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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week 9/13/14

Saturday: “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.

Sunday: Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus, is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 11:30 p.m.

Monday: The last quarter moon rises a little before midnight and is in the constellation Taurus, moving into Orion by the morning.

Tuesday: At 8 p.m., Saturn is one fist above the west-southwest horizon. It seems to be having a carefree existence in the constellation Libra. Mars, on the other hand, is being forced to spend time with its rival in the constellation Scorpius. Because the brightest star in Scorpius was a similar color and brightness as Mars, it was given the name Antares which means “rival to Ares”, the Greek god of war. Since Mars was named after the Roman god of war, Antares can also be interpreted to mean “rival to Mars”. They are close together in the sky tonight and for the next two weeks. Both are about one fist above the south-southwest horizon. Mars is the brighter of the two and is slightly redder than Antares. Mars is also farther west, closer to Saturn.

Wednesday: 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 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 four fists above the southwest horizon at 8 p.m.

Thursday: “One world, group hug, love everyone” philosophy: political borders are human-made and can’t be seen from space. Real world, pragmatic discovery: some human-made political borders CAN be seen from space. Since 2003, India has illuminated its border with Pakistan to prevent illegal crossings. In August, astronaut Ron Garan took a picture of the boarder from the International Space Station. For more information, including the photo, go to http://goo.gl/mY8xG.

Friday: Jupiter is less than a fist above the waning crescent moon. The bright star Regulus is about a fist and a half to the lower left of the moon.


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 3, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 9/6/14

Saturday: Mars and Saturn are each about a fist and a half held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 8 p.m. They are so interesting to look at. If only there was an opportunity for you to see them through a telescope….

Sunday: Science is Central! This week, faculty, staff, and students in the College of the Sciences at CWU will kick off the start of the academic year by hosting a series of evening science lectures and presentations geared for all ages. All events are taking place on the CWU Ellensburg campus and all are free. The series kicks off Tuesday night with a tour of the CWU greenhouse from 7:00 to 8:00 pm. The greenhouse is located on the west side of Dean Hall just north of 11th Avenue and D Street. From 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., move to the east side of Dean Hall to observe and learn about the night sky by looking through some of CWU’s telescopes. Go to http://www.cwu.edu/newmap.html for a map of campus. Parking is free after 4:30 p.m. For more information about the week’s events, go to http://www.cwu.edu/cesme/upcoming-events.

Monday: Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky. It’s just like a full moon in January, February, June and July. The only difference is that near the Autumnal Equinox (also known as the first day of fall), the full moon rises close to sunset resulting in a full night of light for the harvest. The harvest moon looks more orange than usual when it is near the horizon because of the dust kicked up from the harvest. The dust scatters the white light reflecting off of the Moon resulting in slightly more of the red and orange components of the white light reaching your eyes. Although the Moon has a dull yellow color whenever it is near the horizon owing to light scattering off of dust and atmospheric particles, the effect is more noticeable for the harvest Moon. Tonight’s full moon is also a Super Moon, meaning it is near its closest point to Earth for the month. For more information about the harvest moon, go to http://earthsky.org/space/harvest-moon-2

Tuesday: In most parts of the country, a mixture of tasty carbon-based material and healthy minerals is called a casserole. In Minnesota, it is called a hot dish. (Uffdah, you betcha!) In space, it is called a supergiant. Antares, a supergiant in the constellation Scorpius, is forging lighter elements into carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron in its core. It is on the main course table one fist above the southwest horizon at 7:30. Make sure it cools off before you take a bite.

Wednesday: At 6 a.m., Venus is a half a fist above the east horizon and Jupiter is two and a half fists above due east.

Thursday: 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.

Friday: Tonight is date night. You could spend a lot of money on dinner and gift. But there is no guarantee of a reward afterward. By “reward”, of course I mean learning something new. For date night, go to Lind Hall 104 on the CWU campus from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. to learn about volcanoes. For the “reward”, take your date to a dark place, the top of Lind Hall, and cuddle up… with a telescope for a tour of the night sky. Go to http://www.cwu.edu/newmap.html for a map of campus. Parking, and learning, is free after 4:30 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 8/30/14

Saturday: Curriculum review: Can you pick out a triangle made of three bright objects in the night sky? At 9 p.m., the moon, Mars, and Saturn make a triangle low in the southwest sky. Mars is about a half a fist below the moon and Saturn is about a half a fist to the right of the moon.

Sunday: Geometry review: part 3. School starts this week so it is time to continue our little geometry review from last week. Did you forget last week’s lesson? Well, go to the litter box, dig out last Saturday’s paper and review it. Then go outside at 9 p.m. with notebook in hand. Ready? A square is a quadrilateral with four sides of equal length and four right angle corners. A good example in the sky is the Great Square, an asterism (group of stars) consisting of three stars from the constellation Pegasus and one star from the constellation Andromeda. At 9 p.m., the bottom of the Great Square is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east.

Monday: Labor Day was the brainchild of labor unions and is dedicated to American workers. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882. The Greek mythical hero Hercules probably wished there was a Labor Day to commemorate his work. As punishment for killing his family while he was temporarily insane, he had to perform twelve nearly impossible tasks such as killing monsters or stealing things from deities. Humm. Maybe we shouldn’t commemorate his labors. But we can enjoy his constellation. The keystone asterism representing the body of Hercules is six fists above the west horizon at 10 p.m. For more information about the Labors of Hercules, go to http://goo.gl/ozVF5.

Tuesday: “I’m a little teapot, short and stout. The galactic center, I pour it out.” (I’m a Little Teapot, astronomy version, 2014.) Despite its great size and importance, the center of our Milky Way galaxy and its giant black hole remains hidden to the naked eye behind thick clouds of gas and dust. By plotting the orbits of stars near the middle of the galaxy, astronomers have determined that the black hole’s mass is equal to about 4.5 million Suns. While you can’t see the actual galactic center, you can gaze in the direction of the center by looking just to the right of the teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius. This point is about one fist above the south-southwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Wednesday: The calendar says summer is nearing an end. School starting today says summer is nearing an end. The summer triangle in the sky begs to differ, as it is still high in the sky. Vega, the brightest star in the triangle, is a little bit west of straight overhead at sunset. Deneb is a little bit east of straight overhead and Altair is five fists above the south horizon.

Thursday: Jupiter is two fists above the east horizon at 5:45 a.m. Venus is a bit more of a challenge to spot, only a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon.

Friday: You think the Ellensburg wind is bad. Some of the Jovian planets have winds of over 1000 miles per hour. Jupiter and Saturn have belts of rapidly moving clouds that can be observed with back yard telescopes. To learn more about windy worlds, go to http://goo.gl/GLWAi.


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 sky for the week of 8/23/14

Saturday: School starts next week so it is time for a little geometry review. A square is a four-sided figure with four equal sides and four right angles. Go outside at 10 p.m. tonight with notebook in hand to sketch one. The Great Square of Pegasus is balancing on its corner two fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east. The top corner of the square is two fists above the bottom corner. The other two corners are to the left and right of the line segment connecting the top and bottom corners.

Sunday: Geometry review, part 2. Go outside at 10 p.m. tonight with notebook in hand. (Good teaching involves a little repetition.) A triangle is a polygon with three corners and three line segments as sides. A good example is the Summer Triangle made up of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. Vega, the brightest star in the triangle is a little bit west of straight overhead. Deneb is a little bit east of straight overhead and Altair is five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon.

Monday: Tonight’s moon is new. That means you won’t be able to see it. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Contrary to the belief of toddlers and immature politicians, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Note a double negative statement followed by a triple negative statement. I’m not unsorry about that.) Now, back to the science. What would happen to the earth if the moon really didn’t exist? In last summer’s blockbuster Oblivion, aliens destroy the moon and Tom Cruise survives. But the long-term effects on the earth would be devastating to life as we know it. The moon stabilizes the spin axis of the earth keeping the seasons fairly uniform over time. For more information on what would happen to the earth if the moon were destroyed, go to http://goo.gl/jM1d4. For more information on Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Cruise.

Tuesday: Saturn and Mars are brightness twins, fraternal twins, of course. The red planet Mars is one fist above the southwest horizon at 9 p.m. The yellowish Saturn is less than a half a fist to the upper right of Mars.

Wednesday: The Ellensburg Rodeo is a “Top-25” rodeo. What does it take to be a “Top-25” star? There are many ways to rank stars. The most obvious way for a casual observer to rank stars is by apparent brightness. The apparent brightness is the brightness of a star as seen from Earth, regardless of its distance from the Earth. Shaula (pronounced Show’-la) is the 25th brightest star in the nighttime sky as seen from Earth. It represents the stinger of Scorpius the scorpion. In fact, Shaula means stinger in Arabic. Shaula has a visual brightness rating of 1.62. Sirius, the brightest star has a visual brightness rating of -1.46. (Smaller numbers mean brighter objects.) The dimmest objects that can be seen with the naked eye have a visual brightness rating of about 6. There are approximately 6,000 stars with a lower numbered visual brightness rating than 6 meaning there are 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. Shaula is a blue sub-giant star that radiates 35,000 times more energy than the Sun. It is 700 light years away making it one of the most distant bright stars. Shaula is a challenge to find because it never gets more than a half a fist above the horizon. Look for it tonight about a half a fist above the south horizon, a little bit west of due south, at 8:30.

Thursday: The brightest planet Venus is a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon at 5:30 a.m. Jupiter, the second brightest planet, is about a fist to the upper right of Venus.

Friday: Deneb is about seven fists above the east horizon at 10 p.m. When you look at Deneb, you are seeing light that left Deneb about 1,800 years ago.


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, August 13, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 8/16/14

Saturday: Sometimes you find a quarter on the ground. Maybe you find a dollar in the lining of your jacket. But how often do you find a galaxy in a well-known part of the sky? The Hubble Space Telescope discovered a face-on spiral galaxy in the Coma Cluster of galaxies about 320 million light years away. This galaxy, called NGC 4911, contains regions of gas and dust as well as glowing newborn star clusters. The Coma Star cluster is in the constellation Coma Berenices, found two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 9 p.m. For more information about this newly discovered galaxy, plus a zoomable image, go to http://goo.gl/5OXUX.

Sunday: Venus and Jupiter are one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 5:30 a.m. Venus is the brighter of the two, less than a pinky thickness above Jupiter. By tomorrow morning, they will have flip flipped and be even closer together in the sky. As the days go by, Venus will move toward the horizon.

Monday: At 9 p.m., Mars is one and a half fists above due southwest. Saturn is a half a fist to the upper left of Mars. Midway between the two is the star with the name of the day: Zubenelgenubi, also knows as the southern claw. This star’s name is a good example of how the constellation shapes have changed over time. Zubenelgenubi is now part of Libra. But Libra and Scorpius the scorpion used to be one constellation with Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali (northern claw) making up the scorpion’s large appendages.

Tuesday: Need a caffeine pick-me-up? Make it a double. Need an astronomy pick-me-up? Make it a double-double. Find Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight. Less than half a fist to the east (or left if you are facing south) of the bright bluish star Vega is the “star” Epsilon Lyra. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through binoculars, it looks like two stars. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through a large enough telescope, you will notice that each star in the pair is itself a pair of stars.  Each star in the double is double. Hence, Epsilon Lyra is known as the double-double. The stars in each pair orbit a point approximately in the center of each respective pair. The pairs themselves orbit a point between the two pairs.

Wednesday: The Pleiades is about one fist above the east-northeast horizon at midnight.

Thursday: Have you ever gone to a family reunion, looked around and asked, “How in the world are we related to each other?”. Astronomers look around the Solar System and wonder if there is life anywhere else that we are related to. The Mars Science Laboratory landed on Mars last summer to investigate whether it ever had conditions favorable for life. The Cassini Mission continues to study the plume of complex organic chemicals streaming from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA and the European Space Agency are planning a trip to study Europa, the Jovian moon with an ice-covered ocean. And many astronomers consider the methane haze in the atmosphere in Saturn’s moon Titan similar to that of the early Earth. To learn more about the search for life in the Solar System and beyond, go to http://goo.gl/ewtfr.

Friday: Deneb is about seven fists above the east horizon at 10 p.m. When you look at Deneb, you are seeing light that left Deneb about 1,800 years ago.


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.