Friday, January 22, 2021

Thje Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of January 23, 2021

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: Venus is poking up above the southeastern horizon at about 7:10 a.m., just before sunrise. Soon it will be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Monday: Mars is five and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 7:00 p.m.

Tuesday: Lately the Sun has been boring. Well, except for the life-giving energy it radiates towards Earth. And the gravity that keeps us from drifting into the abyss. But there have not been very many sunspots. In fact, the recent minimum was one of the weakest in years. Many solar astronomers think the upcoming solar cycle will be weak as well. But the National Center for Atmospheric Research begs to differ. They have analyzed longer term fluctuations in the cycle and are predicting one of the strongest solar cycles in decades. Read more about the sunspot debate at https://earthsky.org/space/sunspot-cycle-25-among-strongest-on-record-says-ncar.

Wednesday: Tonight’s Full Moon is called the Full Wolf Moon since wolves tend to howl more often on the cold winter nights.

Thursday: 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/. At 7:00 p.m., the Triangulum Galaxy is six and a half fists above the southwestern horizon and two and a half fists to the upper right of Mars. The galaxy is visible with binoculars. First find Mars. Then move your binoculars to the upper right until you see two stars of similar brightness to each other, one at the top and the other at the bottom of your field of view. Continue to move your binoculars the same distance to the upper right and you will be pointing at the Triangulum Galaxy, also known as Messier 33 (M 33). If you reach a third star about the same brightness as the first two, you have moved too far.

Friday: 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.

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 15, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of January 16, 2021

Saturday: How do you study the life cycle of a dog? Easy. Get a dog from the animal shelter, care for it for 15 years and study it. How do you study the life cycle of a star? Easy. Pick a star, watch it for a few billion years, and…. Wait a minute. Astronomers can’t observe something for a few billion years. Instead, they study stars that are at different points in their long life cycle and piece together the information from those different stars. What they do is like studying a one-year-old dog for a few minutes, then studying a different two-year-old dog for a few minutes, and so on. The sky in and near the constellation Orion provides an example of four objects at different points of star life.

First, find Rigel, the bright star in the lower right corner of the constellation Orion. This star, about 15 times the mass of the Sun, is rapidly burning its fuel for a high energy but short-lived existence, is exactly three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 9:30 p.m. About one fist up and to the left are the three objects of Orion’s sword holder. The middle “star” is really a star-forming region called the Orion nebula. It is illuminated by four baby stars each about 15 times the mass of the Sun. Betelgeuse, in the upper left corner of Orion, is a star at the end of its life. It started out life about 15 times the mass of the Sun. Finally, look about two fists to the right and one fist down from Rigel. You will be looking at a star that is about one tenth as bright as Rigel but still the brightest in its local region. The third star to the right of that star is called Epsilon Eridani, the most Sun-like close and bright star. 

Sunday: Tonight in Ellensburg, WA, the Sun sets at 4:44 p.m. Saturn sets at 5:10 p.m. and Jupiter sets at 5:26 p.m., making them a challenge to spot with the naked eye. Use binoculars and scan up from the horizon right after the Sun sets. DO NOT look at the Sun with binoculars or your naked eyes. Mercury will be easier to spot because it is still a half a fist above the southwestern horizon at 5:30, when the sky is getting dark.

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 two and a half fists above the east-southeastern horizon at 10:00 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: In 1984, American singer Rockwell released the song “Somebody’s Watching Me”, backed up by Michael Jackson. In 2020, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope released a picture of two bubbles of gas and dust that look like eyes watching you. Stare back at them by going to http://tiny.cc/n248tz

Wednesday: Mars is less than one fist above the Moon in the southwestern sky at 8:00 p.m. Uranus is the brightest object just to the lower left of Mars in a binocular field of view.

Thursday: 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.

Friday: 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.

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 8, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of January 9, 2021

Saturday:  Winter is the best season for finding bright stars. And if you only want to set aside a few minutes, 10:00 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 arms length above the south 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) about two and a half fists to the upper right of Sirius. Aldebaran (9th brightest) is about three fists above Rigel. Betelgeuse (7th brightest) is in the center of the hexagon. Adhara (16th brightest) is a little more than a fist below Sirius and Castor (17th brightest) is right above Pollux. That’s nine of the 17 brightest stars visible in the northern United States in one part of the sky. If it is too cloudy, stay indoors and watch this tour, found at https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/tour-15-of-the-brightest-stars-on-new-years-eve-video/

Sunday: At 5:00 p.m. Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn are all within about two degrees of each other just above the southwestern horizon. They’ll remain close together in the sky for the next few days as Jupiter and Saturn move towards the Sun while Mercury moves away.

Monday: At 7:00 a.m., Venus is about a thumb-width to the left of the waning crescent Moon. They are just above the southeastern horizon.

Tuesday: Have you ever looked down on the ground and spotted a penny? In Yakima? While you were standing in Ellensburg? If you have, then you may be able to see the star Hamal as more than just a point of light. It has an angular diameter that can be directly measured from Earth. Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation Aries the ram, has the same angular diameter as a penny 37 miles away. (For comparison, the moon is about half the diameter of a penny held at arm’s length.) Hamal is three fists above due west at 11:00 p.m.

Wednesday: You think wintertime weather is bad in Ellensburg. Astronomers have discovered storms and earth-sized clouds on a brown dwarf. These are cool, small stars that are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen atoms and fuse hydrogen. In fact, they are more similar to gas giant planets such as Jupiter than to the Sun. Luckily, astronomers are getting better at predicting this weather. That means you can plan your brown dwarf picnic and it can be more enjoyable. For more information, go to https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/scientists-improve-brown-dwarf-weather-forecasts 

Thursday: These next two weeks are the coldest of the year so it is time to turn up the furnace. Fornax the furnace is one fist above due south at 7 p.m.

Friday: Mars is five and a half fists above due south at 6:30 p.m. Uranus is about a thumb-width to the left of it. You’ll need binoculars to see Uranus. With Mars at the right hand edge of your field of view, Uranus will be near the center. Follow the two planets over the next few night. They will be moving closer together in 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of January 2, 2021

 

Saturday:  Late tonight and early morning’s weather forecast: showers. Meteor showers, that is. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks late tonight and early tomorrow morning between midnight and dawn. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. That makes this shower mysterious because there isn’t any constellation with this name now. The shower was named after Quadrans Muralis, an obsolete constellation found in some early 19th century star atlases. These meteors appear to come from a point in the modern constellation Draco the dragon. This point is about three fists above the northeast horizon at 1:00 a.m. This year, the last quarter Moon will illuminate the sky and make it more difficult to see the dimmer meteors. Lucky for you, this shower is active until about January 12 so you’ll make more opportunities over the next week and a half. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Most meteors are associated with the path of a comet. This shower consists of the debris from an asteroid discovered in 2003. Keeping with the comet-origin paradigm, astronomers think the asteroid is actually an “extinct” comet, a comet that lost all of its ice as it passed by the Sun during its many orbits. For more information about the Quadrantid meteor shower, go to https://earthsky.org/?p=155137

Sunday: Has it been tough to wake up these past two weeks? The sun is still rising later. I know. I know. December 21 was the shortest day of the year. The interval between sunrise and sunset is the shortest. But, because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is elliptical and not circular, the Earth does not travel at a constant speed. It moves faster when it is closer to the Sun and slower when it is farther away. This leads to the latest sunrise occurring in early January and the earliest sunset occurring in early December. Neither of these happen on the first day of winter. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/SJC5r.

Monday: Venus is a half a fist above the southeastern horizon at 7:15 a.m.

Tuesday: Last month, we had the “Great Conjunction”. This month we have two “Good Conjunctions”. Mercury is moving away from being in line with the Sun and towards Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky.  Tonight, Mercury is just above the southwestern horizon at 5:00 p.m. By the weekend, it will be next to Jupiter and Saturn in the sky. Learn more about Great, Good, and So-so celestial conjunctions at tonight’s virtual “Science on Tap”. For more information about this Zoom presentation, given by CWU physics professor Bruce Palmquist, go to https://www.cwu.edu/campus-notices/virtual-science-tap-january-5th

Wednesday: Columbia the dove, representing the bird Noah sent out to look for dry land as the floodwaters receded, is perched just above the ridge south of Ellensburg. Its brightest star Phact is about one fist above the southern horizon at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday: Do you look into a nursery and say, “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”? Not me. I say, “It’s a star”. Of course, I like looking into a stellar nursery – a star-forming region such as the Orion Nebula in the middle of Orion’s sword holder. The Orion Nebula looks like a fuzzy patch to the naked eye. Binoculars reveal a nebula, or region of gas and dust, that is 30 light years across. The center of the nebula contains four hot “baby” stars called the Trapezium. These hot stars emit the ultraviolet radiation that causes the Nebula’s gas to glow. The Orion Nebula is nearly four fists above due south at 10:30 p.m.

Friday: Mars is five and a half fists above the southern horizon at 7:00 p.m. Uranus is a half a fist to the left of Mars, invisible to the naked eye but not to binoculars. With Mars at the far right of your binocular field of view, Uranus will be at the far left.

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.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of December 26, 2020

Saturday:  Is your favorite someone lamenting that she didn’t get that space-related calendar that she wanted? Are you sad that you ran out of money and can’t fulfill her last-minute wish? Do you wish you could spend more quality time with her? Worry not. NASA has an English and Spanish language calendar available for free download at https://eospso.nasa.gov/publications/25.  (Scroll down past the still linked-to 2020 calendar. Or, horrify your favorite someone into thinking that 2020 is happening again.) Spend many hours reading about NASA scientists and projects.

Sunday: Did you get a new telescope for Christmas? The next item on your list should be a sky watching app for your phone. These apps will help you to get familiar with the constellations and bright stars. Then you can zoom in to an area of interest and learn about objects that are visible through your telescope. I like SkySafari, a free or low cost iPhones app (depending on their promotions at the time). But there are many other good ones to choose from for little or no money. Go to https://goo.gl/t1DX7R for fifteen short reviews. The first object you should look at is Mars. It is bright, easy to find, and high in the early evening sky so you can share the experience with children. Mars is five fists above due south at 7:00 p.m.

Monday: Jupiter and Saturn and still close together in the early evening sky, one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due southwest at 5:00 p.m. Jupiter is one pinky-width to the upper left of Saturn. Mars is four and a half fists above due southeast at this time.

Tuesday: Venus is about a half a fist above the southeastern horizon at 7:00 a.m.

Wednesday: Most constellations don’t look like the object their name refers to. That’s because most constellations don’t have such a simple object to emulate as Triangulum does. Triangulum is shaped like a… wait for it…. wait for it…. A thin isosceles triangle. Metallah is the only mononymous star in the constellation. In Latin this star is called Caput Trianguli, the head of the triangle. Triangulum is seven fists above due south at 7:30 p.m. It is pointing down and to the right with Metallah being the southernmost star at this time of night. The Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with binoculars about half a fist to the right of Metallah.

Thursday: It’s a beautiful day in our solar neighborhood. We know that because the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission just published the third edition of its star catalog, an ultra-precise overview of the position of the nearest nearly two billion stars. While you wait to get your COVID-19 vaccine, take a virtual walk through your celestial neighborhood with some friends by going to https://youtu.be/BknZ2YxegIk.

Friday: Today is the day we celebrate the anniversary of something new – a new classification of celestial objects. Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres [pronounced sear’-ease], the first of what are now called “asteroids”, on January 1, 1801. Ceres is the largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. At first, Piazzi thought it was a star that didn’t show up on his charts. But, he noted its position changed with respect to the background stars from night to night. This indicated to him that it had to be orbiting the Sun. The International Astronomical Union promoted Ceres to the status of “dwarf planet” in August of 2006.

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, December 18, 2020

Celestial Conjunctions


 

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of December 19, 2020

 

Saturday: Red is a popular Christmas color. It is also a popular star color. And R Leporis, also known as Hind’s Crimson Star, is one of the reddest stars in the sky. It is a star near the end of its life that has burned its helium nuclei into carbon. Convective currents, like those in a pot of boiling water, bring this carbon to the surface. There it forms a layer of soot that scatters away the light from the blue end of the visible spectrum leaving the light from the red end of the spectrum to reach our eyes. For more information about Hind’s Crimson Star and a list of other deep red stars, go to http://goo.gl/EnhRe4. Hind’s Crimson star is one fist to the lower right of Rigel, the brightest star in Orion. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see Hind's Crimson star. But you can easily spot Rigel two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southeastern horizon at 10:00 p.m.

Sunday: At 2:01 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, late tonight/early tomorrow the Sun reaches its lowest point in the sky with respect to the background stars. This point is called the Winter Solstice. During the day that the Sun reaches this point, your noontime shadow is longer than any other day of the year. Also, the Sun spends less time in the sky on the day of the Winter Solstice than any other making this the shortest day of the year. Even though it is the shortest day of the year, it is not the day with the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset. The latest sunrise is during the first week in January and the earliest sunset is during the second week in December. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the Sun rise and set time depends on more than its apparent vertical motion. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the anaemma.  But, it is on the first part of the analemma to go below the horizon. During the first week in January, it is on the last part of the analemma to rise above the horizon.

Monday: This is the night of THE Great Conjunction In The Sky! Well, a great conjunction in the sky. Actually, a pretty good conjunction. Jupiter and Saturn are 6 arc minutes apart tonight. That is one tenth of a degree. For comparison, Alcor and Mizar, the close-together stars at the bend in the Big Dipper handle are 12 arcminutes apart. You’ll find Jupiter and Saturn low in the southwestern sky right after sunset. Read more about it at http://tiny.cc/6px6tz.

If you want to hear about a really Great Conjunction, talk to an ancient Babylonian. On the morning of March 25, 185 BCE, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were within seven degrees of each other. That means they could have all fit into the cup of the Big Dipper. Two astronomers recently identified a small piece of clay with a cuneiform description of the conjunction. Read more about this conjunction at http://tiny.cc/fsx6tz.

Tuesday: Are you disappointed because you are not going anywhere for Christmas? Why not take a (virtual) trip to outer space using Google’s new visualization tool called 100,000 Stars. It shows the stars in our neighborhood in a very good 3-D simulation. The Sun is initially at the center. If you zoom in, you can click on neighboring stars and learn more about them. Go to http://stars.chromeexperiments.com/ for the simulation. It works best on a Chrome browser.

Wednesday: Mars is about a half a fist to the upper right of the Moon. They are five fists above due south at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday: Just before Christmas, you look for junk to clean out of your closets so you can re-gift it. I mean, so you can throw it out or recycle it. NASA’s Meter Class Autonomous Telescope on Ascension Island is a key tool in a program tracking about 22,000 pieces of space junk. Some of this junk is dangerous. The International Space Station occasionally performs debris avoidance maneuvers to keep its panels and sensitive instruments safe. For more information about the project, go to http://goo.gl/Kxgihd.

Friday: Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw Jupiter being eclipsed by the Moon in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2, Bruce Palmquist version, informed by Michael Molnar). There are many theories as to the physical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem, the celestial object that guided the wise men to the location of Jesus. Some people think it was a recurring nova, a star that explodes. Some think it was a close alignment of bright planets. Some think it was a miracle that requires no physical explanation. In 1991, astronomer Michael Molnar bought an ancient Roman Empire coin that depicted a ram looking back at a star. Aries the ram was a symbol for Judea, the birthplace of Jesus. The Magi, or “wise men”, who visited the baby Jesus practiced astrology and would have been looking in that region of the sky for the king prophesied in the Old Testament. Molnar, a modern day wise person, used sky simulation software to model the positions of planets and the Moon in the region of Aries. According to his model, Jupiter was eclipsed, or blocked, by the Moon on the morning of April 17, 6 BC. A book written by the astrologer of Constantine the Great in 334 AD supports Molnar’s theory. The book describes an eclipse of Jupiter in Aries and notes a man of divine nature born during this time. See https://goo.gl/o89A4o for more information.

At 5:00 p.m., the Moon is in the dim constellation Aries, about three fists above the eastern horizon. Jupiter is still snuggling with Saturn, now in the southeastern 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.