Friday, July 24, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/1/15

Saturday: 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 held upright and at arm’s length 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.

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: Regulus, Jupiter, and the elusive Mercury make a straight line in the sky for the next three nights. Regulus and Jupiter stay close together, just above the west-northwest horizon at 9:00 p.m. Mercury is a half a fist to the right of Jupiter. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Mercury moves closer to the pair.

Tuesday: 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 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.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Friday: Mars is finally escaping the glare of the Sun, showing up a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon at 5 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/25/15

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? Summer is a great time to read the books. Just seeing the movies is not good enough. Venus and Jupiter are just below Regulus in the sky. Venus, the brightest of the trio, is to the lower left of Regulus and Jupiter is to the lower right.

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 five fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. The bright star Spica is below Arcturus, one third of the way up 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 poor sentence, using an obscure synonym for “conspiring” and a non-specific 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 about two fists above the east-northeast horizon at 4 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-southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m., right next to 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, talk to an adolescent about them.) 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 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 16, 2015

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 7/18/15

Saturday: Now that New Horizons has passed Pluto and completed the busiest part of its mission, it has time to get back to its real passion: music. That should come as no surprise once you realize that one of Pluto’s moons is called Styx, just like the band that gave us “Mr. Roboto”. Most of the striking images show how red Pluto is. As New Horizons rhythmically passed by Pluto, it wrote, “The planet in red is dancing with me” for noted songwriter and space junkie Chris de Burgh. It honored UB40 and the object formerly known as the ninth planet with the lyrics “Red red nine you make me feel so fine, you keep me ice and rocking all of the time”. You won’t find these lyrics. But you will find great pictures and new information about the Pluto system at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/. Domo Arigato New Horizons.

Sunday: Hot enough for you? If not, astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope think they have discovered a molten planet orbiting a star almost right next door on an astronomical scale – only 33 light years away. This planet is about two-thirds the diameter of Earth and is VERY close to its parent star – about 2% of the Earth-Sun distance. The star, GJ 436, is a dim red dwarf star. For more information about this discovery, read the NASA press release at http://goo.gl/9nY8w.

Monday: Take a two and a half hour walk. Too long, you say? Forty-six 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.

Tuesday: The Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks for the next few weeks with the best viewing being the next few nights and the second full week in 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 about 3 a.m. From the end of July through the first week in August, the moon will be out, obscuring the dimmer meteors. For more information about this year’s shower, go to http://goo.gl/Uoxvda. As you 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.

Wednesday: Venus is just above the west-northwest horizon at 9:15.  Jupiter should come into view to the upper right of Venus within the next few minutes.

Thursday: If you are interested in observing the dark skies of Kittitas County, please come to a public forum this evening at 6:00 pm at the Copper Kettle on Water Street and West University Way in Ellensburg. We’ll be discussing the formation of a community astronomy club, learning a little astronomy, and observing the Sun with a proper filter.

Friday: Saturn is two fists above the south-southwest horizon at 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 9, 2015

The Ellensburg sky for the week of July 11, 2015

Saturday: Venus will really be negative for the next few nights. But, don’t feel bad for Venus. It is okay for a celestial object to be negative as long as we are referring only to its magnitude. The ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus developed a system for rating the apparent brightness of stars and planets in which lower numbers refer to brighter stars and planets. In his initial scheme, all points of light in the night sky were classified from first magnitude, meaning bright, to sixth magnitude, meaning very dim. Modern day astronomers have made this scale more quantitative. Tonight and tomorrow, Venus has a magnitude, or apparent brightness rating, of -4.5. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, has a brightness rating of -1.5. That’s about the same magnitude as Jupiter is tonight. Venus is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 10 p.m. Jupiter is about a half a fist to the right of Venus. The star Regulus is less than a half fist to the upper left.

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: Saturn is two and a half fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: New Horizons arrives at Pluto at about 4:50 a.m. PDT. But don’t be waiting by your computer for the latest images. First of all, it takes about five hours for the signal to get from Pluto to Earth. Second of all, New Horizons will be spending hours with its instruments pointed toward Pluto, not Earth. NASA TV will host a show from mission headquarters from about 5:30-6:15 p.m. PDT today to broadcast the celebration when the first signal from Pluto arrives. From 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. tomorrow, NASA TV will show the first close-up images from Pluto. For more information about NASA TV coverage of the event, go to https://goo.gl/oCtlGd. For more information about the mission, go to http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/.

Wednesday: Mercury is less than a half a fist above the northeast horizon at 5 a.m. If you have binoculars, you may be able to spot a much dimmer Mars to the lower left of Mercury.

Thursday: 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 just moving away from a sunspot maximum so the Sun has 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.

Friday: Say "Cheese". 165 years ago today, 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.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/4/15

Saturday: Tonight, while you are looking at an explosion of fireworks, the NASA spacecraft Kepler may be looking at an “explosion” of exoplanets. So far, Kepler has found 1028 planets whose presence has been confirmed by other means and evidence of 4,664 planet candidates. Something is called a planet candidate when the light from a star being observed by Kepler dims in a systematic way. Astronomers still need to compare the pattern of dimming with the potential pattern of star wobble caused by being tugged on by one or more planets before they can say for certain that they have actually found planets orbiting these stars. But if even half of these stars show the characteristic wobble, it will more than double the number of planets known to orbit other stars, also known as exoplanets. And this is only the beginning. The Kepler spacecraft is monitoring the brightness of over 156,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre. This region is midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. It is about the size of your hand held at arm’s length and is about six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 11 p.m. For more information about the Kepler mission, go to http://kepler.nasa.gov/.

Sunday: Venus and Jupiter shine like two asymmetric headlights; low in the western sky at 10 p.m. Venus is the brighter of the two, on the left. At the same time, Saturn is two and a half fists above due south.

Monday: Hot enough for you? Don’t blame the Earth-Sun distance. Surprisingly, the overall temperature of the Earth is slightly higher in July, when the Earth is farthest from the Sun, than in January, when it is closest. That’s because in July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. (This is the real cause of the seasons.) The Northern Hemisphere has more land than the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, in July, the large amount of Northern Hemisphere land heats up the entire Earth about two degrees Celsius warmer than in January. In January, the watery Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun. But, water does not heat up as fast as land so the Earth is a few degrees cooler. The distance between the Earth and Sun is its greatest today, 152.1 million kilometers. This is called aphelion from the Greek prefix “apo” meaning “apart” and Helios, the Greek god of the Sun.

Tuesday: The nine-year wait is almost over. Next Tuesday morning at 4:49 PDT, the New Horizons mission will make its closest approach to Pluto. As the spacecraft approaches Pluto, the ever less distant images are causing astronomers to ask new questions. What are those equally spaces spots on the equator of Pluto? Why are Pluto and its largest Moon Charon so different in color? Is that really a giant crater on Pluto? For answers to these and other questions, many of which have not even been asked yet, go to http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/. While you are waiting, watch this NASA documentary about the mission: https://youtu.be/EJxwWpaGoJs. Pluto is in the constellation Sagittarius, one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. It is too dim to be seen with anything smaller than a fairly large backyard telescope.

Wednesday: This morning’s last quarter Moon is in the constellation Pisces the fish.

Thursday: Look straight up at midnight. The head of Draco the dragon will be looking straight down on you. The brightest star in the head is called Eltanin. If you chose to wait a VERY long time, Eltanin will be the brightest star in the night sky. Currently 154 light years away, it is moving towards Earth and will be only 28 light years away in about 1.3 million years, claiming the title as brightest star.

Friday: Mercury peeks up above the northeast horizon at 4:30 a.m., 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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/27/15

Saturday: Venus and Jupiter are moving towards each other in the early evening sky this week. They are one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 9:30 p.m. with the much brighter Venus being on the bottom. By Tuesday night, they’ll be close enough together in the sky to be in the same field of view of slam backyard telescopes.

Sunday: 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 four fists above the east horizon at 10 p.m.

Monday: Saturn is two and a half fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: Happy Asteroid Day (http://www.asteroidday.org/), the day we celebrate avoiding the destruction of the Earth by an undiscovered asteroid. There are a million asteroids in the Solar System with the potential to strike Earth and destroy a city. Astronomers have discovered only 1% of them. Asteroid Day is an effort to educate the public and encourage policy makers to fund this important effort.

Wednesday: July is typically the month when the antlers of a young buck push out of its head so some Native American groups call this month’s full moon the Full Buck Moon. Tonight, the Full Buck Moon is in the constellation Sagittarius the archer.

Thursday: Last week, I wrote about Mizar. This week, I need to warn you not to confuse Mizar with its rhyming brother Izar in the constellation Bootes. Izar is also a binary star with about the same apparent brightness. And both were featured in different episodes of Star Trek. Izar was featured in the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” from the original series. It is the base of Fleet Captain Garth, a former big shot in the federation and one of Kirk’s heroes before he went insane. Garth kidnaps Kirk and Spock before eventually being out smarted. Mizar doesn’t play as big a role in its episode. It is the star of the home world of one of the alien species in The Next Generation episode “Allegiance”. Izar is one fist above the bright star Arcturus and seven fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m. Mizar is seven fists above the northwest horizon at this time.

Friday: The Pluto mission called New Horizons (http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/) is less than two weeks from reaching its target. On July 14 at 4:49 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, New Horizons will pass within about 10,000 km of Pluto. That’s the distance from Seattle to Taipei, Taiwan! There will be only one fly-by of Pluto in your lifetime and this is it. Read about it. Watch the short video (https://youtu.be/aky9FFj4ybE). Tell your friends.


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, June 19, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/20/15

Saturday:  Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon crowd the western sky just after sunset. Venus, the brightest point of light in the night sky is to the right of the Moon. Jupiter, the second brightest point of light is between the two. 

Sunday: Today is the first day of summer, the day that the Sun reaches its highest declination (the official name for sky latitude) of 23.5 degrees above the celestial equator. The celestial equator is the line that divides the northern sky from the southern sky. In Ellensburg, the Sun is about seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 1:00 p.m. (noon standard time). Contrary to popular belief, the Sun is never straight overhead in Ellensburg or anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states. The northernmost portion of the world where the Sun can be directly overhead is 23.5 degrees north latitude. In ancient times, the Sun was in the constellation Cancer the crab on the first day of summer. Hence, 23.5 degrees north latitude has the nickname "Tropic of Cancer". Because the Earth wobbles like a spinning top, the Sun's apparent path through the sky changes slightly over time. Now, the Sun is in the constellation Taurus the bull on the first day of summer. However, citing the high cost of revising all of the science books, geographers are not changing the name of 23.5 degrees north latitude to "Tropic of Taurus". The first day of summer is often called the summer solstice. However, astronomers refer to the summer solstice as the point in the sky in which the Sun is at its highest point above the celestial equator. Thus, summer starts when the Sun is at the summer solstice point. This year, that happens at 9:38 a.m. 


Monday: Constellation light, constellation bright. The first constellation I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, recognize these stars in ten on nights. The orientations of the stars provide an effective backdrop to help us remember stories because these orientations are relatively unchanging. Stars are so far away that their positions do not change over thousands or, in some cases, millions of years. But a few bright stars are close enough or do move fast enough to change the shapes. For example, in about 30,000 years, the Little Dipper will no longer hold water. (Luckily, it comes with a lifetime warranty.) For more information about the future of some of your favorite constellations, go to http://goo.gl/qP2BR3 

Tuesday: “Mom, I can’t sleep. It is too light out!” A poor excuse you say? Good astronomy skills, I say. The latest sunset of the year happens late this week. Surprisingly, the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset do not both happen on the longest day of the year, the day of the summer solstice. The earliest sunrise occurs just before the longest day and the latest sunset occurs just after the longest day. This phenomenon relates to the angle of the Sun’s path near rising and setting. In Ellensburg, that angle is about 66 degrees near the first day of summer. Because of the Earth’s orbit, which causes the Sun’s apparent motion, the angles are not symmetric. The asymmetries in orbital angles leads to the asymmetry in rise and set times. By the way, picking a specific night to give you the “can’t sleep because it is too light out” line may just be an excuse because the sunset times change by only a few seconds each day in June. This year, the sun sets between 9:01 and 9:02 p.m. between June 21 and July 3. 

Wednesday: Tonight's first quarter Moon is in the constellation Virgo the goddess of the harvest. 

Thursday: Don’t wait until the 4th of July to go to those wimpy firecracker shows. Find the hypergiant star Rho Cassiopeiae. Astronomers think that Rho Cassiopeiae will likely go supernova (explode) in the near future. Of course, for stars, near future might mean today. It might mean 20,000 years from now. Rho Cassiopeiae is in the constellation Cassiopeia the queen. At 11:00 tonight, Cassiopeia looks like the letter “W” about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon. Rho Cassiopeiae is about a finger’s width to the right of the rightmost star in the “W”. Once you find it you’ll be thinking, “Big deal, I can hardly see it.” Although it is barely visible to the naked eye, it is actually very bright. It is the 20th most luminous star in the sky, a whopping 550,000 times more luminous than the Sun. 

Friday: Mizar is a well-known binary star in the constellation Ursa Major. You can find it at the bend in the Big Dipper handle, nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. tonight. Its name is Arabic for waistband. Mizar has an optical double called Alcor, which is less than a pinky width away and can easily be seen with the naked eye. Optical doubles are stars that are close together in the sky but do not orbit a common center of mass as true binary stars. Not wanting to deceive sky gazers who call Mizar a binary star, two stars that DO orbit a common center of mass, Mizar actually is a binary. It was the first binary star system discovered by telescope. Mizar A and Mizar B are about 400 astronomical units apart from each other and about 80 light years from Earth. 400 astronomical units is about 10 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto. 

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