Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/20/16


Saturday: Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury crowd very low, making a small triangle above due west a half hour after sunset. Jupiter is at the upper left of the triangle, a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above due west. The bright Venus is less than a fist to the right of Jupiter. Mercury is lost in the glare below Jupiter.

Sunday: Arcturus is two fists above due west at 10:30 p.m. This star, whose name means bear watcher, is the brightest in the sky’s northern hemisphere. It follows Ursa Major, the Great Bear, around the North Star. Arcturus is the closest giant star to Earth. It is one of the few stars whose diameter can be measured directly rather than being inferred from its density and mass, which, themselves are derived from other parameters.

Monday: Had the script been written a little differently for a well-known Robin Williams movie, we might have heard Mr. Williams shout, “Goooood Morning Orion the hunter”. Orion is typically thought of as a winter constellation. But, it makes its first appearance in the summer sky. The lowest corner of Orion’s body, represented by the star Saiph (pronounced “safe”), rises at 3:30 a.m., well before the Sun. By 5:30 a.m., Orion’s belt is nearly three fists above the southeast horizon.

Tuesday: 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 in 2012 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 missions 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 https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/. While you won’t see anyone waving back, you can see Saturn, Mars, and the bright star Antares in a short line segment in the sky. Saturn is two fists above and Mars, which is about twice as bright as the ringed planet, is one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon. Antares is right below Mars.

Wednesday: Deneb is nearly straight overhead at 11:30 p.m. When you look at Deneb, you are seeing light that left Deneb about 1,800 years ago.

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: All stars rotate. Our Sun takes a little less than an Earth month to make one rotation. Astronomers have started to study the relationship between mass, stellar rotation, and planetary formation by aiming NASA’s Kepler space telescope toward the Pleiades open star cluster. All 1,000 stars in this group is nearly the same age, 125 million years old. Since all of the stars are the same age and formed from the same set of materials, astronomers have the ideal “laboratory” to isolate the role star mass plays on star rotation and evolution. Read more about the findings at http://goo.gl/osijIY. See the Pleiades for yourself, one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11:30 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/13/16

--> 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-northwest horizon at 10 p.m. For more information about this recently discovered galaxy, plus a zoomable image, go to http://goo.gl/5OXUX.

Sunday: Saturn, Mars, and Antares make an equilateral triangle about a fist and a half above the south-southwest horizon at 9 p.m. Mars, the brightest of the three objects, is on the right hand side and Saturn is on the top.

Monday: Let’s all sing the galactic black hole monster song: “D is for dusty, that’s good enough for me. D is for dusty that’s good enough for me. D is for dusty that’s good enough for me. Oh dusty, dusty, dusty starts with D.” Astronomers know that spiral galaxies such as our own have super massive black holes in the center, black holes that are billions of times the mass of the Sun. They thought they got to be this massive by mergers where two galaxies collide and the gas, dust and black holes at the center of each colliding galaxy form a larger central black hole. But many distant galaxies show no signs of galactic mergers. Astronomers think the black holes at the center of these galaxies grew simply by snacking on the gas and dust that comes from supernova explosions and normal star formation. Just like the Cookie Monster gains weight by snacking on individual cookies rather than eating a cookie factory. Cookie crumbs, I mean dust, block your view of the center of our galaxy.  It is about one fist above due south at 10 p.m., between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/L9ppJf.

Tuesday: Hit the road Mercury. And don’t you come back no more, no more. For a few weeks, Mercury has been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the sky. Today, Mercury is as far away from the Sun as it will get on the evening half of this cycle. This is known as its greatest eastern elongation. Yet, this distance does not translate into good viewing because Mercury will be very low in the sky…. Wait a minute. Look back at the April 16, 2016 entry of this column. I wrote the exact same thing. Am I just lazy, taking advantage of the secret organizations paying me a million doll hairs to write this column? Yes, I am. But, the statement is true once again and will be true in a few months. As the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury moves back and forth from the morning to the evening sky several times a year. In addition, it never gets very far from the Sun in the sky so it is almost always difficult to view.
Tonight, Mercury is less than a half a fist above due west at 8:30 p.m., between the much brighter Jupiter to its left and Venus to its right. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. After it passes in front of the Sun, it will appear in the morning sky by the end of September.

Wednesday: 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 10:00 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.

Thursday: The August full moon was called the full sturgeon moon by Midwest and northeastern Native American tribes because the sturgeon in lakes in this part of the country were easiest to catch during this full moon time.

Friday: Hercules stands six fists above the southwest horizon at 10:00 this evening. Four moderately bright stars form a lopsided square that represents his body, while his head points southward.

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, August 2, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/6/16


Saturday: The Perseid meteor shower hits its peak late for the next few nights with Thursday and Friday being the peak of the peak. The meteors appear to come from a point just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon. If you fall asleep or forget to set your alarm, you will be able to observe this shower from about 11 p.m. to dawn for the next few nights in about the same location in the sky. The Perseid shower is one of the longest lasting showers. With dark skies owing to the moon being below the horizon during peak viewing times, you may see over 100 meteors per hour in the late night and early morning hours all week. For tips about optimizing your viewing this year, go to http://goo.gl/Ylk9jA. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. These meteors are sand to pea-sized bits of rock that fell off of Comet Swift-Tuttle. They are traveling about 40 miles per second as they collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Sunday: At 8:45 tonight, Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus make a two fist wide line, low on the horizon, angling down toward the west horizon. Venus, the brightest of the three, is on the bottom right of the line and Jupiter is on the upper left.

Monday: Sometimes you get to your car and realize that you are missing your keys or your sunglasses. The asteroid, dwarf planet, and fifth Beatle (not really) Ceres is missing craters. Astronomers thought there would be many large, old craters marking the surface of Ceres. Instead, close-up images from NASA’s Dawn mission shows that Ceres is covered with numerous small, young craters. Possible explanations include the relatively soft icy surface smoothing out over time or that eruptions from ice volcanoes, called cryovolcanoes, buried the older craters. Read more about this “whodunit” at http://goo.gl/uoU9kc. Ceres is visible in small telescopes or even 10x50 binoculars, three and a half fists above due southeast at 4 a.m. First find Menkar, the second brightest star in Cetus the sea monster. It is a reddish star a little east of due southeast and a little more than three fists above the horizon. Then move your binoculars to the upper right until a star about half as bright as Menkar is in the lower left portion of your field of view. Ceres will be a point of light in the upper right portion of your field of view, looking like part of an arc of stars.

Tuesday: Altair, at one corner of the Summer Triangle, is four fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Altair is one of the closest bright stars, so close that fictional astronauts visited a planet orbiting Altair in the 1956 movie “Forbidden Planet”.

Wednesday: Saturn, Mars, and Antares make an equilateral triangle about two fists above the south horizon at 9 p.m. Mars, the brightest of the three objects, is on the right hand side and Saturn is on the top.

Thursday: Many big city dwellers never see the milky white, nearly continuous band of stars known as the Milky Way. As cities grow and add more lights, it has become harder to see the bulk of the Milky Way galaxy, our home in the universe. But, there are two easy ways to see the Milky Way. The first way is to look in the mirror. You are part of the Milky Way. The second way is to look from due north through the point straight overhead (called the zenith) to due south from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for the next two weeks. This is the time of year when the Milky Way is highest in the sky and away from the city lights on the horizon.

Friday: Friday night is date night and there is no better date than going to the Wild Horse Renewable Energy Center to view the Perseid meteor shower. The event starts with kids activities at 8 p.m. and a twilight turbine tour at 8:30 p.m. The viewing starts at 10 p.m. The CWU Astronomy Club and other people will be there with telescopes. This will be a great opportunity to see meteors, distant celestial objects, and the Milky Way. For more information, go to https://goo.gl/tlPPSD.

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.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/30/16


Saturday: Mercury is less than a pinky width from Regulus. They are a half a fist held upright and at arm's length above the west-northwest horizon at 9 pm, with Mercury being the dot on top. The much brighter Venus is a little lower and to the right of the pair. 

Sunday: If you want to show your loved ones a celestial sign that they should hang up their clothes, show them Brocchi's Cluster, commonly known as the Coat Hanger cluster because of its resemblance to an upside down coat hanger. The cluster is six fists above the southeast horizon at 10:30 p.m., midway between Altair and Vega, the two brightest stars in the Summer Triangle. You'll need binoculars to make out the shape. First find Altair four fists above the southeast horizon. Slowly move your binoculars up toward Vega. You will run into the coat hanger along the way. And while you are at it, put away your shoes. 

Monday: In Scotland, August 1 was known as Lammas, the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year. You can remember this by looking at Spica, named after the Latin word for “ear of wheat”, one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. August 1 is known as a cross-quarter day, a day approximately half way between an equinox and a solstice. 

Tuesday: Seventeenth century astronomers documented the appearance of a new star, or “nova”, in 1670. However as modern astronomers studied the records of the star, called Nova Vulpeculae 1670, they realized it didn’t have the characteristics of a typical nova because it didn’t repeatedly brighten and dim. It brightened twice and disappeared for good. Turning their telescopes to the region, they discovered the chemical signature to be characteristic of a very rare collision of two stars. For more information about this discovery, go to http://goo.gl/rJnC2G. Nova Vulpeculae 1670 is right below the binary star system Alberio, the head of Cygnus the swan. Alberio is seven fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. 

Wednesday: It’s a moonless August morning. The first remnant of dawn has not appeared yet. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the east sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the east horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the horizon about two hours before sunrise. Don’t be scared. It’s not really a ghost. It is an effect called the zodiacal light. This light comes from sunlight reflecting off dust grains in our solar system. The effect is the most visible when the band of constellations called the zodiac makes a steep angle with the horizon. You need a clear dark sky with no haze or light pollution to see the zodiacal light. At its brightest, the zodiacal light rivals the light of the central Milky Way. This is one of the best times of year to see the zodiacal light in the morning. 
This is also one of the best times of the year to see meteors. The Perseid meteor shower peaks early next week. But you should see increased meteor activity later this week just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon. 

Thursday: Do you want an easy way to find due north? A compass points to magnetic north, which is a few degrees off of true geographic north. Well, tonight’s your night. Capella, the brightest star in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, is due north at exactly 9:23 p.m. It looks like a bright light on a pole on the north ridge because is only about one degree above the horizon. 

Friday: Jupiter is less than a pinky width above the crescent moon tonight. Catch them early because they set before 10 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/23/16


Are you planning to travel to London to see the new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opens July 30? Then you better review some of the characters from the series.

Saturday: At 9:15 p.m., the bright star Regulus is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. But, who is this Regulus? He has many potential identities. The most interesting from a pop culture standpoint is Regulus Black, the brother of Sirius Black who is Harry Potter’s godfather. Regulus Black was a former follower of Voldemort, the bad guy of the Harry Potter series. However, Regulus tried to dissociate himself from Voldemort and was killed. He would be in the pile of forgotten Harry Potter characters except that he is so interesting. Also, in the sixth book, Harry found an important note written by someone known only by the initials R.A.B. Hmmm. R.A.B. Regulus A. Black perhaps? Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter are near Regulus in the sky. Venus, the brightest of the four celestial objects, and Mercury are less than a fist to the lower right of Regulus and Jupiter is a little more than a fist to the upper left.

Sunday: But what does the “A” stand for? Anthony? Abercrombie? Alfonzo? Not astronomical enough. It stands for Arcturus, the second brightest star visible in the nighttime sky in Washington and at Hogwarts. Arcturus is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. The bright star Spica is below Arcturus, one third of the way up from the southwest horizon.

Monday: Bellatrix Lestrange is Sirius Black’s cousin. But, far from being kissing cousins. They are killing cousins. Bellatrix kills Sirius in a fight at the Ministry of Magic. Bellatrix the star is the third brightest star in the constellation Orion the hunter. It is one fist above the east horizon at 4:45 a.m.

Tuesday: Of course, Bellatrix is in cahoots with “he who must not be named”. Now, that’s a poorly written sentence, using an obscure synonym for “conspiring” and a vague reference. I must be under the curse “writicus dreadfulium”. Clearly this is the work of Tom Riddle, whose mother is named Merope Gaunt. Merope is a star in the Pleiades, an open star cluster nearly four fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Wednesday: Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter’s young nemesis, is related to Sirius Black. Draco’s mother, Narcissa Black (Sirius’ cousin), helped develop a plan to trap Harry at the Ministry of Magic in the fifth book. Draco’s namesake, the constellation Draco the dragon, is one of the largest constellations in the sky, winding around the North Star. Draco’s head is a four-sided figure nearly straight overhead at 11 p.m.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon and Mars is a little less than two fists above the south-southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. They are in the constellation Scorpius. Draco Malfoy was so impressed with this constellation name that he used it for the first name of his son.

Friday: Not every woman in the Black family is evil. Let’s focus on the good. Andromeda Black, Bellatrix’s sister, is a good witch and the mother of Tonks, a young witch from the last few Harry Potter books. (If these Harry Potter references are confusing, you better start reading the books.) Andromeda the constellation is an interesting one. It contains the Andromeda galaxy, the most distant object visible with the naked eye from a dark site. To locate the Andromeda Galaxy, first find the Great Square of Pegasus. At 11 p.m., the left hand corner of the square is about two and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon. Less than two fists to the left and down a little bit is another star the same brightness as the star at the corner of the square. From that star, hop about a half a fist up to a star that is about one fourth as bright. Less than another half fist in the same direction is a fuzzy oval patch of light known as the Andromeda Galaxy. The galaxy is impressive to see in binoculars. It consists of about 400 billion stars and is 2.2 million light years away.

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/16/16

--> Saturday: Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Look to the west-northwest sky right after sunset to see a close conjunction of Mercury and Venus. Mercury is about a half a degree above the much brighter Venus. They are so close together in the sky, you could not even fit the full moon in between them. By about 9:30 p.m., they will have both set.

Sunday: The Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks for the next few weeks into mid-August. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Aquarius near the star Delta Aquarii, also known as Skat. This point is about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 1 am tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain a fist above Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that section of the sky. The best time to view the shower is just before morning twilight. For more information about this year’s shower, go to http://goo.gl/Uoxvda. 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.

Monday: Last week marked the one-year anniversary of NASA’s New Horizons probe passing by Pluto. If the band Nirvana was still together, they’d probably rewrite one of their hit songs to be called Heart-Shaped Spot, after one of Pluto’s most distinctive features. “She eyes me like a dwarf planet when I am weak. I’ve been imaging your heart-shaped spot for weeks.” Astronomers think this heart-shaped spot is a large plain of nitrogen ice that consists of convective cells 10-30 miles across. Solid nitrogen is warmed in the interior of Pluto, becomes buoyant, and bubbles up to the surface like a lava lamp. You will find great pictures and information about what New Horizons found this past year at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/. Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint. People should be more interested in astronomy.

Tuesday: Jupiter is one and a half fists above the western horizon at 9:30 p.m.

Wednesday: Take a two and a half hour walk. Too long, you say? Forty-seven years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first ever walk by humans on another world. They spend two and a half hours setting up scientific instruments and collecting rocks for study back on Earth. Michael Collins orbited the Moon in the spacecraft the astronauts would use to return to Earth.

Thursday: At 9:30 p.m., Saturn is a little more than two fists above due south and Mars is a little less than two fists above the south-southwest horizon.

Friday: Hot enough for you? If not, astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope think they have discovered a planet with lava pools. This planet, called 55 Cancri e, is about twice the diameter of Earth and is tidally locked with its star, called 55 Cancri a (notice a pattern?). For more information about this discovery, go to http://goo.gl/wsEGRz.

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, July 8, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/9/16

Saturday: These next few weeks will be a great time to try see all five naked eye planets in the evening sky. Venus and Mercury are very low in the west-northwest sky right after sunset so they are the most challenging. But both are moving away from the Sun in the sky. By the end of the week, they will be right next to each other in the sky. Let’s start with an easy one tonight because it is a laid back Saturday. Jupiter is a fist held out at arm’s length to the lower right of the Moon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: Being in a coma is a bad thing. Looking at the Coma Star Cluster is a good thing. The Coma Star Cluster is an open cluster of about 50 stars that takes up more space in the sky than 10 full Moons. It looks like a fuzzy patch with the naked eye. Binoculars reveal dozens of sparkling stars. A telescope actually diminishes from the spectacle because the cluster is so big and the telescope’s field of view is so small. The Coma Star Cluster is in the faint constellation Coma Berenices (ba-ron-ice’-ez) or Queen Berenice’s hair. Queen Berenice of Egypt cut off her beautiful hair as a sacrifice to the gods for the safe return of her husband Ptolemy III from battle. The Coma Star Cluster is about three fists above the west horizon at 11:00 p.m. 

Monday: Tonight’s first quarter Moon is in the constellation Virgo. The bright star Spica is about a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon.

Tuesday: What you see with the naked eye isn’t all that can be seen. While astronomers can learn a lot from observing the sky in the visible wavelengths, many celestial objects radiate more light, and more information, in wavelengths such as radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. In 2012, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to study objects that radiate in the infrared range such as asteroids, cool dim stars, and luminous galaxies. For an interesting comparison of how different wavelengths show different aspects of celestial objects, go to http://goo.gl/nvuax. For example, if it weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies. 

Wednesday: The long summer days remind us to take some time to safely observe the Sun. The best way to do that is to go to http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/ and watch the great images and videos that come from the Solar Dynamics Observer, or SDO for short. We are moving toward a sunspot minimum so the Sun has not been very active lately. So what, you say? Sunspots and associated phenomena greatly influence the strength of solar flares. The strongest flares can affect satellites orbiting the Earth and even electronics on the Earth’s surface. So, an inactive Sun means our satellites are safer. That means you will be able to call your friends on your cell phone when you see the elusive Mercury and the much brighter Venus low in the west-northwest sky a few minutes after sunset.

Thursday: The Moon joins a crowded part of the sky tonight. At 10 p.m., Saturn is a little over two fists and the bright star Antares is one and a half fists above due south. Mars, the brightest point of light in the region, is one fist below the Moon.

Friday: Say "Cheese". 166 years ago Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, became the first star ever photographed. The photograph was done at the Harvard Observatory using the daguerreotype process. Vega is the third brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg, behind Sirius and Arcturus. Vega is nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight. 

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