Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 12/13/14

Saturday: The Geminid meteor shower peaks for the next two nights. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Gemini the twins. This point is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain near the bright star Castor, the right hand star of the “twin” stars Pollux and Castor. This shower is typically one of the best ones of the year producing bright, medium speed meteors with up to 80 meteors per hour near the peak. This year, the nearly full moon will obscure some of the dimmer meteors. For more information about the Geminid shower, go to http://earthsky.org/space/everything-you-need-to-know-geminid-meteor-shower.

Sunday: You’ve heard the term “a pinch to grow an inch.” Well, Jupiter’s extremely strong gravitational field “pinches” Jupiter so much that it causes Jupiter to shrink by about an inch a year. Look for the svelte Jupiter two fists above due east at 11:07 p.m.

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

Tuesday: Of course you can see the stars at night. If you know where to look, you can also see a few of the brighter stars during the day. This morning, you can use the moon to help you see Spica in a pair of binoculars. First, find the moon two fists above the southwest horizon at 11 a.m. Move your binoculars so the moon is on the far right edge of your field of view. Spica should be near the middle of the field of view for most binoculars.

Wednesday: Today is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of their god Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The holiday featured a break from work and school, a public banquet, and private gift giving. Some of these customs influenced the secular aspects of Christmas celebrations. Celebrate Saturnalia at 7 a.m. by viewing the planet Saturn, one fist above due southeast. Seeing the real Saturn on the morning of December 17? As Leonard said on The Big Bang Theory, “It’s a Saturnalia miracle.”

Thursday: On these cold mornings, it is difficult to get going. You just want to plop into a chair and sit still. But, are you really sitting still? You’re moving at about 700 miles per hour due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis and 66,000 miles per hour due to the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. If that’s not enough, the entire solar system is orbiting the center of the galaxy at a whopping 480,000 miles per hour! So while you may be sitting still with respect to your living room (and all of the over achievers in your house), you are NOT sitting still with respect to the center of the galaxy. For more information about this concept, go to http://goo.gl/lPVPS. Before you barf from all of that motion, go outside at 7 a.m. and observe Saturn, about two fists below the moon in the southeast sky. Because of Saturn’s rapid rotation, only 10.5 hours, it appears visible flattened.

Friday: Not only can you can see some of the “nighttime” stars during the day, you can also see bright planets. Once again, the moon will be your guide. First, find the moon two fists above the southwest horizon at noon. Move your binoculars so the moon is on the right side of your field of view. Saturn will be a little more than a moon diameter to the lower left of the moon. Now that you have found it in binoculars, try to spot it with your naked eye about a pinky-width 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 12/6/14

Saturday: The earliest sunset of the year occurs throughout the next week: 4:13 p.m. This seems odd because the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, isn’t for about two more weeks. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the sunrise and sunset times depend on more than its apparent southward motion in the sky. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma. But, it is on the leading edge of the analemma, the first section to go below the horizon. For a slightly different explanation about this, go to http://goo.gl/kjnHP. Or just go watch the sunset. But don’t stare at the Sun.

Sunday: Jupiter is one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

Monday: Saturn is nearly one fist above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Tuesday: Do you look into a nursery and say, “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”? Not me. I say, “It’s a star”. Of course, I like looking into a stellar nursery – a star-forming region such as the Orion Nebula in the middle of Orion’s sword holder. The Orion Nebula looks like a fuzzy patch to the naked eye. Binoculars reveal a nebula, or region of gas and dust, that is 30 light years across. The center of the nebula contains four hot “baby” stars called the Trapezium. These hot stars emit the ultraviolet radiation that causes the Nebula’s gas to glow. The Orion Nebula is three fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Wednesday: Warrant, the American glam metal band (as labeled by Wikipedia) was singing about carbon stars in its 1991 hit “I Saw Red”. The lyrics for the astronomy version are “Then I saw red, when I looked up in the sky, I saw red, Orion’s bright star it was by.” R Leporis, also known as Hind’s Crimson Star, is one of the reddest stars in the sky. It is a star near the end of its life that has burned its helium nuclei into carbon. Convective currents, like those in a pot of boiling water, bring this carbon to the surface. There it forms a layer of soot that scatters away the light from the blue end of the visible spectrum leaving the light from the red end of the spectrum to reach our eyes. For more information about Hind’s Crimson Star and a list of other deep red stars, go to http://goo.gl/EnhRe4. Hind’s Crimson star is one fist to the lower right of Rigel, the brightest star in Orion. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see it Hind’s Crimson star. But you can easily spot Rigel three fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Thursday: Speaking of red, “I spoke red”, the red planet is visible in the early evening sky. Mars is a little more than one fist above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

Friday: The Geminid meteor shower peaks for the next two nights. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Gemini the twins. This point is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain near the bright star Castor, the right hand star of the “twin” stars Pollux and Castor. This shower is typically one of the best ones of the year producing bright, medium speed meteors with up to 80 meteors per hour near the peak. This year, the nearly full moon will obscure some of the dimmer meteors.
Most meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the orbital trail of a comet. The broken off comet fragments collide with the earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Astronomers had searched for a comet source for this shower since 1862 when the shower was first observed. Finally, in 1983, astronomers discovered the object that created the fragments that cause the meteor shower. To their surprise, it was a dark, rock that looked like an asteroid, not a shiny icy comet. Astronomers named this object Asteroid 3200 Phaethon. But, they still don’t know if it an asteroid or if it is a comet with all of its ice sublimated away by many close passes by the Sun. For more information about the Geminid shower, go to http://earthsky.org/space/everything-you-need-to-know-geminid-meteor-shower.


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, November 18, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/29/14

Saturday: “Hey baby! What’s your sign?”
“Ophiuchus, of course”
The Sun is in the same part of the sky as the stars of Ophiuchus from about November 29 to December 17. This is what astrologers mean when they say the Sun is “in” a constellation. Thus, if you were born between these dates, you should be an Ophiuchus. The fact that the horoscopes never list Ophiuchus is a major flaw of astrology. Astrology says that some of our characteristics are based on the location of the Sun at our birth. How can astrologers leave out three weeks from their system? That is like a scientist saying she can explain the results of her experiment every month of the year except early December. Ophiuchus was a mythical healer who was a forerunner to Hippocrates. According to myth, he could raise people from the dead. Maybe that is why he is ignored by astrology. Raising people from the dead is much less impressive than giving spot-on advice such as “Today is a good day to watch your finances.”
The bright stars of Ophiuchus rise just before the Sun. Rasalhague (pronounced Ras’-al-hay’-gwee), the brightest star, is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Sunday: Is that favorite astronomy-loving relative of yours asking for a telescope this Christmas? Well, she’s your favorite so get her what she wants with cost being no object. But if that so-so relative of yours would like a telescope, look no further than this Sky and Telescope article about low cost telescopes http://goo.gl/40zd6. The authors review and recommend three telescopes for under $100 at the time of publication. If your hated acquaintance wants an astronomy gift, show them a copy this column. After such a dud “gift”, you’ll never hear from them again. And that may be the best gift of all.

Monday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: Have you been shopping all weekend? Do you need an evening sky break? You deserve a big reward so make it a double. A Double Cluster, that is. The Double Cluster, also known as h and Chi Persei, consists of two young open star clusters in the constellation Perseus. Of course, young is a relative term as these clusters are about 13 million years old. Each cluster is spread out over an area about the same size as the full moon. To the naked eye, the Double Cluster shines with a steady, fuzzy glow. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars in the clusters. The Double Cluster is six fists above the northeast horizon at 6 p.m., about a fist below the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia and three fists above the bright star Capella.

Wednesday: Have you even seen a Black Hole? Neither have scientists. But they have seen the effects of a Black Hole. Black holes have a strong gravitational influence on anything that passes close to them, including light. Cygnus X-1, the first Black Hole candidate ever discovered, is six fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m., in the middle of the neck of Cygnus the swan. NASA launched the Chandra X-ray observatory in 1999 to study black hole candidates and other high-energy events.

Thursday: I am guessing that some of you don’t like the line of reasoning from Wednesday: that seeing the effects of a Black Hole is good enough to claim there are Black Holes. You have never seen the wind. But, you have seen the effects of the wind. And no Ellensburg resident doubts the existence of the wind.

Friday: Saturn is more than a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at 7 a.m. Because of this, I am no longer calling it a challenging object to find.


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.

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/22/14

Saturday: The Nature of Night event takes place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Science Building on the CWU campus. There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more. Do you want to learn more about what goes on at night in the natural world? You can at this event. The event is free. You could go to http://www.cwu.edu/cesme/node/2561 for more information. But why go to a computer. Instead, go directly to the Science Building, I-8 on the map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map. The Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education gets help from various community organizations to put on this event.

Sunday: Are you disappointed because you are not going anywhere for Thanksgiving? Why not take a (virtual) trip to outer space using Google’s new visualization tool called 100,000 Stars. It shows the stars in our neighborhood in a very good simulation of 3-D. The Sun is initially at the center. If you zoom in, you can click on neighboring stars and learn more about them. For more information and a link to the tool, go to http://goo.gl/hg6Oc.

Monday: Hopefully you’ve been hearing about and reading about the European Space Agency’s (ESA) comet mission Rosetta and its lander, Philae. The best source for information is the ESA’s own website http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Rosetta.

Tuesday: Mars is less than a fist to the lower left of the young crescent moon.

Wednesday: Are you thankful that you live in a solar system with multiple planets? You should be. A giant planet like Jupiter cleans up planetary debris that could have collided with Earth and hindered the formation of complex life. Any inhabitants of the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae are thankful for this, as well. Upsilon Andromedae, a star in the constellation Andromeda, was the first Sun-like star discovered to have multiple planets orbiting it. So far, all of its planets are giant planets like Jupiter. But, the system is likely to also contain smaller planets. The dim star, but certainly not its planets, is barely visible straight overhead at 9 p.m. Jupiter is much easier to see, about one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Thursday: Some of us have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. But, probably not as much as Andromeda had to be thankful for. According to Greek mythology, the beautiful princess Andromeda was chained to a rock next to the ocean. Cetus the sea monster was about to devour her in order to punish her family. Her mother Queen Cassiopeia and her father King Cepheus didn’t know what to do. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came Andromeda’s boyfriend, the great warrior Perseus. Even though Perseus’ standing as the son of King Zeus and the slayer of Medusa was probably enough to win Andromeda under normal circumstances, Andromeda’s impending death-by-sea-monster was not a normal circumstance. So, Perseus drove his sword into the sea monster’s neck and killed it. This was the first time in recorded history that a set of parents actually welcomed an uninvited Thanksgiving visit from the boyfriend. Perseus is about five fists above the east-northeast horizon and Andromeda is about seven fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m.

Friday: Do you need a post-Thanksgiving challenge? Get up before 6:45 a.m. and look low in the east-southeast sky. If you are lucky or if you have binoculars, you may spot Saturn about a half a fist above the horizon at 7a.m. If is slowly moving out of the Sun’s glare and into the pre-dawn 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/15/14

Saturday: When you think of space, the first image that comes to mind is a few large, massive bodies surrounded by a lot of empty space. After all, it is called “outer space”, not “outer stuff”. But that so-called empty space is filled with powerful radiation and high-speed sub-microscopic particles. Much of this is dangerous to life. However, many planets, including Earth, have a shield against radiation and particles called a magnetic field. Jupiter’s magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets. Find Jupiter one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at midnight. For more information about magnetic fields, go to http://goo.gl/OYShj.

Sunday: The Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. These meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Leo the lion. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night and into the morning, as it will remain about one fist above the bright star Regulus. The waning crescent moon will be doing its part to stay out of the way meaning even the dimmer meteors will be visible. The Leonid meteors are particles from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, a comet discovered by Ernst Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle in 1866. These are exceptionally fast moving meteors – over 150,000 miles per hour! Go to http://goo.gl/GkLiw7 to read everything you need to know about the Leonid meteor shower. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment.

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

Tuesday: Most constellations don’t look like the object their name refers to. Most constellations don’t have such a simple to object to emulate as Triangulum. As you probably guessed, Triangulum is shaped like a princess. Wait…. Just a second…. I read my book wrong. Triangulum is shaped like a thin isosceles triangle. Mothallah is the only named star in the constellation. In Latin this star is called Caput Trianguli, the head of the triangle. Triangulum is seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 9 p.m. It is pointing down and to the right with Mothallah being the southernmost star at this time of night. The Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with binoculars about a half a fist to the right of Mothallah.

Wednesday: The bright star Spica is about two finger widths below the moon at 6:30 a.m.

Thursday: “Lately, I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep. Dreaming about the things that we could be. But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard, said no more counting dollars. We’ll be counting 9.096 stars, yeah we’ll be counting 9,096 stars.” Luckily, artistic judgment prevailed over scientific precision in the OneRepublic hit “Counting Stars.”. According to the Yale Bright Star Catalog, there are 9,096 stars visible to the naked eye across the entire sky if you are observing from a very dark site. In the northern United States, where a part of the sky is never visible, that number drops to about 6,500. In the middle of a small city at mid-latitudes, like Ellensburg, that number drops to a few hundred. No wonder someone has been losing sleep. Learn more about the star count at http://goo.gl/nt8d80.

Friday: Friday: The Nature of Night event takes place tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Science Building on the CWU campus. There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more. Go to http://www.cwu.edu/cesme/node/2561 for more information.



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, November 5, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/8/14


Saturday: Imagine Opie and Andy Taylor walking down the dirt path at night to that fishing hole in the sky. They’d probably be looking to catch Pisces, the two fish already conveniently tied together with two ropes. The ropes are connected at the star Alrescha, Arabic for “the cord”. Alrescha is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10:30 p.m. The fish are attached to lines of stars that branch out at one o’clock and three o’clock from Alrescha. By the way, “The Fishing Hole”, The Andy Griffith Show’s theme song, was rated the 20th best TV theme song of all time by ign.com. That’s too low of a rating in my opinion.

Sunday: While Stonehenge is an ancient burial ground visited by religious people for thousands of years, MIThenge is an 825-foot long hallway on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited by the Sun’s rays twice a year.  Every year in November and January, the setting Sun lines up with a narrow window at the end of the long hall and the light shines down to the opposite end. This season’s alignment is from November 10-13. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/0hwFQf or visit MIT.

Monday: We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. And a happy Monday. Martinmas is a holiday in many parts of the world commemorating Saint Martin of Tours. He was buried on November 11, 397. What does this have to astronomy? Not much except that the celebration on November 11 often doubles as a cross-quarter day celebration, a day that is halfway between an equinox and a solstice.

Tuesday: The Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks the next two nights. The best time to observe this shower is mid evening before the moon rises at about 9 p.m. Under the best conditions, you can expect about 10 meteors an hour with some of them being bright fireballs. A few weeks ago, the related Southern Taurid meteor shower produced many fireball sightings in the southwest United States. 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, near the open star cluster called the Pleiades. This point is about three fists above the east horizon at 8 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist above 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.

Wednesday: Mars is one fist above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m., just above the setting teapot asterism. An asterism is a recognizable pattern of stars in the night sky. The Big Dipper is probably the best-known asterism.

Thursday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at midnight.

Friday: Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon Starfleet officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, might say “Today is a good day to die.” But Deneb, the bright supergiant star in Cygnus the Swan would say “two million years from now is a good day to die.” This may seem like a long time. But, compared to most stars, two million years from now is as close as today. For example, the Sun will last about five billion years. Small stars known as red dwarfs may last trillions of years. Prepare your astronomically short good byes to Deneb tonight at 8 o’clock when it is six fists above the west horizon.


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 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.