwest sky. Viewers in Hawaii will get to see the moon pass between Saturn and the Earth at about this time. The blocking of one celestial object by another is called an occultation. The group that sang, “Burnin’ for You” is Blue Oyster Cult.

Sunday: Mnemonics are helpful for remembering astronomy facts. (Similarly, “Johnny Mnemonic”, the 1995 cyberpunk film, was helpful in getting Keanu Reeves’ career going.) After all, school children all around the country are learning the order of the planets by remembering, “My very excellent mother just served us nine….” Oops, I guess that one needs updating. Well, here’s one that will not need updating for nearly 100,000 years: the order of the stars in the Big Dipper. Because the nighttime stars are so far away from us, their actual motion through the sky, called their “proper motion” is not noticeable over even thousands of years. That is why the constellations have remained the same since ancient times. But two stars in the Big Dipper have a proper motion large enough such than in 100,000 years, the stars will no longer make a dipper shape. Until then, you can remember the names of the seven dipper stars in order from handle to cup by remembering this helpful advice for teens: “AM, ask mom. PM, dad”. The stars are Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phad, Merek, and Duhbe. The Big Dipper is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the north horizon at 11 p.m.

Monday: To the people of Ancient Greece, the stars that are about five and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon at 10 p.m. were known as Cassiopeia and Andromeda, a mythological queen and her daughter. But not all cultures imagined the same pictures in the sky. To the people of Polynesia, the stars of Cassiopeia and Andromeda represented a dolphin, called Kwu. Cassiopeia formed its tail, the brightest stars of Andromeda formed its fins, and its fainter stars outlined the dolphin’s body.

Tuesday: Aldebaran, the bright orangish star in the constellation Taurus, is one fist above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

Wednesday: Can’t sleep? Get up early and watch the largest planet in the Solar System and the brightest star in the night sky rise at the same time: 2:18 a.m. By 3 a.m., Sirius will be a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon and Jupiter will be a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon. By 3:05 a.m., you may return to bed.

Thursday: The cloudy season is coming to Ellensburg. Don’t feel bad. According to astronomers from the European Southern Observatory, it is always cloudy season on HD 85512b, a newly discovered planet orbiting the star called… wait for it… wait for it… called HD 85512. These astronomers developed a method to estimate the cloud cover on planets orbiting distant stars. They think HD 85512b may be cloudy enough to have liquid water on its surface even though it is fairly close to its host star. While the presence of surface water does not guarantee finding life, it is a critical component. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/bGxMD

Friday: The constellation Orion is four fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m. The Orion is a cloud of gas and dust visible with binoculars about a half a fist below the “belt” of three stars. Are you are feeling especially attracted to the nebula? If so, that might be because astronomers found evidence of a black hole in the middle. They have not directly observed the back hole, which would be the closest known one to Earth at a distance of 1,300 light years. But the motion of stars in the region is consistent with them being near a black hole 100 times the mass of the Sun. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/AGjFf.

The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 9/20/14

Saturday: “You know Aries and Cancer and Draco and Libra. Leo and Pisces and Virgo and Hydra. But, do you recall, the pointiest asterism of all? Triangulum, the three sided asterism, had a very pointy edge….” Sorry. Some stores have started putting up their Christmas decorations and that has put me in the mood to modify some Christmas songs. Anyway, Triangulum is a small constellation between the more prominent Andromeda and Aries. Its main feature is a skinny triangle oriented parallel to and nearly four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: There is a rumor (started by my dog and me) that The Beach Boys are working on a new solar system-themed record. I bet the first single will be “Catch a Wave and You’re Sitting on Top of Titan.” As the seasons change on this large moon of Saturn, astronomers are looking for signs of the winds increasing. They’ll send the Cassini spacecraft on a flyover of Kraken Mare, a large liquid hydrocarbon sea, to see if there are any waves. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has made a “Titan Great Lakes” tour video that you can find at http://goo.gl/ndXDhd. Available lakefront property and the potential for large waves. Who is up for a “Surfin' Safari”? Saturn is one fist above the southwest horizon at 7:30 p.m.

Monday: At precisely 7:29 p.m. PDT, the center of the Sun crosses the celestial equator and passes into the southern sky. The celestial equator is an imaginary line that divides the sky into a northern and southern half. When the Sun is in the southern half of the sky, it appears to take a shorter path from rising to setting. It also does not get as high in the sky at noon. This leads to shorter days and longer nights. Since the Sun crosses the celestial equator today, there is an instant when it is equally in the northern and southern sky, called the north and south celestial hemispheres. This so-called “equal night” is given by the Latin word equinox. Thus, today is known as the Autumnal Equinox. However, the day and night are not of equal duration today. The sun rises at 6:48 a.m. and sets at 7:02 p.m. Day and night are closest to equal duration on Friday.

Tuesday: To celebrate the start of school at CWU tomorrow, let’s sing a song of the season. “Oh the weather outside is grand. And the fire is rightfully banned. There is really no place to go. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. On Mars.” The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered evidence of carbon dioxide snow clouds high above the surface of Mars.  Carbon dioxide, also called “dry ice”, exists in Mars south polar ice cap and requires temperatures of nearly 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to form. Astronomers were not sure how this polar cap gets replenished but the discovery of carbon dioxide clouds may provide an answer. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/shMTf. Mars is one fist above the south-southwest horizon at 7:30 p.m., just to the upper right of Antares, which means “rival to Mars”. Or as Mars calls it, “rival to me”.

Wednesday: Are you ever thirsty at midnight? The Big Dipper is low on the northern horizon at midnight, just waiting to hold water for you.

Thursday: Jupiter is about three fists above the east horizon at 6 a.m.

Friday: Did you time the exact length of the day and night on Monday, the first day of autumn? They were not equal in duration. Many people think that the day and night are the same duration on the autumnal equinox. The day is a little longer than the night for two reasons. First, the Sun is an extended object so even when the lower half has set, the upper half is still above the horizon lighting the sky. The second, and more influential, reason is that the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is really below the horizon. Day and night are closest in duration today.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.