Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of October 19, 2019

Saturday:  Mercury will be as far away from the Sun in the sky as it will get this orbital cycle. This "farthest away" point is known as the planet's greatest elongation. Since Mercury is in the evening sky, it is east of the Sun and this occurrence is called the greatest eastern elongation. This evening, Mercury is just above the southwest horizon at 6:30 p.m., to the left of the much brighter Venus. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. By mid-November, it will be visible in the morning  sky.

Sunday: Jupiter is about one fist held upright and at arms length above the southwest horizon at 7:00 p.m. At this same time, Saturn is two fists above the south-southwestern horizon.

Monday: The Orionid meteor shower consists of the Earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail. This shower peaks after midnight for the next two nights. 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. Also, the Last Quarter Moon will out most of the night and obscure the dimmer meteors with its light. The best time to observe will be near dawn, after moonset. 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 one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due east at midnight. 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. 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://earthsky.org/?p=2147 

Tuesday: Mars is half a fist above the east-southeastern sky at 6:30 a.m.

Wednesday: Last week, the Hubble Space Telescope got the first close-up view of a comet from another star system. Comet 2I/Borisov was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennady on August 30, 2019 as the second interstellar object ever confirmed. 2I is the new official designator for the second interstellar object. Astronomers know it is from another star system because it is going way too fast, 110,000 miles per hour, to be gravitationally bound to the Sun. Read and watch more about the discovery at https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/hubble-observes-1st-confirmed-interstellar-comet.

Thursday: Rho Cassiopeiae is the most distant star that can be seen with the naked eye by most people. It is about 8,200 light years away. That means that the light that reaches your eyes from that star left over 8,000 years ago, before the beginning of time according to the Byzantine calendar. Rho Cassiopeiae is six fists above the northeast horizon at 8 p.m., just above the zigzag line that marks the constellation Cassiopeia.

Friday: Along with the not-so-subtle drug reference in their name, The Doobie Brothers could have made an astronomy reference in their song lyrics if they would have written: “Old Earth 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.


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, October 10, 2019

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of October 12, 2019

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 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: Tonight’s Full Moon is called the Full Hunter’s Moon. As the weather gets colder and the nights get longer, people use the added light of the October Full Moon to aid in hunting.

Monday: The constellation Vulpecula, the fox, stands six fists above due southwest at 9 p.m. It is in the middle of the Summer Triangle, which is defined by the bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair. The fox is so faint that you need dark skies to see it.

Tuesday: 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 held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon.

Wednesday: The Moon is near two open star clusters throughout the night. At 10 p.m., the Pleiades is one fist to the upper left of the Moon and the Hyades Cluster is one fist to the lower left of the Moon. Find them low in the eastern sky.

Thursday: At 10:30 p.m., Jupiter is one fist above the southwestern horizon and Saturn is two fists above the south-southwestern horizon. Something else two fists above the south-southwestern horizon is Saturn’s 20 newly discovered Moons. And you can help name them. Go to https://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/help-name-saturns-20-newfound-moons/ for more information about the Moons and the rules for naming them.

Friday: BepiColombo, Europe’s first mission to Mercury, launched a year ago today. Even though Mercury is one of our closest neighbors, only two missions have visited Mercury. This is due to Mercury being so close to the Sun that the Sun’s gravitational pull affects a probe’s trajectory. It’s lite trying to pound an iron nail next to a super strong magnet. BepiColombo consists of two probes. The Europran Space Agency probe will study the composition of Mercury and the Japan Aerospace Explorer Agency probe will study the magnetosphere of Mercury. For more information about the mission, scheduled to arrive in 2025, go to http://sci.esa.int/bepicolombo/. For more information about Mercury in the sky, look just above the southwest horizon at 6:30 p.m., to the left of the much brighter Venus.

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, October 3, 2019

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of October 5, 2019

Saturday: The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its first Saturday planetarium show today from noon to 1 pm in the CWU Lydig Planetarium. Bruce Palmquist will give a presentation about what can be seen in the autumn sky. There will be a show at noon on the first Saturday of every month during the school year hosted by different CWU astronomers and astronomy educators. The CWU Lydig planetarium is room 101 in Science Phase II, just off the corner of 11th and Wildcat Way, H-11 on the campus map found at https://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map.

Sunday: Saturn is less than a half a fist to the right of the Moon throughout the night. They are two fists above due south at 7:00 p.m. At this same time, Jupiter is one and a half fists above the south-southwestern horizon.

Monday: The Draconid meteor shower peaks for the next three nights with tomorrow night being the best. The meteors appear to come from a point in the head of Draco, the dragon constellation. This point is nearly straight overhead at 7 p.m. tonight. This point remains near the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco throughout the night. Unlike most meteor showers, this one is best observed in the early evening rather than after midnight. Call this the “early to bed” meteor shower. Draconid meteors are slow moving which means you will have an easy time differentiating true Draconid meteors, from Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, from the stray grains of dust that happen to enter the Earth’s atmosphere every day and night. Could this be the year for a great show by the Draconids? The Moon is approaching the gibbous phase so it will obscure the dimmer meteors throughout most of the night. For everything you need to know about the Draconid meteor shower, go to https://earthsky.org/?p=3669

Tuesday: The CWU Astronomy Club is coming up and getting the Star Party started tonight at 8:30 p.m. The party starts with a presentation in the CWU Lydig Planetarium called Time Travel Facts vs. Fiction. It continues on the roof with telescopes and observing the night sky, weather permitting. The CWU Lydig planetarium is room 101 in Science Phase II, just off the corner of 11th and Wildcat Way, H-11 on the campus map found at https://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map.

Wednesday: While you are resting after looking for Draconid meteors this past weekend, 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 October 19 through the 21st but produces meteors from now until early November. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about two fists above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain near the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. For more information about the Orionids, go to https://goo.gl/ikAodW.

Thursday: Mars is half a fist above the eastern horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Friday: Coffee. First scientists say it’s good for you. Then they say it is bad for you. Recently, the same argument was applied to an exomoon, a moon orbiting a planet outside our Solar System. No, astronomers are not debating whether exomoons are good for you. Of course they are. But there are conflicting reports over whether the initial exomoon observation shared a year ago was real or just a blip in the data. Astronomers studied the light of a star as a Jupiter-sized planet and then its Neptune-sized moon blocked it. This transit method is one of the most popular ways to observe exoplanets… and maybe exomoons. Read more about the debate at https://www.sciencealert.com/the-first-known-exomoon-is-called-into-question-in-follow-up-studies.


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 26, 2019

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of September 28, 2019

Today:  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 tens of thousands of 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. You can see this simulated at the American Museum of Natural History video found at https://youtu.be/sBfUBtdo8yo. 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 northern horizon at 11 p.m. 

Sunday: Jupiter is about one and a half fists above the southwestern horizon at 8:00 p.m. Jupiter is a good naked eye object, a great small telescope object and a fantastic Hubble Space Telescope object. Embrace the fantastic by visiting https://tinyurl.com/y2b7p5h2 and looking at the intricate detail in Jupiter’s clouds and the vivid Great Red Spot.

Monday: Saturn is exactly two fists above due south at 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday: 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 and a half fists above the eastern horizon at midnight, is a foreground star and not a part of the Hyades cluster.

Wednesday: Mars is nearly a half a fist above the eastern horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Thursday: To the people of Ancient Greece, the stars that are about five and a half fists above the east-northeastern 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. 

Friday: The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its monthly First Saturday planetarium show tomorrow from noon to 1 pm in the CWU Lydig Planetarium. Bruce Palmquist will give a presentation about what can be seen in the autumn sky. Shows are free and open to all ages. There will be a show at noon on the first Saturday of every month during the school year hosted by different CWU astronomers and astronomy educators. The CWU Lydig planetarium is room 101 in Science Phase II, just off the corner of 11th and Wildcat Way, H-11 on the campus map found at https://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map.


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, September 18, 2019

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of September 21, 2019


Saturday: At 8:00 p.m., Jupiter is one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the so-th-southwestern horizon and Saturn is two fists above due south. It’s fun to see them with the naked eye (and to say the phrase “naked eye”) and enlightening to see them in a small telescope. But if you want to see detailed views of Saturn (https://tinyurl.com/y3twzqm3) and Jupiter (https://tinyurl.com/y2b7p5h2), follow the links or go to the Hubble Space Telescope website at https://www.spacetelescope.org

Sunday: Stuart Sutcliffe was the fifth Beatle. d’Artagnan was the fourth Musketeer. Ophiuchus is the thirteenth constellation in the Zodiac. The Zodiac consists of all the constellations that the Sun appears to line up with as the Earth’s celestial perspective changes throughout its annual orbit. You know twelve of the constellations in the Zodiac because they are the 12 horoscope signs. But the Sun also lines up with Ophiuchus for about two weeks every year. You can spend some time with Ophiuchus tonight. The center of the coffin shaped group of stars is three fists above due southwest at 8:30 p.m.

Monday: At 12:51 a.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 6:50 a.m. and sets at 6:58 p.m. in the northern latitudes of the United States. Day and night are closest to equal duration on Wednesday.

Tuesday: The bright star Capella is about a half a fist above the north-northeastern horizon at 8:00 p.m.

Wednesday: To celebrate the start of school at Central Washington University today, you could take a quick trip to Mars. How about America’s desert Southwest? Not enough time? Then just look at some photos from… from…. Hmmm. The photos at https://goo.gl/Elx7O8 look like they could be from either place. The Murray Buttes region of Mars, where the Curiosity rover has been exploring, look a lot like the landscape of Utah. So much so that the Mars-based movie John Carter was filmed in the desert of southern Utah. Look for John Carter at your local video store. Listen to the soundtrack on your record player. Then take a Polaroid selfie of you enjoying each experience. Look for Mars just above the eastern horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Thursday: Regulus is about two finger-widths to the right of the waning crescent Moon at 6:00 am. They are two fists above due east.

Friday: “There’s water in them thar craters”, frozen water, that is. There has been speculation since the 1960s and indirect evidence since the 2000s of water on the Moon. Recently astronomers studied data from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project, and Diviner Lunar Radio Experiment. The light reflecting off the bottom of craters near the lunar South Pole showed characteristics of light reflecting off pure ice in their labs. The water likely came from comet impacts or other solar system objects with trace amounts of water ice. For more information about this discovery, see https://goo.gl/P4zvtU

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 5, 2019

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of September 14, 2019

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 shape. And if you didn't know it, you would say it poked an ape.” Sorry. Some stores have started sending out their Christmas catalogues 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 eastern horizon at 11 p.m.

Sunday: Fomalhaut, the southernmost bright star visible from the northern USA, is one fist above the south-southeastern horizon at 11 p.m. In 2008, Fomalhaut and its surroundings became the first star system with an extrasolar planet to be directly imaged  https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap081114.html

Monday: At 8:30 p.m., Jupiter is one and a half fists above the southeastern horizon and Saturn is two fists above the southern horizon.

Tuesday: The bright star Vega is about five fists above the western horizon at 11:00 p.m. Its fellow Summer Triangle star Deneb is about two fists above it. Altair, the third star in the triangle, is about four fists above the southwestern horizon.

Wednesday: According to “One world, group hug, love everyone” philosophy, political borders are human-made and can’t be seen from space so why can’t we all just get along. According to real world, pragmatic discoveries, some human-made political borders CAN be seen from space. Since 2003, India has illuminated its border with Pakistan to prevent illegal crossings. In 2011, astronaut Ron Garan took a picture of that border from the International Space Station. For more information, including the photo, go to http://goo.gl/mY8xG.

Thursday: Aldebaran and Hyades Cluster are to the lower left of the Moon all night. You can first find them low in the eastern sky at 11:00 p.m.

Friday: Earlier this week, you read about Fomalhaut, the second brightest star with a planet. The brightest star known to have a planet is Pollux, in the constellation Gemini. (First and second brightest is misleading here because they are nearly identical in magnitude, 1.15 vs. 1.16.) Pollux is four and a half fists above due east at 5:30 a.m., right below its “twin” star Castor.  Read more about Pollux at https://goo.gl/cL5t9p.


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.

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of September 7, 2019

Saturday:  Saturn remains about half a fist held at arm’s length to the upper left of the Moon throughout the night. Look for them in the southern sky at sunset. They will be moving closer together in the sky as they both set as viewed from the United States. People in parts of Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea will actually see the Moon occult or block Saturn. You might think, “big deal, the Moon blocks a planet.” But carefully timed occultations such as this give astronomers a means to precisely study lunar topography.

Sunday: “Excuse me, do you have the time?”
“No, but the Big Dipper does.”
You can use the orientation of the Big Dipper to tell time with a precision of about 15-30 minutes. First, find the two stars at the far end of the Big Dipper cup, the stars that do not touch the handle. Draw an imaginary line segment starting at the North Star and passing through the two Big Dipper cup stars. Now, draw a big circle around the North Star. Your circle is a 24-hour clock. Number the circle from 0 hours at the top, counterclockwise to 12 hours at the bottom of the circle, and back up to 24 hours at the top. (O hours and 24 hours are the same on this clock because the day is 24 hours long.) The hour number on the big circle closest to where your imaginary line intersects this circle is called your raw time. Due to the location of the Big Dipper compared to the rest of the stars, the time nearest the intersection (the raw time) is correct for March 6. For any other night, subtract two times the number of months the current date is after March 6 from the raw time. For example, let’s say the imaginary line between the North Star and the Dipper stars is pointed to the right. That means the raw time is 18 hours or 6 p.m. If you made this observation on October 6, which is seven months after March 6, you would subtract two times seven or 14 hours from the raw time.  Thus, the time for November 6 is 18 hours minus 14 hours or 4 hours. In other words, 4 a.m. Don’t forget to convert for daylight savings time if needed. For a more complete explanation on how to do the Big Dipper clock math, go to http://goo.gl/02HmA. If you prefer a more visual tool, and a fun project to do with your kids, there is a simple “star clock” template and instructions at http://goo.gl/SFKrE. Use this paper star clock whenever you watch is broken.

Monday: The planet Neptune is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun is, meaning it is at its brightest and easiest to see. Of course, “bright and easy” is relative because you’ll still need binoculars to see it. Go out at 11:00 p.m. and  find Fomalhaut, the bright star a little less than one fist above the south-southeastern horizon. Then move your binoculars up about three binocular fields of view to the fairly bright star called Skat. Next continue to move up about one and a half binocular fields of view to the reddish star called Hydor, which is a little dimmer than Skat. Finally, move your binoculars one binocular field of view to the left to a Phi Aquarii, star that is a little dimmer than Hydor. Neptune is the dimmer point of light to the right of Phi Aquarii. Go back to this spot for the next few nights to watch Neptune move away from Phi Aquarii.

Tuesday: Had the script been written a little differently for a well-known Robin Williams movie, we might have heard Mr. Williams shout, “Goooood Morning Orion the hunter”. Orion is typically thought of as a winter constellation. But, it makes its first appearance in the early morning summer sky. The lowest corner of Orion’s body, represented by the star Saiph (pronounced “safe”), rises at 2 a.m., well before the Sun. By 6 a.m., Orion’s belt is nearly four fists above the south-southeastern horizon. 

Wednesday: In 1987, the rock group Def Leppard sang “Pour some sugar on me, in the name of love. Pour some sugar on me, come on fire me up”. In 2012, some European astronomers “found some sugar near stars, they were very young. Found some sugar near stars, out where planets formed.” Astronomers observed molecules of glycolaldehyde, a simple form of sugar, in the disk of gas and dust orbiting young binary stars. This is the first time astronomers have found this simple sugar so close to a star indicating that organic molecules can be found in planet-forming regions of stars. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/tfwy1.

Thursday: Next July, NASA will launch the Mars 2020 rover. Boring name, right? Well, NASA just launched a contest for K-12 students to name the rover. Go to https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/participate/name-the-rover/ for more information.The first helicopter in space will be hitching a ride on the rover. This helicopter, with blades that rotate at about 3,000 revolutions per minute, is a possible prototype for future missions to Mars and other Solar System bodies. Go to  https://youtu.be/oOMQOqKRWjU to see a test flight. Mars is too close to the Sun in the sky to be visible. By the end of September, it will pop out from the Sun’s glare.

Friday: Tonight's Full Moon is an un-supermoon because it is near apogee, its farthest distance from the Earth.


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