Monday, June 26, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/1/17

Saturday: Jupiter, the Moon, and Spica make a small triangle in the southwest sky at 10 p.m. Jupiter is the bright point of light one fist to the lower right of the Moon. Spica is dimmer than Jupiter and closer to the Moon in the sky at about a half a fist below the Moon.

Sunday: When it is sitting low in the western sky, many people mistake the star Capella for a planet. It is bright. It has a slight yellow color. But, Capella is compelling on its own, even though it is “just” a star. It is the fourth brightest star we can see in Ellensburg. It is the most northerly bright star. It is a binary star consisting of two yellow giant stars that orbit each other every 100 days. At 10 p.m., Capella is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the north-northwest horizon. If you miss it tonight, don’t worry. Capella is the brightest circumpolar star meaning it is the brightest star that never goes below the horizon from our point of view in Ellensburg.

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: Tonight, while you are taking a break from looking at an explosion of fireworks, the NASA Kepler spacecraft is taking a break after finding an “explosion” of exoplanets. Last month, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope released a catalog of 219 new planet candidates. Ten of those are near-Earth size and orbiting in the habitable zone of their host star. And there are probably more to come. 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 above the east horizon at 11 p.m. For more information about this find, go to https://goo.gl/9ksqva.

Wednesday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Thursday: Saturn is less than a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon at 10 p.m.

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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/24/17

Saturday: “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 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 22 and June 29.

Sunday: The New Moon was yesterday which means that the month of Ramadan has ended. During the month of Ramadan, healthy adult Muslims are expected to fast between sunrise and sunset. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with prayer, charity, belief in the Muslim faith, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. The festival of breaking the fast, known as Eid al-Fitr, starts tonight.

Monday: Jupiter is three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. At this same time, Saturn is one fist above the southeast horizon.

Tuesday: Don’t wait until a week from today 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.

Wednesday: Star light. Star bright. The first star you see tonight might be Arcturus, six fists above the south horizon right after sunset. You’ll be able to see Jupiter earlier but it won’t facilitate your wish coming true.

Thursday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Friday: 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. King Tut may have celebrated an ancient Asteroid Day by asking his assistants to make a dagger out of a broken-off asteroid that landed on Earth. Astronomers discovered that the blade of the knife contained much more nickel than is found in terrestrial iron, an amount consistent with iron meteorites, especially with one found 16 years ago in northern Egypt. For more information about the dagger, go to http://goo.gl/BHBivd.


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, June 16, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/17/17

Saturday: Tomorrow is Father’s Day, the day to celebrate the person who made you a father. No, not her. You celebrated her last month. (You didn’t forget, did you?!) Celebrate your child by getting her/him the book “Woman in Science” by Rachel Ignotofsky (http://www.readwomeninscience.com/). This creatively drawn book highlights the contributions of 50 pioneers of science from Hypatia to Katherine Johnson, the main character in the recent movie “Hidden Figures”.

Sunday: Two years ago astronomers using a radio telescope in Australia discovered the source of fleeting radio signal bursts that had been a mystery for 17 years. And they didn’t have to probe the depths of deep space. They only had to probe the depths of… the observatory kitchen. It turns out the signal came from opening the microwave door prematurely. Read more about The Microwave Emission here: http://goo.gl/Ftb04C. Sheldon Cooper used similar methods of science when he discovered a can opener instead of magnetic monopoles in the season three premiere of “The Big Bang Theory” http://goo.gl/kAEoOD.

Monday: Jupiter is three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southwest horizon at 9:15 p.m. That’s right after sunset so it will be a challenge. But if you know where to look, it is bright enough to be visible. A bigger challenge is the star Spica, a fist and a half to the lower left of Jupiter.

Tuesday: Venus is a little more than a half a fist to the left of the waning crescent Moon in the eastern sky at 5 a.m.

Wednesday: Tonight, the summer solstice occurs. This is when 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 9:24 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Tomorrow is the first full day of summer.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at midnight.

Friday: Nearly 400 years ago, Galileo viewed the Pleiades star cluster through his telescope and saw that the seven or so stars in the region visible to the naked eye became many more. There are two main types of star clusters. Open star clusters are groups of a few dozen to a few thousand stars that formed from the same cloud of gas and dust within our galaxy. Stars in open star clusters are young as far as stars go. Globular clusters are groups of up to a few million stars that orbit the core of spiral galaxies such as our own Milky Way. One of the most well known star clusters is the globular cluster in Hercules, an object that is fairly easy to find with binoculars. First find Vega, the bright bluish star five fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m. Two fists above Vega is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the upper left hand star of the keystone. The globular cluster is one third of 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”.


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.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/10/17

Have you bought your favorite CWU graduate a graduation gift yet? Why not get her or him a star? I don’t mean from one of those organizations that offers to “register the name of YOUR star with the U.S. Patent Office”. No company owns the right to name stars after people. Besides, the stars those companies “name” are so dim you can’t find them. In this column, I’ll pick a constellation and representative star for each of the four colleges at CWU. Then, I’ll briefly tell the story of the constellation and relate that story to the aspect of public service CWU graduates from that college are uniquely qualified to engage in based on my version of sky interpretation. If different couples can have “their” song, then your favorite college graduate can have her or his star

Saturday: College of Arts and Humanities: You are the people who interpret the world in unique ways. Then, you share those ways with others. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus charmed everyone he met when he played the lyre or harp. After his wife died tragically, he journeyed to the underworld to charm its inhabitants in an effort to win his wife back to the living world. Your service reminder: use your talent to bring joy to others. The constellation Lyra and its bright star Vega should remind you of the power of the arts. Vega is five and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

Sunday: Jupiter is three fists above due southwest at 11 p.m. If you have a small telescope, you can see Jupiter’s four largest moons: Europa, Io, and Callisto (from farthest to closest at this time) on one side and Ganymede on the other. You won’t see Jupiter’s two newly discovered moons: S/2016 J 1 and S/2017 J 1. They are each about one or two kilometers across. Read more about these at https://goo.gl/3Rn544.

Monday: College of Business. You are the future movers and shakers. The future CEOs. The future big donors to Central. Auriga represented a king of Athens who happened to be mobility impaired. Instead of sitting around waiting for others to transport him, he took the initiative to invent the four-wheeled chariot. He solved a problem for a special need. Your service reminder: address the problems of those in the most need. To remind you of that, look to the constellation Auriga. Its bright star Capella is about a half a fist above the north-northwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: College of Education and Professional Studies. You are the teachers. The craftspeople. The facilitators of learning in a diverse world. Bootes, the herdsman, was such a person. Bootes’ job was to guide the northern constellations to the feeding place and the watering hole. He and his dogs were especially in charge of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the greater and lesser bears. Your service reminder: guide others to a better place in life. Look to the constellation Bootes and its bright star Arcturus to remind you of this. Arcturus is five and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Wednesday: Saturn is in opposition tonight. That doesn’t mean that Saturn is a teenager. Opposition means that Saturn is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun. When an object is in opposition, it is at its highest point in the sky during the darkest time of the day. Thus, opposition is typically the best time to observe a planet. Saturn is about two fists above due south at 1 a.m. It is about one fist above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Thursday: College of the Sciences. You are the people who will systematically study how the world works. Agriculture is an important scientific application. Each year, farmers must use the findings of science to be successful. Who better to represent the College of the Sciences than Virgo, the goddess of the harvest? Virgo looms large in the sky holding an ear of wheat in her hand. Your service reminder: study the practical aspects of the scientific world. The ear of wheat, and your service reminder, is represented by the bright star Spica. Spica is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m. Tonight; you’ve got a warrior’s spirit, as well, because the planet Mars, which represents the Roman god of war, is one fist to the right of Spica.

Friday: Venus is a fist and a half above the east horizon at 4:30 am.


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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/3/17

Saturday: Cygnus the swan flies tonight. Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation, whose name means “tail” in Arabic, is two fists above the northeast horizon at 10 p.m. Cygnus’ wings make a vertical line one half a fist to the right of Deneb. Its head, marked by the star Albireo, is two fists to the right of Deneb. While Deneb is at the tail of Cygnus, it is at the head of the line of bright stars. It is 160,000 times more luminous than the Sun making it one of the brightest stars in the galaxy. It does not dominate our night sky because it is 2,600 light years away, one of the farthest naked eye stars. If Deneb were 25 light years away, it would shine as bright as a crescent moon. Compare that to Vega, which is 25 light years away. Vega is three and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon at this time.

Sunday: Venus is about a half a fist above the east horizon at 4 a.m. You can use it to find Uranus this morning. Get Venus in the bottom of your binocular filed of view. Uranus will be in the middle part of your field of view.

Monday: Jupiter is three and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: As the weather warms up, people start thinking about swimming in a nice cool body of water. Recently, astronomers have discovered evidence an ocean about 20 miles beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceledas. NASA’s Cassini probes measured variations in how the moon’s gravity pulled on the orbiting spacecraft. These variations can be explained by a large amount of liquid water under one section of the ice because liquid water is denser than an equal volume of ice. While you need a very large telescope to see Enceledas, Saturn is one fist above the southeast horizon at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday: Tonight’s full Moon is in the constellation Ophiuchus. At 10:30 p.m., the Moon and Saturn are more than one fist apart in the sky. By 4:30 a.m., they are less than three quarters of a fist apart. That’s because the Moon is close enough to us such that its actual motion affects its position in the sky. For the distant stars and outer planets, heir only noticeable motion throughout the night is due to the Earth’s rotation.

Friday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because the days are very long. Because the temperature is rising. Because kids are getting out of school. Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 11 p.m. Vega, the third brightest star visible from Ellensburg, is about five fists above the east horizon. Deneb, at the tail of Cygnus the swan is about three and a half fists above the northeast horizon. The third star in the triangle, Altair, in Aquila the eagle is two fists above the east horizon.
If you want to put somebody off, tell her or him to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon.


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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/27/17

Saturday: In 1979, the group Foreigner recorded the song “Head Games”. They could have been singing about the constellations Hercules and Ophiuchus when they said “head games, it’s just you and me baby, head games, I can’t take it anymore” because the heads of these two constellations have been right next to each other in the nighttime sky for all of human history. And just to make it easy for you, a star that bears an Arabic name that means “the head” represents each head. In Hercules, it's Ras Algethi (head of the kneeler); in Ophiuchus, Ras Alhague (head of the serpent charmer). At 11 p.m., Ras Alhague, the brighter of the two, is three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon. Ras Algethi is about a half a fist to the upper right of Ras Alhague.

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 4:30 a.m. You’ll see three stars that make a bent handle and four stars that make a cup.

Monday: Venus is one fist above due east at 4:30 a.m.

Tuesday: At 11 p.m., the bright star Regulus is less than a fist from the upper left of the Moon. But what if it is cloudy or 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.

Wednesday: The questions who, what, where, and when can only be asked with a “W”. At 10:30 p.m., the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia is about one and a half fists 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.

Thursday: The month of June is named after Juno, the queen of the Roman gods and the mythological protector of the Roman state. In ancient Rome, the month began when the crescent moon was first seen in the evening sky from Capitoline Hill in Rome. If we still started months this way, June would start on a different day each year. Celebrate the first sunset in June by actually watching it… and then looking for the visible planets. At 9:30 p.m., Mars is about a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon and Jupiter is nearly four fists above the south horizon. If you wait an hour and a half – just 90 minutes, you can see Saturn nearly one fist above the southeast horizon.

Friday: The bright star Capella is one and a half fists above the northwest horizon at 9:30 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/13/17

Saturday: Saturn is a half a fist to the right of the Moon at midnight.

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 held upright and at arm’s length above the north horizon at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.

Monday: The Space Shuttles have been retired. But NASA is still making plans about the future of space flight. Here is a presentation about the past and future of American space flight https://goo.gl/hApbaf. It is interesting to compare the sizes of these real spaceships to the dozens of fictional spacecraft summarized on a poster found at http://goo.gl/F95aEL.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Mercury is as far as it is going to get from the Sun this month in the morning sky. Often that means good viewing. But not this month. Mercury is less than a half a fist above the east horizon at 5 a.m. Venus will be much easier to see at one fist above the east horizon. By early July, Mercury will be visible low in the western evening sky.

Thursday: This is a good time of the year to find the Big Dipper. It is nearly straight overhead at 9:30 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: Jupiter is four fists above due south at 10:11 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.