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 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/13/15

Have you bought your favorite college 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 four different colleges within a typical university. Then, I’ll briefly tell the story of the constellation and relate that story to the aspect of public service 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: On this Father’s Day, do you have a dad so great that you wish you could write his name in galaxies? Now you can. UK astronomer Steven Bamford has developed a computer program that finds images of galaxies that resemble different letters. Just enter the words here http://mygalaxies.co.uk/ and the program spells it out in galaxies. Here’s the new Daily Record title page http://mygalaxies.co.uk/jh2m7m/.

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: Saturn is about two and a half fists above the south horizon at 11 a.m.

Wednesday: 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.

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: Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon make an isosceles triangle low in the western sky at 10 p.m. Venus is less than a fist above the Moon. Jupiter is a fist to the upper left of Venus.


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, June 3, 2015

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

Saturday: This evening, Venus is as far away from the Sun in the sky as it will get this orbital cycle. What is this "farthest away" point known as? It is known as the planet’s greatest eastern elongation. Tonight is one of the best nights of the year to observe Venus because it is high in the sky at sunset and will be in the sky until nearly midnight. Venus is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 10 p.m. Over the next two months, Venus will move toward the Sun in the sky. By the end of July, it will be lost in the glare of evening twilight.

Sunday: Jupiter is two and a half fists above the west horizon and a fist and a half to the upper left of Venus at 10 p.m.

Monday: 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”.

Tuesday: Saturn is about two fists above the south-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: 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. 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 two fists 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.

Thursday: What you see with the naked eye isn’t all that can be seen. While astronomers can learn a lot from observing the sky in the visible wavelengths, many celestial objects radiate more light, and more information, in wavelengths such as radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. In 2009, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to study objects that radiate in the infrared range such as asteroids, cool dim stars, and luminous galaxies. For an interesting comparison of how different wavelengths show different aspects of a galaxy, go to http://goo.gl/nvuax. If it weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies.

Friday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because kids are getting out of school. Because I read the fine astronomy column in the Daily Record. (How’s that for an odd self reference.) Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 10:30 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/30/15

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 a little more than four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon. Ras Algethi is about a half a fist to the upper right of Ras Alhague.

Sunday: Saturn is less than a fist to the lower left of the nearly full moon at 10 p.m.

Monday: 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 have started a couple of days ago, right after the moon was last new. Celebrate the first sunset in June by actually watching it… and then keeping your gaze fixed on the west-northwest horizon until it is dark enough to see Venus, Jupiter, and the star Regulus in a line pointing away from the Sun. At 9:30 p.m., Venus is about two and a half fists above the west horizon, Jupiter is two fists to the upper left of Venus, and Regulus is a fist and a half to the upper left of Jupiter.

Tuesday: Astronomers using a radio telescope in Australia recently 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.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: It’s time for your Thursday morning binocular challenge. At 4 a.m. (I told you it was a challenge), look due east at the horizon. Now move your binoculars up about one and a half fields of view or 10 degrees. You should see a small equilateral triangle of three “stars” with similar brightness. The upper right point of light is the planet Uranus.

Friday: Mars is too close to the setting Sun to be seen from Earth. So take this opportunity to see images of the setting Sun from Mars at http://goo.gl/08tRgw. Martian dust particles in the direction of the setting Sun scatter blue light forward and form a blue ring around 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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/23/15

Saturday: Jupiter is a little more than a half a fist above the Moon at 9 p.m.

Sunday: 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.

Monday: Venus, Pollux, and Castor make a right triangle two fists above the west-northwest horizon at 10 p.m. tonight. You know what a right triangle is. You listened to your math teachers, right? They worked hard for less pay than their intellect would normally merit. Venus is the very bright point at the bottom of the triangle. Pollux is above Venus at the right angle.

Tuesday: 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. (Hummm. 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 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”.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: 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.

Friday: Saturn is almost two fists above the southeast 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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/16/15

Saturday: 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.

Sunday: NASA’s Dawn space probe is closing in on the largest asteroid, Ceres. While it is important to send spacecraft to explore the asteroid belt, sometimes asteroid parts come to us. The light that bounces off the second largest asteroid 2 Pallas shows it is made of the same material as some rare dark stony meteorites that show signs of being altered by contact with water. These meteorites may have broken off 2 Pallas or a similar asteroid during the early Solar System. Go to http://goo.gl/0koPC0 for more information on 2 Pallas. For the next two months, 2 Pallas is in the constellation Hercules, visible with large binoculars or a small telescope.

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 exactly two fists above due east at 9:40 p.m.

Tuesday: Altair is about a half a fist above the east horizon at 11 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: Venus is about a fist to the upper right of the Moon at 10 p.m. In two nights, the Moon will have moved to be a little more than a half a fist underneath Jupiter.

Friday: Saturn is 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 and a half fists above due south at 1 a.m. It is about one fist above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.
If you remember this column from 2/23/2008, 3/8/2009, 3/21/2010, 4/4/11, 4/15/12, 4/27/13, and 5/11/14, you know that Saturn was also in opposition on those dates. Thus, it is in opposition about 12 days later each year. 12 days is about one thirtieth of a year. This implies that it takes Saturn about 30 years to make one orbit around the Sun and get back in line with the same stars again. Saturn’s actual orbital period of 30 years matches this approximation very well.


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.