Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/21/16

Saturday: Late spring and early summer is a good time to look for star clusters. Last week, you learned about M3, the third object cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier over 200 years ago. One of the best clusters is the globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, also called M13. (Hmmm. Guess what number that object is in Messier’s catalog.) Globular clusters are compact groupings of a few hundred thousand stars in a spherical shape 100 light years across. (For comparison, a 100 light year diameter sphere near out Sun would contain a few hundred stars.) The globular cluster in Hercules is six fists held upright and at arm's length above the east horizon at 11 p.m. First find Vega, the bright bluish star about four fists above the east-northeast horizon. Two fists to the upper right of Vega is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the two stars that form the uppermost point of the keystone. The globular cluster is one third of the way south of the uppermost star on the way to the rightmost star of the keystone. It looks like a fuzzy patch on the obtuse angle of a small obtuse triangle. If you don’t know what an obtuse angle is, you should not have told your teacher, “I’ll never need to know this stuff”. 

Sunday: Mars is at opposition tonight. No, that doesn’t mean that Mars refuses to eat his vegetables. (Please eat your vegetables, children.) Opposition means that Mars is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun. An object is in opposition when it is due south 12 hours after the Sun. When an object is in opposition, it is at its highest point in the sky during the darkest time of the night. A planet in opposition shines brighter and appears larger in a telescope than any other night. And since Mars is also relatively close, it is very bright tonight. Mars is about two fists above due south at 1 a.m. Saturn is one fist to the left of Mars, right next to a bright object called the Moon. 

Monday: The constellation Aquila the eagle is starting its migration across the summer evening sky this month. Aquila, marked by its bright star Altair, rises to one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m. Not all animal migrations are fully understood by scientists. We might be inclined to attribute bird migrations to instinct. This answer certainly did not satisfy the theologian C. S. Lewis. In his short work “Men Without Chests”, he wrote, “to say that migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way”. In science (and theology), Lewis is telling us to look for real causes and not simply labels such as instinct. The cause for Aquila’s migration is the Earth orbiting the Sun. As the Earth moves around the Sun, certain constellations move into the evening sky as others get lost in the glare of the setting Sun. 

Tuesday: Jupiter is four fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. 

Wednesday: Good night little doggie. Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, the little dog, is less than one fist above the west horizon at 10 p.m. Over the next couple of weeks, it will be too close to the setting Sun in the sky to be visible. 

Thursday: The bright star Capella is one and a half fists above the northwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. 

Friday: While the NASA probe Dawn is off exploring the largest main-belt asteroid Ceres, you can explore the second largest asteroid Vesta. NASA has released Vesta Trek, a free web-based application that allows you to zoom in, “fly” over the surface, measure craters sizes, and see what Vesta looks like in different wavelengths of light. Go to http://goo.gl/97NxgF for more information about Vesta Trek and the Dawn mission. 



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, May 12, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/14/16

Saturday: The New Horizons probe is still sending data from its Pluto pass-by back to Earth. There’s so much information, you need an expert to help you sort it all out. Fortunately, Pluto expert Marc Buie will be talking about New Horizons, Pluto, and beyond at Central Washington University, 4:00 pm today in Lind Hall 215. Lind Hall is on the corner of Chestnut Street and East University Way, D-13 on the CWU campus map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map. For more information about the lecture, go to http://goo.gl/TRrXEI.

Sunday: The questions who, what, where, and when can only be asked with a “W”. At 11 p.m., the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia is about two fists held upright and at arm’s length above due north. The middle star in the W was used as a navigation reference point during the early space missions. The American astronaut Gus Grissom nicknamed the star Navi, his middle name Ivan spelled backwards. After he died in the Apollo 1 fire, the star name was kept as a memorial.

Monday: In an old Saturday Night Live spoof advertisement for a turkey you can pump (http://goo.gl/OioQAr), Chris Rock sang, “The first turkey dinner was 1620. The pilgrims had it in the land of plenty.” But he could have just as easily say, “The light left Rasalgethi in 1620. The light now reaches us in the land of plenty.” Rasalgethi is a double star in the constellation Hercules that is almost 400 light years away. Its name is based on the Arabic words meaning, “Head of the kneeler” because some views of Hercules depict him as a warrior kneeling down, perhaps resting after his twelve labors. You’ll find Rasalgethi three and a half fists above due east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: Jupiter is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Give me an “M”. Give me a “3”. What does that spell? “M3.” “Big deal,” you say. It was a big deal to French comet hunter Charles Messier (pronounced Messy A). M3 was the 3rd comet look-alike that Messier catalogued in the late 1700s. M3 is a globular cluster, a cluster of over 100,000 stars that is 32,000 light years away. It is too dim to be seen with the naked eye but is fairly easy find with binoculars. First find Arcturus six fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Move your binoculars up a little so two stars of nearly identical brightness are in your field of view. When the top star is in the lower left part of your field of view, there should be a fuzzy patch near the center of your field of view. This is M3.

Thursday: At 11 p.m., Mars, Saturn, and the bright star Antares make a small right triangle. Mars, the brightest of the three, is one and a half fist above the southeast horizon. Antares is a little less than a fist below Mars and Saturn is about a fist to the lower left of Mars.

Friday: Earlier this month, astronomers announced that the Kepler Mission verified 1,284 new exoplanets; planets orbiting a star other than our Sun. Read the press release about this discovery at http://goo.gl/6nln47. Only nine of the newly discovered planets are in the habitable zone of their host star. This means they orbit their host star at a distance such that there is a good chance for liquid water to exist on their surface. But being in the habitable zone doesn’t mean a planet is habitable. The temperature of the planet depends greatly on its atmosphere. A thick atmosphere would mean a very hot planet like Venus in our own Solar System. Just last year, astronomers discovered the first near-Earth-size planet orbiting a Sun-like star. For more information about this planet, called Kepler-452b, go to http://goo.gl/3aTxqN.


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, May 4, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/7/16

Saturday: Are you thirsty. I’ll wait while you get some water. I will NOT wait while Corvus the crow gets you some water. The Greco-Roman god Apollo made this mistake. He sent Corvus the crow to get some water in the cup known as Crater. Some figs distracted Corvus and he waited for them to ripen so he could eat them. When Corvus got back late, Apollo put Corvus and Crater in the sky with the gently tipping cup just out of the reach of the perpetually thirsty crow. Corvus is a trapezoid-shaped constellation about two fists above due south at 10 p.m. Crater is just to the right of Corvus.

Sunday: So you think your mother has problems on Mother’s Day because she had you as you as a child? Her mother issues can’t be as bad as Cassiopeia’s issues. First, she was chained to a chair for boasting about her beauty. Second, she has to revolve around the North Star night after night. Third, her daughter Andromeda was nearly killed by a sea monster. Look for poor Cassiopeia about one and a half fists above the north horizon at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.

Monday: To paraphrase a song by The Police: “There’s a little black spot on the Sun today. It’s a different thing than yesterday.” Mercury, the innermost planet, passes directly between the Earth and Sun today. This passing, called a transit, shows up as a small, black dot on the Sun. The transit starts at before sunrise on the west coast of the United States and ends at 11:40 a.m. As with any solar observation, practice safe Sun watching by using a good solar filter or projecting the telescope or binocular image on to a piece of paper. For more information about the transit, go to http://goo.gl/OLMRy5. NEVER look directly at the Sun! If you miss this Mercury transit, the next one is November 11, 2019.

Tuesday: Jupiter is five fists above the south horizon at 9 p.m.

Wednesday: At 11 p.m., Mars, Saturn, and the bright star Antares make a small right triangle. Mars, the brightest of the three, is one fist above the southeast horizon. Antares is a little over a half a fist below Mars and Saturn is about a fist to the lower left of Mars.

Thursday: This is a good time of the year to find the Big Dipper. It is nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. The cup is to the west and the handle is to the east. You can always use the Big Dipper to find some other bright stars. First, follow the curve, or arc, of the Big Dipper down three fists into the southern sky. This is the bright star, Arcturus, the second brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg. Next, continue on a straight line, or spike, another three fists down toward the south horizon to the star Spica. Spica is the tenth brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg. It is known as the Horn Mansion, one of 28 mansions, or constellations, in the Chinese sky. You now know how to use the Big Dipper handle to “arc” to Arcturus and “spike” to Spica.

Friday: Today’s moon is in the first quarter phase. But what if it is cloudy of you are study inside all day and night? Easy, check out the Moon online. One of the best live Moon maps is found at http://goo.gl/wRXQqa. See the most up to date lunar images at fantastic resolution, down to about two meters. You could easily tell the difference between a car and a minivan on the moon.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/30/16

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: Mother’s Day is 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.

Monday: Makemake has a moon (E-I-E-I-O). Last week you read the Solar System moon summary in this column. Or, you used the Solar System moon summary to protect the bottom of a very small birdcage. Never the less, that summary just became out of date. This past week, astronomers announced the discovery of a moon around the distant icy Kuiper Belt object known as Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay-MAH-kay). Makemake joins Haumea, Eris, and an obscure object called Pluto as the only Kuiper Belt objects known to have a moon. Of course, many more moons will be discovered in the outer Solar System. Makemake is too dim for you to see in the night sky. But you may read about the discovery at https://goo.gl/xO2DcL.

Tuesday: Jupiter is five fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: This weekend, celebrate Mother’s Day with the big mom of the sky, Virgo. Ancient Greeks and Romans associated this portion of the sky with their own goddess of the harvest, either Demeter (Greeks) or Ceres (Roman). Demeter was the mother of Persephone and Ceres was the mother of Proserpina. According to myth, each of these daughters was abducted causing their mothers great grief. The first star in Virgo rises in the afternoon. Spica, the bright bluish star in the constellation rises at 6:30 and is three fists above the south-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Thursday: 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.

Friday: There’s a triangle just above the southeast sky at 11:30 p.m. The bright planet Mars is about one fist above the southeast horizon. Antares is a half a fist below Mars. Saturn is about a fist to the left of the Mars-Antares pairing.


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, April 20, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/23/16

Saturday: 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.

Sunday: 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.

Monday: There’s a trapezoid in the early morning south-southeast sky about one and a half fists above the horizon. In order of brightness, the Moon, Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares mark the corners of a four-sided figure with two parallel sides. Antares and Saturn make up the lower left-hand side. Mars and the Moon, the upper right side. Follow them over the next hour as the Sun starts to rise. Determine how bright the sky can be before you can no longer see Mars.

Tuesday: 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 11:30 p.m.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: Its two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, are not visible in typical backyard telescopes. But they are an interesting study. The prevailing view among most astronomers is that they are captured asteroids. That makes sense given Mars’ proximity to the asteroid belt. But resent findings by European astronomers indicate that Phobos is very porous and made of material similar to the surface of Mars. This implies that Phobos may consist of chunks of Martian debris that was blasted off by numerous impacts and gravitationally bound together. Unfortunately, the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe launched late 2011 to collect material from Phobos crashed to Earth after malfunctioning. For more information about this new model of Phobos’ formation, go to http://goo.gl/8sw3rM.

Friday: 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 a little more than half a fist above the west horizon and Betelgeuse is nearly two fists above the west horizon. By mid-May, Orion will be lost in the glare of the 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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/16/16

Saturday: 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 today. Spica, the brightest star in the constellation, rises at 7:30. By 9 p.m., Spica is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon.

Sunday: Jupiter is less than a half a fist above the moon at 10 p.m.

Monday: 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. Mercury is about a fist above the west-northwest horizon at 6:00 p.m. 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 early June.

Tuesday: Capella is a half a fist above the north-northeast horizon at 5 a.m.

Wednesday: You’ve seen all of the top 100 lists: top 100 ways to make a birdhouse, top 100 sushi restaurants in Ellensburg, etc. Now get excited for tomorrow night’s full Moon by reading about and finding some of the lunar 100 at http://goo.gl/ldGvH6 This list describes 100 interesting landmarks on the Moon that are visible from Earth. They are listed from easiest to see, starting with the entire moon itself at number 1, to most difficult (Mare Marginis swirls, anyone?). Stay up all night to binge watch the moon or just make a few observations a month. It’s your decision. It’s our moon.

Thursday: Remember the old saying: April showers bring… meteors. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks this morning and 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 full so the extra light will obscure all but the brightest 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.

Friday: At midnight tonight, Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares make a small triangle low in the southeastern sky. Antares, the dimmest of the three is less than a half a fist above due southeast. Mars, the brightest of the three is about a half a fist to the upper left of Antares. Saturn is about a fist to the lower left of Mars.


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, April 7, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/9/16

Saturday: 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 my Round (Like a Record) were thought to be: “ You spin me right round, baby, right round, like the Whirlpool Galaxy, right round, round, round.” (Well, that’s what I thought them to be.) 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.

Sunday: This afternoon, you can gather evidence that the Moon moves through the sky with respect to the background stars and you can prove to yourself that some stars, other than the Sun, are visible during the day. And you can also observe a stellar occultation. “What? The occult on a Sunday? That’s sacrilege!” No, that’s one celestial object blocking another. To occult is to block something. At about 3 p.m., the Moon will pass between the Earth and the bright star Aldebaran. First, go out at about 2 p.m. and look at the Moon through a small telescope or even high quality binoculars. You may be able to see a point of light to the left of the Moon. That’s Aldebaran; the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull. At about 2:40, the unlit portion of the Moon will block Aldebaran. Since that part of the Moon is not lit and can’t be easily seen from Earth, it will look like Aldebaran just disappears. At about 3:35 p.m., Aldebaran will reappear from behind the upper half of the crescent Moon.

Monday: Poor Jupiter. Objects from space just keep bombarding it. On March 17, 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. To make you own Jupiter observations, look four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 9 p.m.

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: Mercury is one fist above the west horizon at 8:30 p.m.

Thursday: Mars finally makes its way into the evening (sort of) sky. It is less than a half a fist above the southeast horizon at midnight. Saturn is visible in the same spot about 30 minutes later.

Friday: Do you want to inspire people to celebrate the beauty of the night sky? To raise awareness of the negative effects of light pollution? Then continue to celebrate International Dark Sky Week by going to http://goo.gl/xc29se and taking action. I suggest clicking on “Lighting” and then “Residential/Business Lighting” to see examples of more effective outdoor lighting. The best lighting for observing the night sky is also the best light for safety because effective yard lights focus their energy on the ground, where it is needed, and not up into the sky.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.