Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/29/17

Saturday: As the rock group Journey once thought of singing, “Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’. Know where the Dipper’ll be tomorrow.” Every night, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia make a wheel in the sky that turns around the North Star in a counter clockwise direction. Every year on May 3 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 4 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 5 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 6 at 10 p.m., well, you get the idea. Of course, there are subtle charges in the position from night to night. Each northern constellation moves about one degree counter clockwise from one night to the next. But this is not going to change their position in the sky drastically over a few days. So if you know where the Big Dipper is tonight, you DO know where it’ll be tomorrow. If you are really struggling to understand this concept, Don’t Stop Believin’ in yourself. Just keep studying Faithfully.

Sunday: Mars is a little more than one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Monday: Jupiter is nearly three fists above due south at 11:30 p.m.

Tuesday: You know Metis and Thebe and Adrastea and Amalthea. Io and Ganymede and Callisto and Europa. But do you recall? There are 67 Jovian moons in all. (As of July 2013.) Just 60 years ago, Jupiter was thought to have only 12 moons. But, astronomers are red-nosed with delight that the advent of supersensitive electronic cameras has caused the number of discovered moons to rapidly increase. Jupiter’s 67 moons range in size from Ganymede, with a diameter of 5,262 kilometers, to S/2002 J12 and S/2003 J9, with a diameter of only one kilometer. Our moon has a diameter of 3,475 kilometers. (One kilometer is 0.62 miles.) Saturn is second place in the moon race with 62. Uranus is next with 27. Then comes Neptune with 14, Mars with 2, and Earth with 1. Even dwarf planets have moons. Pluto has 5, Eris has 1, and Haumea has 2. Eris is an outer solar system object that was discovered in 2005 and named in September of 2006. Because astronomers thought it was larger than Pluto, people called it the tenth planet for a while. (More recent measurements show Eris to be a little smaller than Pluto.) Haumea, the newest dwarf planet with a moon, was discovered in 2004 and officially named a dwarf planet on September 17, 2008. Go to http://goo.gl/Xkoeq for more information about Solar System moons.

Wednesday: At 5 a.m., Saturn is two fists above the south horizon and the very bright Venus is about a half a fist above the eastern horizon.

Thursday: Mother’s Day is a little over a week away. What are you going to get her? Get her a Gem(ma). The star Gemma, also known as Alphekka, is the brightest star in the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Gemma, Latin for jewel is the central gemstone for the crown. It is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 10 p.m.

Friday: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. But since this meteor shower has a fairly broad peak range, there will be many more meteors than in the typical pre-dawn sky throughout the month of May. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. The meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius near the star Eta. This point is about one fist above the east horizon at 4 a.m. The Moon is new tonight so it won’t be lighting the sky and obscuring the dimmer meteors. So you could be rewarded with many bright, fast meteors. The Eta Aquarid meteors slam into the Earth at about 40 miles per second. They often leave a long trail. The Eta Aquarid meteors are small rocks that have broken off Halley’s Comet. For more information about the Eta Aquarids, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=3954.


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, April 19, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/22/17

Saturday: If you don’t want to stay up late looking at the stars, do something during the day that will help you and other night sky enthusiasts: make sure your outdoor light fixtures are shielded or at least facing down. This will cut down on light pollution, stray light that obscures the stars, and give you a head start in celebrating International Dark Sky week, which starts today. Go to http://goo.gl/w6Hi7 for more information on how to do an outdoor lighting audit and get more information about International Dark Sky week. You won’t need to have dark skies to see Mars about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Sunday: The bright planet Venus is less than a fist to the upper left of the waning crescent Moon, low in the eastern sky at 5:30 a.m. And I do mean bright. Venus is at the brightest part of its orbit this week.

Monday: The nighttime stars take little more than an instant to rise. The Moon takers about two minutes to rise. That’s absolutely speedy compared to the constellation Virgo, which takes four hours to rise. The first star in Virgo rises at 4:30 in the afternoon. Spica, the brightest star in the constellation, rises at 7:30. By 9 p.m., Spica is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon. The much brighter planet Jupiter is one fist above Spica.

Tuesday: Ah, the signs of spring. Trees budding. Flowers blooming. Young lovers frolicking. The Spring Triangle rising. In order of brightness, Arcturus, Spica, and Regulus form a triangle that rises as the Sun is setting. By 9 a.m., Regulus is five fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south, Spica is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon, and Arcturus is three fists above the east horizon. For the next few months, Jupiter joins the triangle, five fists above the south-southeast sky.

Wednesday: Do people think you have a magnetic personality? The star Cor Caroli understands how you feel. Cor Caroli has one of the strongest magnetic fields among main sequence stars similar to our Sun. This strong magnetic field is thought to produce large sunspots that cause the brightness of Cor Caroli to vary. Cor Caroli is nearly straight overhead at midnight.

Thursday: Winter must be over because the winter constellations are becoming less visible. Orion is setting in the west starting at about 9 p.m. At this time, Orion’s belt is one fist above the west-southwest horizon and Betelgeuse is nearly two fists above the west horizon. By mid-May, Orion will be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Friday: Global Astronomy Month concludes at noon Pacific Daylight Time with the Cosmic Concert performed by Italian pianist and composer Giovanni Renzo. For more information, including information on audience participation, go to https://goo.gl/rC0qbz.


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, April 12, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/15/17

Saturday: The first day of spring was March 20. The most recent full moon was April 11. That means tomorrow is Easter. The standard way to determine the date of Easter for Western Christian churches is that it is the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, also known as the first day of spring. Of course, the other standard way is to look for the date of church services celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. There is no Bible story of an “Easter star”. If there were, Spica would be a pretty good choice. The name Spica comes from the Latin “spica virginis” which means “Virgo’s ear of grain”. Spica represents life-giving sustenance rising after a long winter just like the risen Jesus represents life-giving redemption to Christians. Spica is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon at 9 p.m., just to the lower right of the Moon. For more information on how to determine the exact date of Easter for any year, go to https://www.assa.org.au/edm.

Sunday: Saturn is about a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon at 5:30 a.m. Its showpiece spacecraft, Cassini, is running out of battery power. So NASA scientists plan to start a sweeping orbital pattern next week that will send it through Saturn’s rings and eventually crash it into Saturn in September. “Why crash a working spacecraft?” you ask. NASA does not want to risk infecting Saturn’s moons Titan or Enceladus with Earth microbes because there is a chance these worlds might have their own microbes. For more information about the last days of Cassini, go to https://goo.gl/AeOcsB.

Monday: If you got up at 5:30 yesterday, you’ll probably be up at that time today, as well. Look for the bright planet Venus a half a fist above the east horizon.

Tuesday: At 9 p.m., Mars is one and a half fists above the west horizon. Jupiter is on the other side of the sky, two fists above the southeast horizon.

Wednesday: This evening, asteroid 2014 J025 will pass by the Earth at a distance that is only about four times greater than the Earth-Moon distance. That’s known as a close call. It won’t be bright enough to see with the naked eye. But it will be bright enough to see with a 4-inch telescope. At 10 p.m., it will be in the constellation Coma Berenices, about six fists above the east-southeast horizon. For more information about this asteroid, including detailed finder charts, go to https://goo.gl/0RLj8N.

Thursday: Are you thirsty when you get up in the morning? If so, that’s okay because the Big Dipper is positioned to hold water in the morning sky. Look three fists above the northwest horizon at 5 a.m. You’ll see three stars that make a bent handle and four stars that make a cup.

Friday: Remember the old saying: April showers bring… meteors. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight through tomorrow morning. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight and close to straight overhead near dawn. The best time to look is just before dawn since that is when the radiant, or point from which the meteors appear to come, is high in the sky. This year, the Moon is in the waning crescent phase to it will not be providing much light to obscure the meteors. Typically, this is one of the least interesting major meteor showers of the year. However, it is also one of the most unpredictable. As recently as 1982, there were 90 meteors visible during a single hour. In addition, the Lyrid meteor shower has historical interest because it was one of the first ones observed. Chinese records say “stars fell like rain” in the shower of 687 B.C. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/j87bVB. http://earthsky.org/?p=158735

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, April 6, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/8/17

Saturday: Mercury is a half a fist held upright and at arms length above the west-northwest horizon at 8:30 tonight. Mars is a little bit higher, two fists above the west horizon.

Sunday: You probably didn’t know this but several British New Wave bands were really into astronomy. Take the band “Dead or Alive” (please). The original lyrics to their song “You Spin me Round (Like a Record) were actually: “ You spin me right round, baby, right round, like the Whirlpool Galaxy, right round, round, round.” (Well, that’s what I thought they were.) The Whirlpool Galaxy was the first galaxy observed to have a spiral shape. Since then, astronomers have discovered many galaxies, including our own Milky Way Galaxy, have a spiral shape. Go to http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic0506a/ for more information about the Whirlpool Galaxy. Go to your small telescope to find the Whirlpool Galaxy in the night sky. It is in the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. At 10 p.m., find Alkaid, the end star of the Big Dipper handle, six fists above the north-northeast horizon. The Whirlpool Galaxy is two fingers to the upper right of Alkaid.

Monday: Poor Jupiter. Objects from space just keep bombarding it. On March 17 last year, two amateur astronomers, unbeknownst to each other, had their cameras aimed at Jupiter when a brief flash of light appeared on the limb. This is the fifth time such an impact has been observed in the past ten years. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/6eV7ql.  Tonight, nothing large is probably hitting Jupiter in the Solar System. But the Full Moon seems to come close to hitting Jupiter in the night sky. At 9 p.m., Jupiter is a half a fist to the upper right of the Moon.

Tuesday: The Lyrid meteor shower peaks next week. But there will be increased meteor activity for the next two weeks in the vicinity of the constellation Lyre. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at midnight and close to straight overhead near dawn.

Wednesday: It you didn’t run the Yakima River Canyon Marathon nearly two weeks ago, satisfy that marathon craving by attending a virtual Messier Marathon. Charles Messier (pronounced messy a) was an 18th century French astronomer best known for his catalog of 110 nebulae and star clusters. Amateur astronomers love to find as many of these as they can in one night. During the online Messier Marathon, you’ll see the images broadcast on the Internet. The fun starts this morning at 11:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (when astronomers on the nighttime side of Earth point their telescopes towards interesting celestial objects). For more information, go to https://goo.gl/FNm3NZ.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.

Friday: Antares is one fist below the Moon tomorrow morning at 6 a.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, March 15, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/25/17

Saturday: Has there ever been life on Mars? Astronomers don’t know. But the Mars Curiosity Rover has been digging up some strong evidence that Mars was hospitable to life in the past. At the end of 2012, the first drilling assignment for Curiosity found clay-like minerals that form in the presence of water. In December 2013, scientists announced the strongest evidence yet for an ancient fresh-water lake in Gale Crater. Planetary geologist John Grotzinger said that Earth microbes could have thrived in this lake if they were placed there. Last year, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile found evidence that Mars was once had an ocean that held more water than the Arctic Ocean and covered a greater percentage of Mars’ surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth. In brief, they came to this conclusion after analyzing the chemical signature of light that passes through the Martian atmosphere. For more information about this ancient ocean and the method of discovery, go to http://goo.gl/bOqD4U. Mars is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above southwest at 8:30 p.m.
By the way, the name of the observatory in Chile really is Very Large Telescope. See for yourself at http://www.eso.org/paranal.

Sunday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Monday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much hotter starlet”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.. The star(let) Antares is about a two fists to the lower right of Saturn.

Tuesday: Orion still has a prominent spot in the nighttime sky. The belt is three fists above due southwest at 9 p.m.

Wednesday: Mercury is about one fist above the west horizon at 8 p.m. The nearly New Moon is between Mercury and the west horizon.

Thursday:  April is Global Astronomy Month (GAM). While many astronomy experiences come from looking up, you can also experience astronomy looking down… at pen and paper. GAM has numerous arts initiatives and is looking for contributors. Even if you’ve never written a poem before, this is your opportunity to express your love for astronomy in a unique way and possibly share it with others. Go to http://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2017-programs/astroarts.html for more information about the AstroPoetry and AstroArt contests.

Friday: You need to get up early tomorrow to cheer on your favorite runners at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon starting at 8 a.m. on Canyon Road just south of Berry Road. So why not get a little viewing in? To symbolize the long trail of a marathon, follow the long trail of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It seems to rise up from the ground due south. It its highest, it is five fists above due east. It sinks back to the ground due north. The thickest part of the Milky Way is in the southern sky because that is the direction of the center of the galaxy.



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 3/18/17

Saturday: The elusive Mercury is a half a fist held upright and at arms length above due west at 7:40 p.m. The much brighter Venus is about one fist to the upper right of Mercury.

Sunday: Mars is two fists above due southwest at 8:30 p.m.

Monday: Look up in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. No, it’s the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox!? Spring starts at 3:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The first day of spring is often called the vernal equinox. This label for the day is misleading. The vernal equinox is actually the point in the sky where the Sun’s apparent path with respect to the background stars (called the ecliptic) crosses the line that divides the stars into north and south (called the celestial equator). This point is in the constellation Pisces the fishes. At the vernal equinox, the Sun is moving from the southern region of background stars to the northern region. Since the Sun crosses the vernal equinox at night, tomorrow will actually be the first full day of spring.
Because the Earth slowly wobbles like a spinning top, the vernal equinox is slowly moving into the constellation Aquarius. By the year 2597, the vernal equinox will reach the constellation Aquarius and the “Age of Aquarius” will begin. Until then, we’ll be in “the age of Pisces”.

Tuesday: The Milky Way is pretty easy to spot on the early spring sky. Just look up. Everything you see in the sky, including that bird that just startled you, is in the Milky Way. But, even the path of densely packed stars in the plane of our galaxy that look like a river of milk is easy to find. Look due south at 9 p.m. Follow the fuzzy path just to the left of the bright star Sirius two fists above the horizon, to the right of the bright star Procyon four and a half fists above the south horizon, through Capella six fists above the west horizon, through W-shaped Cassiopeia three fists above the northwest horizon, and down to due north where the bright star Deneb sits just above the horizon.

Wednesday: Astronomers are often fascinated with large objects. Planets that could fit 1000 Earths (Jupiter). Stars that would fill up the entire inner Solar System (Betelgeuse). Galaxies with 400 billion stars (Milky Way). But what about the smallest objects? One of the smallest stars is Proxima Centauri, the closest known star other than our Sun. It is about 12% of the mass of the Sun. Last year, astronomers even announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting Proxima Centauri indicating that even very small starts can have planets. The smallest theoretically possible star would be about 7.5% of the mass of the Sun. Any smaller and it could not support fusion reactions. For more on small stars, go to http://goo.gl/EHBdOX.

Thursday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Friday: If you want to put somebody off, tell her or him to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon. At 9:32 p.m., it will be as close as it gets to the horizon, about two degrees above due north. Watch it reach this due north position about 4 minutes earlier each night.


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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/11/17

Saturday: Don't forget to set you clocks ahead one hour tonight for the annual ritual called daylight savings. Daylight savings originated in the United States during World War I to save energy for the war effort. But a recent study by two economists shows that switching to daylight savings time may actually lead to higher utility bills. When the economists compared the previous few years of energy bills in the section of Indiana that just started observing daylight savings, they discovered that switching to daylight savings cost Indiana utility customers $8.6 million in electricity. In an even more important consequence of daylight savings, Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia discovered a 7% jump in traffic accidents on the Monday after we "spring ahead". Blame it on the lost hour of sleep. And, sky watchers will lose even more sleep because the sky stays light for an additional hour.

Sunday: This morning’s full moon is in the constellation Leo the lion. While we may refer to the moon tonight by the boring title, “a full moon in March”, Native Americans in the eastern United States called this moon the Full Worm Moon. By March, the temperature has increased enough so the ground starts to thaw and earthworms make their first appearance. Earthworms attract birds. Northern tribes thought of the bird connection when they referred to the March full moon as the Full Crow Moon. Tribes in parts of the country with maple trees call this full moon the Full Sap Moon. For more full moon names, go to http://www.almanac.com/content/full-moon-names.

Monday: “The crow rises in the southeast,” said spy number one. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize that code,” replied spy number two. Spy one exclaimed, “That’s because it’s not a code, you idiot. I’m talking about the constellation Corvus the crow.” This very bad spy movie dialogue is to remind you that Corvus had a very bad life. According to one myth, Corvus brought the god Apollo the news that his girlfriend was seeing someone else. In a classic case of punishing the messenger, Apollo turned the formerly beautifully colored crow black. The box-shaped Corvus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: If you ask an astrobiologist for the three most likely places to find evidence of life in the Solar System, other than Earth, they’d probably say Mars, Europa (“Didn’t they sing “The Final Countdown”?”), and Enceladus. Mars makes sense because you know scientists have sent a lot of probes there. Astronomers first discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, first piqued astrobiologists’ interest a few years ago then NASA’s Cassini probe discovered jets of water containing organic materials shooting out. Five years ago, the German space agency started a project called Enceladus Explorer, EnEx for short, to collect sample from deep within Enceladus. For more information on the Enceladus mission, go to http://goo.gl/VPxzs. At 8 p.m., Mars is two and a half fists above the west horizon. By 11 p.m., Jupiter and Europa are about one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon. By 6 a.m., Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south-southeast horizon. By the way, the Swedish group Europe sang “The Final Countdown”. And they were “heading for Venus” in the song, not to the worlds of the outer Solar System. Venus is one fist above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

Wednesday: Many artists have sung the song “Blue Moon”. But few have sung the song “New Moons”. It goes, in part “New Moons, you saw me standing with 27 others. Rolling around like a barrel. Without close sisters or bothers.” It’s about the planet Uranus, which orbits the Sun in a rolling motion. Astronomers recently reviewed old Voyager 2 images and think they may have discovered two more moons. Standing with the 27 that are already there. Uranus is one fist above due west at 8:15 p.m., easily visible with binoculars, half way between Venus and Mars.

Thursday: The group AC/DC sings that “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t noise pollution, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die.” Unfortunately, because of excess and improper outdoor lighting in cities, even those as small as Ellensburg, our view of the night sky is gonna die. As plain old ordinary AC (Astronomy club) would sing: “Bad street lights are light pollution, our night sky IS gonna die.” Lights that are aimed upward illuminate the atmosphere and obscure dim objects. To watch an informative and entertaining video about the effects of light pollution, go to https://goo.gl/UgJK33. To watch ACV/DC sing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, go to http://goo.gl/dZJ8my.

Friday: Ask someone which day in March has the same duration day and night. Go ahead, ask someone. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. If that person said the first day of spring, they are wrong. Today, three days before the first day of spring, is the date in which day and night are closest in duration. There are two main reasons for this. First, the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is actually below the horizon. This makes the Sun appear to rise before it actually rises and appear to set after is actually sets. Second, spring starts when the center of the Sun passes through the point called the vernal equinox. But, the Sun is not a point. The upper edge of the Sun rises about a minute before the center of the Sun and the lower edge sets a minute after the center of the Sun. Thus, even if we didn’t have an atmosphere that bends the sunlight, daytime on the first day of spring would still be longer than 12 hours.


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.