Friday, February 14, 2020

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of February 15, 2020


Saturday:   The sky is so wondrous. It makes me want to sing. Who can forget that memorable song by Three Dog Constellations Night, “The sky is black. The stars are white. Together we learn to find the light.” Well, maybe it didn’t go like that. Which is good. Because not all stars are white. Most stars are too dim to notice a color. But, two of the stars in the constellation Orion provide a noticeable contrast with each other. Betelgeuse, five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southern horizon at 8:00 p.m. is a red giant. Rigel, the bright star about two fists to the lower right of Betelgeuse, is a blue giant.
By the way, the three dog constellations are Canis Major, the greater dog, found one and a half fists to the lower left of Orion; Canis Minor, the lesser dog, found two and a half fists to the left of Betelgeuse; and Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs, found low in the northeast sky, halfway between the Big Dipper and the horizon. Canis Major contains Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.

Sunday: Mercury is a little less than a fist above the western horizon at 6:00 p.m. The much brighter Venus is three fists above the southwestern horizon at this time.

Monday: This President’s Day, let’s remember Abraham Lincoln: 16th president, country lawyer, man on the penny, vampire hunter, and astronomer. Vampire hunter? No. Astronomer? Well, maybe not an astronomer, but someone who used observational evidence from the sky to solve a problem. In 1858, Lincoln defended Duff Armstrong, a family friend who was accused of murder. The prosecution thought they had a strong case because their primary witnesses claimed to have observed the killing by the light of the nearly full moon. Let’s listen in on the trial courtesy of the 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: How’d you see so well?
Witness: I told you it was Moon bright, Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: Moon bright.
Witness: Yes.
(Dramatic pause as Lincoln reaches for something)
Lincoln: Look at this. Go on, look at it. It’s the Farmer’s Almanack (sic). You see what it says about the Moon. That the Moon… set at 10: 21, 40 minutes before the killing took place. So you see it couldn’t have been Moon bright, could it?
Lincoln used the known information about Moon rising and setting times for August 29, 1858 as evidence in a trial. This is one of the earliest uses of forensic astronomy. For more information about Lincoln’s “almanac trial”, go to http://goo.gl/r83q4X

Tuesday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, at that time classified as the ninth planet. However, as astronomers started discovering a lot of similar objects in that part of the solar system, they realized that they had a classification crisis on their hands. Should everything in this region of the solar system be named a planet? Eventually the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto and all future Pluto-like objects as dwarf planets. 

Wednesday: Jupiter is less than a half a fist to the left of the waning crescent Moon at 6:00 a.m. Saturn is a fist to the lower left of Jupiter, just above the southeastern horizon. 

Thursday: Clyde Tombaugh discovered the first planet 9. Will you discover the new Planet 9? You and thousands of others will have the opportunity to comb through images of the sky from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). You’ll view short “flipbook” movies of the same patch of sky on different nights. Any point of light that moves could be Planet 9 or another undiscovered Solar System object. Read about how you can join the search for Planet 9 at https://goo.gl/D4PkCD

Friday: Waking up too early? Mars is waking up early, too. It rises at 4:00 a.m. By 5:00 a.m., it is nearly one fist above the southeastern 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of January 25, 2020


Saturday:  Venus is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwestern horizon at 6:00 p.m. For the next few days, you can use Venus, a very bright object, to find Neptune, a very dim object. First find Venus using a pair of 10X50 binoculars and put Venus in the lower right hand portion of the field of view. There should be a medium bright star in the center to upper left portion. Neptune is a very dim point of light between Venus and the medium bright star.  Venus will move upward for the next few weeks. On Monday evening, Venus will have moved upward a little bit such that Neptune will be right below Venus in the field of view. They will even be in the same field of view for small telescopes.

Sunday: Do you ever take photos to spy on your neighbors? The Hubble Space Telescope does. Last week, Hubble scientists released the best ever image of the Triangulum Galaxy, the second closest spiral galaxy to Earth. Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys weaved together 54 separate images to provide enough detail to see 10 million individual stars out of the estimated 40 billion stars in the galaxy. See the pictures at https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1901/

Monday: Mars is one and a half fists above the south-southeastern horizon at 6:30 a.m. It rival Antares is one fist to the east of Mars. By using the term “rival”, I am not trying to drum up controversy. The name “Antares” literally means “rival to Mars” because of their similar colors and brightness. And just like real rivalries, the similarities are deceiving. Mars is red because of an abundance of iron oxide, the same material as in rust. Antares is red because its surface glows with a light energy corresponding to red, like the coils of an electric stove. Mars is bright because it is a nearby object reflecting the light of a nearby object. Antares is bright even though it is far away because it is huge, about the same size as Jupiter’s orbit.

Tuesday: At 10:30 p.m., the blue giant star called Adhara is one and a half fists above due south. It is the 22nd brightest star in the sky. Currently over 430 light years away, Adhara was only 34 light years away five million years ago. That proximity made it the brightest star in the nighttime sky at the time.

Wednesday: 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 overachievers in your house), you are NOT sitting still with respect to the center of the galaxy. For more information about this concept, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/docs/HowFast.pdf

Thursday: If someone gives you a ring and says, “this ring symbolizes our eternal love, just like the rings of Saturn are eternal”, don’t doubt their love. But do doubt their astronomy knowledge. According to data recently analyzed from the Cassini Mission, Saturn’s rings may be only 10 to 100 million years old. As Cassini passed between Saturn and the rings, it was able to get the best estimate yet of the mass of the rings. Saturn’s rings are made mostly of ice and are still very bright and clean. Older rings would be darkened by debris. Also, the ring particles get pulverized by collisions over time. If this relatively low mass of ring particles were older, they would have been destroyed by now. For more information about the lifespan of Saturn’s rings, go to Saturn’s rings https://www.universetoday.com/141272/saturns-rings-are-only-10-to-100-million-years-old/. Saturn is just above the southeastern horizon at 7:00 a.m., to the lower left of the much brighter Jupiter.

Friday: The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its monthly First Saturday planetarium show tomorrow from noon to 1 p.m. The CWU Planetarium Outreach and Research Group - the PORGs - will be doing a Valentine’s show about love stories in the sky. The show is free and open to all ages. There will be a show at noon on the first Saturday of every month of 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.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of January 18, 2020


Saturday:  Winter is the best season for finding bright stars. And if you only want to set aside a few minutes, 10 p.m. tonight just might be the best time because the winter hexagon is due south. Starting at the bottom, find Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southern horizon. Going clockwise, Procyon (6th brightest star visible from Washington state) is about two and a half fists to the upper left of Sirius. Pollux (12th brightest) is about two and a half fists above Procyon. Capella (4th brightest) is about two and a half fists to the upper right of Procyon and close to straight overhead. Going back to Sirius at the bottom, Rigel (5th brightest) is about two and a half fists to the upper right of Sirius. Aldebaran (9th brightest) is about three fists above Rigel. Adhara (16th brightest) is a little more than a fist below Sirius and Castor (17th brightest) is right above Pollux. Betelgeuse (21st brightest) is in the center of the hexagon. That’s nine of the 21 brightest stars visible in the northern United States in one part of the sky. This list used to be nine of the 17 brightest. But Betelgeuse has dimmed from the 7th to the 21st brightest star in the sky. For more information about this dimming, go to https://youtu.be/FosDJOVaKFc

Sunday: Mars is on the south-southeastern sky, less than a half a fist to the lower left of the waning crescent Moon at 7:00 a.m. Jupiter is just above the southeastern horizon.

Monday: Let’s review three important sets of three cats. There’s Josie, Valerie, and Melody of Josie and the Pussycats. Felix, Tom, and Sylvester from old time cartoons. And, if you want to get away from the mind-numbing effects of television, there’s Leo the lion, Leo Minor, and Lynx in the night sky. Leo is by far the most prominent of these three constellations. Its brightest star called Regulus is three and a half fists above the east-southeastern horizon at 11 p.m. The backwards question mark-shaped head of Leo is above Regulus and the trapezoid-shaped body is to the left of it. Leo Minor consists of a few dim stars right above Leo. Pretty wimpy. The long dim constellation called Lynx spans from just above Leo Minor to nearly straight overhead. You and fellow stargazers won’t need to wear a long tail or ears for hats to enjoy these stellar cats.

Tuesday: Venus is two fists above the southwestern horizon at 6:00 p.m.

Wednesday: You never see a giraffe on the ground in Ellensburg. But you can look for one every night in the sky. The constellation Camelopardalis the giraffe is circumpolar from Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees north meaning it is always above the horizon. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the appearance of the stars in Camelopardalis. The brightest star in the constellation appears only about half as bright as the dimmest star in the Big Dipper. However, the actual luminosities of the three brightest stars in Camelopardalis are very high, each at least 3,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Alpha Camelopardalis, a mind boggling 600,000 times more luminous than the Sun, is seven fists above the northern horizon at 9:00 p.m.

Thursday: Draco Malfoy makes an appearance in all seven books of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps you’ve heard of these. But, the constellation Draco the dragon makes an appearance in the sky every night. It is a circumpolar constellation as viewed from Ellensburg meaning it never goes below the horizon. The head of the dragon is one fist above due north at 9:30 p.m. Eltanin, the brightest star in the constellation, is at the lower left-hand corner of the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco.

Friday: The moon is almost directly between the Earth and the Sun today. 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 that 2013 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, goto https://www.popsci.com/what-would-happen-if-moon-suddenly-disappeared/. For more information on Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Cruise.

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.