Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/24/15


Saturday: One Family Affair explored the trials of well-to-do civil engineer and bachelor Bill Davis as he attempted to raise his brother's orphaned children in his luxury New York City apartment (as described on Wikipedia). Another family affair explores how a well-to-do Solar System raises its constituents from birth, through growth, change, and death. Just like Buffy and Jody started off full of energy, planets start out hot and molten. Cissy got wrinkles as she approached middle age; planets become cratered as they age. We watched the TV show “Family Affair” to learn about a nontraditional Manhattan family grew and changed. Astronomers study other planets to learn how the Solar System will change. For more information about this Solar System Family Affair, go to http://goo.gl/G029D. Jupiter, the dad of the Solar System family, is about two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the eastern horizon at 8 p.m.

Sunday: There are three planets low in the western sky at 6 p.m. The brightest is Venus, a half a fist above the west-southwest horizon. About one and a half fists to the upper left of Venus is Mars. Neptune is on a line between the two, about a half a fist below Mars. You’ll definitely need a pair of binoculars to see it. For most binoculars, when Mars is in the upper left hand portion of your field of view, Neptune is in the lower right.

Monday: A half mile wide asteroid will come “speeding” by the Earth tonight. The word speeding is in quotes because the asteroid will be moving through the sky at two degrees (four full moon diameters) per hour. This is much faster than any other celestial object, but still slow enough to easy to find with binoculars or a small telescope. The best way to positively identify the asteroid, called 2004BL86, is to view the same part of the sky multiple times. The object that moves over an hour will be the asteroid. At 7 p.m., look about one fist to the upper right of Jupiter, which is the bright object one fist above the east horizon. 2004BL86 will be near the brightest star in the constellation. As the hours go by, the asteroid will move toward the middle of the constellation. At 11 p.m., it will be just below the open star cluster called the Beehive Cluster. At midnight, it will be just above the Beehive Cluster. For more information on the asteroid, including a map to help you find it, go to http://goo.gl/jo3It2.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Have you ever mooned a bull? It sounds like something a rodeo clown might do. You can see it done tonight… sort of. The moon is less than a half a fist to the right of the constellation Taurus the Bull, six fists above due south at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday: 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 nearly four fists above the east-southeast horizon at 11 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 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.

Friday: Are you interested in participating in astronomy research? You don’t need to go back to school. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars getting a fake degree from an online university. The scientists working on the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would like your input on which objects they should target for close-up pictures. While you may think the scientists are just trying to build interest in their project by having people look at pretty pictures, there is a real scientific benefit to having many eyes searching for interesting targets. There aren’t enough scientists to carefully inspect all of the low power images. And surprisingly, computers are not nearly as effective as people in making nuanced judgments of images. So, go to http://www.uahirise.org/ and click on the HiWish button. You’ll be on your way to suggesting close-up targets for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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, January 15, 2015

What's up in the Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of


Saturday: Who can forget that memorable song by Three Dog Constellations Night, “The sky is black. The stars are white. Together we learn to find the light.” Well, maybe it didn’t go like that. Which is good. Because not all stars are white. Most stars are too dim to notice a color. But, two of the stars in the constellation Orion provide a noticeable contrast with each other. Betelgeuse, five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 10:30 p.m. is a red giant. Rigel, the bright star about two fists to the lower right of Betelgeuse, is a blue giant.
By the way, the three dog constellations are Canis Major, the greater dog, found one and a half fists to the lower left of Orion; Canis Minor, the lesser dog, found two and a half fists to the left of Betelgeuse; and Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs, found low in the northeast sky. Canis Major contains Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.

Sunday: The brightest planet Venus is a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 5:30 p.m. Mercury is a half a fist to the lower right of Venus.

Monday: Neptune is the dimmest planet in the Solar System but tonight you can use Mars and a pair of binoculars to help you find it. First, use your naked eyes to spot Mars two fists above the southwest horizon. Neptune will be too dim to see. But, when Mars is centered in your binocular field of view, Neptune will be just to the upper right of it. Even if you have a small telescope, you can easily see them both in the same field of view. They are about as far apart from each other in the sky as the quarter phase moon is thick.

Tuesday: Listen, do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Whoa oh, oh. The Beatles certainly didn’t write this song about the Barringer meteorite crater in Arizona. Astronomers are studying this 50,000-year-old impact to learn more about our planet’s violent history as well as the physics of impacts throughout the solar system. If you’d like to be let in on some of these secrets, go to http://goo.gl/sqbBe.

Wednesday: Are you looking for a vacation spot close by? One that is not to hot and not too cold? Or one that is “just right”? Two years ago, astronomers discovered that the star Tau Ceti, one of our closest neighbor at 12 light years away, may have five planets. One of those planets orbiting the Sun-like star is in the so-called Goldilocks Zone where the temperature is just right for having liquid water. You’ll want to do some research before you travel there. Tau Ceti is two and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 7 p.m. For more information about the discovery, go to http://goo.gl/xcv0dl.

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 p.m.

Friday: Jupiter is two fists above the east horizon at 8 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, January 7, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/10/15

Saturday: Do you have a dime? No, I’m not going to ask you to use a payphone. (“A what?” asked the young person.) Do you have a penny? No, I’m going to ask you to buy a gumball. (“Gum for a penny?” asked the young person.) But I will ask you to make a measurement at 5:15 p.m. Mercury and Venus are very close together a half a fist above the southwest horizon with Mercury being to the lower right of much brighter Venus. Hold a dime out at arm’s length. It should easily fit between them. Then hold a penny at arm’s length. Depending on the length of your arm, this may be a snug fit.

Sunday: 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, rapidly burning its fuel for a high energy but short-lived existence, is three and a half fists above the south horizon at 10 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. There you’ll find baby Suns. Now, look about two fists to the right and a little below Rigel. You should 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 Epsilon Eridani, the most Sun-like close and bright star. Betelgeuse, in the upper left corner of Orion, is a star at the end of its life that started out life a bit larger than the Sun.

Monday: The snout of Taurus the Bull points to Comet Lovejoy for the next three nights. First, find the V-shaped grouping of stars, six fists above due south at 8 p.m. This is the Hyades cluster, representing the snout of Taurus. Comet Lovejoy is one fist to the lower right of the snout. The “V” will point right to it. On a clear night away from the city lights, you should be able to see the comet without optical aids. But in town, and to see detail, you’ll need binoculars. For more information about the comet and where to find it, go to http://goo.gl/imiDsi.

Tuesday: Orion stands tall in the southern sky. At 10:30 p.m., the middle of Orion’s belt is four fists above due south. And talk about belt tightening! Alnilam, the middle star in the belt, is losing mass at a rate of about 100 thousand trillion tons a day. That’s a 1 followed by 17 zeros tons per day.

Wednesday: 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. Yet, this distance does not translate into good viewing because Mercury will be very low in the sky. Mercury is a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 5:30 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 mid February.

Thursday: January is the coldest month 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: Saturn is about a pinky width to the right of the moon at 7 a.m.


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

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/3/15

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 held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 1 a.m. This year, the waxing gibbous moonlight will obscure the dimmer meteors. 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 on how to observe a meteor shower, go to http://goo.gl/K8QRTY.
If the Sun looks big today, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. The Earth is at perihelion just before midnight tonight. If you dig out your Greek language textbook, you’ll see that peri- means “in close proximity” and helios means “Sun”. So, perihelion is when an object is closest to the Sun in its orbit, about 1.5 million miles closer than its average distance of 93 million miles. Since it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere now, the seasonal temperature changes must not be caused by the Earth getting farther from and closer to the Sun. Otherwise, we’d have summer when the Earth is closest to the Sun. The seasons are caused by the angle of the sunlight hitting the Earth. In the winter, sunlight hits the Earth at a very low angle, an angle far from perpendicular or straight up and down. This means that a given “bundle” of sunlight is spread out over a large area and does not warm the surface as much as the same bundle in the summer.

Sunday: According to a crazy internet rumor, the planets will align at 9:47 a.m. PST and decrease gravity on Earth enough to make you feel weightless. DO NOT use this as an excuse to overeat the night before. The planets will not be lined up this morning. And even if they were, they are too far away to have any measurable upward pull on you. You should be more worried about the gravitational pull of those three body builders who work in the office right above yours than about the gravitational pull of any planet other than Earth. To find out more about this planetary alignment hoax, go to http://goo.gl/JZiexL.

Monday: Mercury and Venus are about a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 5 p.m. You will be able to spot Venus right away. Mercury is dimmer and may require binoculars to be seen. As the week progresses, these two planets will be moving higher in the sky and closer together.

Tuesday: Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2, the fifth comet discovered by the Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy, is making its closest approach to Earth tonight. Throughout the rest of the month, it will be moving higher in the sky and getting brighter. Tonight, it will be a challenge to find, even with binoculars. First find Rigel, the brightest star in the constellation Orion, three and a half fists above due south at 10 p.m. Comet Lovejoy is one fist, or about two binocular fields of view to the right of Rigel. For more information, including a finder chart, go to http://goo.gl/psV4F1.

Wednesday: The moon and Jupiter travel through the sky together tonight. They rise in the east-northeast sky just before 8 p.m. with Jupiter being about a fist to the upper left of the moon. As the night goes on, the moon moves eastward with respect to Jupiter meaning by the morning, Jupiter will be about a fist to the upper right of the moon.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Friday: 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 and a half fists above due west at 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 12/27/14

Saturday: Did you get a new telescope for Christmas? Skyandtelescope.com has a good article on how to get started using it. Go to http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/see-new-telescope/. Any observing tip to the night sky should include Jupiter. Jupiter is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 10 p.m. tonight. A small telescope should reveal Jupiter’s cloud belts and its four largest moons. Two years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered plumes of water vapor spewing from the surface of Europa, one of these large moons. Astronomers have long thought that Europa has a liquid water ocean below its thick icy crust. But this is the first discovery of water vapor near Europa. For more information about the plumes, go to http://goo.gl/0FaVs8.

Sunday: Tonight’s first quarter moon is in the constellation Pisces the fishes.

Monday: Mars is one and a half fists above due southwest at 6 p.m.

Tuesday: Saturn is about one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Wednesday: Forget about that big bright ball in Times Square. You can mark the start of the new year with one of the sky’s own big bright balls. That perennial favorite New Year’s Day marker, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, rises to its highest point in the sky a little after midnight on January 1. Thus, when Sirius starts to “fall”, the new year has begun. Look for Sirius about two and a half fists above due south at midnight.

Thursday: 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.

Friday: Has it been tough to wake up this past week? It should have been because the sunrise has been getting a little later since summer started. I know. I know. December 21 was the shortest day of the year. 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 around the first of January and the earliest sunset occurring in early December, not on the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year. On the first day of winter, however, the interval between sunrise and sunset is the shortest. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/SJC5r.


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, December 18, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 12/20/14

Saturday: I know you’re staying up late to train yourself to wait up for Santa. So look out a south-facing window at 1 a.m. and see Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, as high as it ever gets in the sky. It is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south.

Sunday: At 3:03 p.m., 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 day 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 analemma.  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. For more information on this, go to http://goo.gl/KpbkTf.

Monday: You’ve heard the term “a pinch to grow an inch.” While there is no pinching involved, the distance between the Earth and moon increases by about an inch a year.

Tuesday: This is a great time of the year to go around and observe the holiday lights… from SPACE. A NASA satellite has been tracking the spread of Christmas lighting for the past three years. In that time, lights around major US cities shine 20 to 50 percent brighter from Thankgiving to New Years Day than they do the rest of the year. That makes power companies very happy. Some of the NASA images are available at http://goo.gl/NpTks3.

Wednesday: What would that special someone want to see on the back of Santa’s sleigh when she gets up early Christmas morning to eat one of Santa’s cookies? A fruit cake? No. A barbell? Maybe to work off the fruitcake. A subscription to The Daily Record? Of course. But what she really wants is a ring. And if she looks out a south-facing window, she’ll see her ring. Saturn the ringed planet, that is. Saturn is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Thursday: 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 http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/ for more information.
The moon, Aries, and Jupiter make an appearance in the Christmas sky tonight. The moon sets at about 9 pm. At 10 p.m., the dim constellation Aries is about six fists above the southwest horizon and Jupiter is about one and a half fists above the east horizon.

Friday: Columbia the dove, representing the bird Noah sent out to look for dry land as the flood waters receded, is perched just above the ridge south of Ellensburg. Its brightest star Phact is about one fist above the south horizon at 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 12/13/14

Saturday: The Geminid meteor shower peaks for the next two nights. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Gemini the twins. This point is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain near the bright star Castor, the right hand star of the “twin” stars Pollux and Castor. This shower is typically one of the best ones of the year producing bright, medium speed meteors with up to 80 meteors per hour near the peak. This year, the nearly full moon will obscure some of the dimmer meteors. For more information about the Geminid shower, go to http://earthsky.org/space/everything-you-need-to-know-geminid-meteor-shower.

Sunday: You’ve heard the term “a pinch to grow an inch.” Well, Jupiter’s extremely strong gravitational field “pinches” Jupiter so much that it causes Jupiter to shrink by about an inch a year. Look for the svelte Jupiter two fists above due east at 11:07 p.m.

Monday: Mars is about one fist above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

Tuesday: Of course you can see the stars at night. If you know where to look, you can also see a few of the brighter stars during the day. This morning, you can use the moon to help you see Spica in a pair of binoculars. First, find the moon two fists above the southwest horizon at 11 a.m. Move your binoculars so the moon is on the far right edge of your field of view. Spica should be near the middle of the field of view for most binoculars.

Wednesday: Today is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of their god Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The holiday featured a break from work and school, a public banquet, and private gift giving. Some of these customs influenced the secular aspects of Christmas celebrations. Celebrate Saturnalia at 7 a.m. by viewing the planet Saturn, one fist above due southeast. Seeing the real Saturn on the morning of December 17? As Leonard said on The Big Bang Theory, “It’s a Saturnalia miracle.”

Thursday: On these cold mornings, it is difficult to get going. You just want to plop into a chair and sit still. But, are you really sitting still? You’re moving at about 700 miles per hour due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis and 66,000 miles per hour due to the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. If that’s not enough, the entire solar system is orbiting the center of the galaxy at a whopping 480,000 miles per hour! So while you may be sitting still with respect to your living room (and all of the over achievers in your house), you are NOT sitting still with respect to the center of the galaxy. For more information about this concept, go to http://goo.gl/lPVPS. Before you barf from all of that motion, go outside at 7 a.m. and observe Saturn, about two fists below the moon in the southeast sky. Because of Saturn’s rapid rotation, only 10.5 hours, it appears visible flattened.

Friday: Not only can you can see some of the “nighttime” stars during the day, you can also see bright planets. Once again, the moon will be your guide. First, find the moon two fists above the southwest horizon at noon. Move your binoculars so the moon is on the right side of your field of view. Saturn will be a little more than a moon diameter to the lower left of the moon. Now that you have found it in binoculars, try to spot it with your naked eye about a pinky-width to the lower left of 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.