Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 12/3/16


Saturday: Venus is a fist held out at arm’s length below the Moon, in the south-southwest sky at 4:45 p.m. Mercury is the more challenging object to find, less than a half a fist above due southwest at this time.

Sunday: Mars is less than a half a fist to the left of the Moon at 9 p.m. They are both just above the west-southwest horizon.

Monday: The earliest sunset of the year occurs throughout the next week: 4:13 p.m. This seems odd because the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, isn’t for about two more weeks. 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 sunrise and sunset times depend on more than its apparent southward motion in the sky. 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 leading edge of the analemma, the first section to go below the horizon. For a slightly different explanation about this, go to http://goo.gl/kjnHP. Or just go watch the sunset. But don’t stare at the Sun.

Tuesday: Most constellations don’t look like the object their name refers to. That’s because most constellations don’t have such a simple to 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 named star in the constellation. In Latin this star is called Caput Trianguli, the head of the triangle. Triangulum is seven fists above due south horizon at 9 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 a half a fist to the right of Metallah.

Wednesday: Jupiter is three and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Thursday: It’s getting too cold to see frogs in the wild. Some rich politicians see them on their dinner plate. But this is a great time to see frogs in the sky. Ancient Arabs referred to the stars that we now call Fomalhaut and Diphda as Ad-difdi al-awwal and Ad-difda at-tani. This means the first frog and the second frog, respectively. Both frogs are low in the southern sky at 7 p.m. Fomalhaut is one fist above the horizon and one fist to the east of due south. The slightly dimmer Diphda a little more than two fists above the horizon and one fist to the west of due south.

Friday: Cosmic rays are high-energy subatomic particles. When they strike the Earth, they interact with the atmosphere, creating a cascade of other particles including muons. These muons pass through almost everything. So muons (HUH), what are they good for? Absolutely nothing? Wrong. They are good for probing the interior of places too fragile or too dangerous to enter. Scientists observed the pattern of muons passing through the Fukushima nuclear reactor to determine the location and orientation of the damaged fuel rods. For more muon application, go to https://stardate.org/radio/program/cosmic-rays-iii.

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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/26/16

Saturday: “Hey baby! What’s your sign?”
“Ophiuchus, of course”
The Sun is in the same part of the sky as the stars of Ophiuchus from about November 29 to December 17. This is what astrologers mean when they say the Sun is “in” a constellation. Thus, if you were born between these dates, you should be an Ophiuchus. The fact that the horoscopes never list Ophiuchus is a major flaw of astrology. Astrology says that some of our characteristics are based on the location of the Sun at our birth. How can astrologers leave out three weeks from their system? That is like a scientist saying she can explain the results of her experiment every month of the year except early December. Ophiuchus was a mythical healer who was a forerunner to Hippocrates. According to myth, he could raise people from the dead. Maybe that is why he is ignored by astrology. Raising people from the dead is much less impressive than giving spot-on advice such as “Today is a good day to watch your finances.”
The bright stars of Ophiuchus rise just before the Sun. Rasalhague (pronounced Ras’-al-hay’-gwee), the brightest star, is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Sunday: Mercury and Saturn are staring at you, just above the southwest horizon at 4:45 p.m. Mercury is just to the right of due southwest and Saturn is a little more than a half a fist to the right of Mercury.

Monday: Have you been shopping all weekend? Do you need an evening sky break? You deserve a big reward so make it a double. A Double Cluster, that is. The Double Cluster, also known as h and Chi Persei, consists of two young open star clusters in the constellation Perseus. Of course, young is a relative term as these clusters are about 13 million years old. Each cluster is spread out over an area about the same size as the full moon. To the naked eye, the Double Cluster shines with a steady, fuzzy glow. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars in the clusters. The Double Cluster is six fists above the northeast horizon at 6 p.m., about a fist below the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia and three fists above the bright star Capella.

Tuesday: Have you even seen a Black Hole? Neither have scientists. But they have seen the effects of a Black Hole. Black holes have a strong gravitational influence on anything that passes close to them, including light. Cygnus X-1, the first Black Hole candidate ever discovered, is six fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m., in the middle of the neck of Cygnus the swan. NASA launched the Chandra X-ray observatory in 1999 to study black hole candidates and other high-energy events.

Wednesday: I am guessing that some of you don’t like the line of reasoning from Tuesday: that seeing the effects of a Black Hole is good enough to claim there are Black Holes. You have never seen the wind. But, you have seen the effects of the wind. And no Ellensburg resident doubts the existence of the wind.

Thursday: Is your favorite astronomy-loving relative of yours asking for a telescope this Christmas? Before reaching for your credit card, read this guide to choosing your first telescope, available at http://goo.gl/5oXmGj. If cost is an issue, look no further than this Sky and Telescope article about low cost telescopes http://goo.gl/40zd6. The authors review and recommend three telescopes that now cost less than $130 each. If you want to give a gag astronomy gift to someone who really bugs you, give them a copy this column. After such a dud “gift”, you’ll never hear from them again. And that may be the best gift of all.

Friday: Venus is one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 5 p.m., just to the lower left of the young crescent 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.

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/19/16

Saturday: Do you want to learn more about what goes on at night in the natural world? You can at a free event called Nature of Night on the CWU campus, today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Go to the two largest science buildings on campus, J-9 and H-10 on the map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map. The Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education gets help from various community organizations to put on this event.

Sunday: Are you disappointed because you are not going anywhere for Thanksgiving? 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.

Monday: If you are a fan of science fiction, you may have heard of Tau Ceti. It’s a real Sun-like star with many fake civilizations. In 2012, astronomers discovered strong evidence of five real planets orbiting Tau Ceti. But before you go looking for Barbarella, read the latest research reports. Astronomers think these planets are made from different materials than Earth and would be regularly bombarded with comets and asteroids, destroying any life and space babes that arise. Tau Ceti is two and a half fists above due south at 10 p.m., one and a half fists to the left of Diphda.

Tuesday: Saturn is just above the southwest horizon at 5 p.m. Venus is easier to spot, more than one fist above the south-southwest horizon.

Wednesday: Are you thankful that you live in a solar system with multiple planets? You should be. A giant planet like Jupiter cleans up planetary debris that could have collided with Earth and hindered the formation of complex life. Any inhabitants of the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae are thankful for this, as well. Upsilon Andromedae, a star in the constellation Andromeda, was the first Sun-like star discovered to have multiple planets orbiting it. So far, all of its planets are giant planets like Jupiter. But, the system is likely to also contain smaller planets. The dim star, but certainly not its planets, is barely visible straight overhead at 9 p.m. Jupiter is much easier to see, but you have to wait until tomorrow morning to see it. It is three fists above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Thursday: Some of us have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. But, probably not as much as Andromeda had to be thankful for. According to Greek mythology, the beautiful princess Andromeda was chained to a rock next to the ocean. Cetus the sea monster was about to devour her in order to punish her family. Her mother Queen Cassiopeia and her father King Cepheus didn’t know what to do. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came Andromeda’s boyfriend, the great warrior Perseus. Even though Perseus’ standing as the son of King Zeus and the slayer of Medusa was probably enough to win Andromeda under normal circumstances, Andromeda’s impending death-by-sea-monster was not a normal circumstance. So, Perseus drove his sword into the sea monster’s neck and killed it. This was the first time in recorded history that a set of parents actually welcomed an uninvited Thanksgiving visit from the boyfriend. Perseus is about five fists above the east-northeast horizon and Andromeda is about seven fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m.
You should also be thankful that today you will able to find a planet during the day. Jupiter is often bright enough to be seen during the day. But it is difficult to find in the middle of the bright blue sky with no markers around. At 1 p.m., Jupiter is about two to three finger widths to the left of the Moon, low in the west-southwest sky. It helps to first locate it with binoculars. Just get the Moon to the right side of your field of view. Jupiter will be in the middle of the field. Then remove the binoculars and aim your naked eyes to that same region of the sky.

Friday: The brightest star in the nighttime sky is making its way into the evening sky. Sirius is a little more than a half a fist above the southeast 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, November 9, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/12/16

Saturday: Imagine Opie and Andy Taylor walking down the dirt path at night to that fishing hole in the sky. They’d probably be looking to catch Pisces, the two fish already conveniently tied together with two ropes. The ropes are connected at the star Alrescha, Arabic for “the cord”. Alrescha is about a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon at 10:30 p.m. The fish are attached to lines of stars that branch out at one o’clock and three o’clock from Alrescha. By the way, “The Fishing Hole”, The Andy Griffith Show’s theme song, was rated the 20th best TV theme song of all time by ign.com. That’s too low of a rating in my opinion.

Sunday: The brightest point in the nighttime sky, Venus, is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southwest horizon at 5 p.m. Saturn is one and a half fists to the right of Venus.

Monday: Now that the somewhat contentious presidential election is over, we can review history for some perspective. Who could ever forget that famous Chicago Daily Tribune headline “Dewey defeats Moonman”? That’s because 1948 was the last time the full Moon will look as large as it does tonight. That makes it a supermoon. No, wait. A SUPERMOON. The Moon’s orbit around the earth is an ellipse. That means, for some parts of the month, the Moon is closer to the Earth than average and sometimes farther away. When the Earth and Moon are close together, the Moon looks larger. And when that closeness, also called perigee, occurs within hours of the full Moon phase, we get a supermoon. It won’t look this large again until 2034. For more information about the latest supermoon, go to https://goo.gl/QQLprt.

Tuesday: Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon Starfleet officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, might say “Today is a good day to die.” But Deneb, the bright supergiant star in Cygnus the Swan would say “two million years from now is a good day to die.” This may seem like a long time. But, compared to most stars, two million years from now is as close as today. For example, the Sun will last about five billion years. Small stars known as red dwarfs may last trillions of years. Prepare your astronomically short good byes to Deneb tonight at 7 o’clock when it is seven fists above the west horizon.

Wednesday: The Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. These meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Leo the lion. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night and into the morning, as it will remain about one fist above the bright star Regulus. Light from the nearly full moon will obscure some of the dimmer meteors. The Leonid meteors are particles from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, a comet discovered by Ernst Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle in 1866. These are exceptionally fast moving meteors – over 150,000 miles per hour! Go to http://goo.gl/GkLiw7 to read everything you need to know about the Leonid meteor shower. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment.

Thursday: When you think of space, the first image that comes to mind is a few large, massive bodies surrounded by a lot of empty space. After all, it is called “outer space”, not “outer stuff”. But that so-called empty space is filled with powerful radiation and high-speed sub-microscopic particles. Much of this is dangerous to life. However, many planets, including Earth, have a shield against radiation and particles called a magnetic field. Jupiter’s magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets. Find Jupiter two and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Friday: The Nature of Night event takes place tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Science Building on the CWU campus. There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more. See http://www.cwu.edu/cesme/ for more information.


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, November 4, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/5/16

Saturday: Before you fall back on to your bed tonight, set your clock back one hour to the real time. Daylight savings ends early Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This means one more hour of sky watching at night because the Sun will set one hour earlier. Ben Franklin proposed the idea of “saving daylight” by adjusting our clocks way back in 1784. Daylight savings time was first utilized during World War I as a way to save electricity. After the war, it was abandoned. It was reintroduced during World War II on a year-round basis. From 1945 to 1966, some areas implemented daylight savings and some did not. Also, it was not implemented with any uniformity as to when it should start and stop. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 codified the daylight savings rules.

Sunday: At 5:15 p.m., Saturn is about one fist above due southwest at 5 p.m. I will be a bit of a struggle to find it in the twilight glow. But Venus, directly to the left of Saturn and a little bit south of due southwest will be easily visible. Mars is two fists above due south.

Monday: Did you look up Elisabeth and Johannes Hevelius based on last week’s Halloween costume suggestion? They were the astronomy version of Bennifer or Brangelina of the mid to late 1600s. Johannes Hevelius spent four years mapping the lunar surface and published his work in Selenographia, sive Lunae descripto (Selenography, a description of the Moon). He also discovered seven constellations still recognized today. When Elisabeth was a child, she started working with Johannes. Shortly after his first wife died, he married the much younger Elisabeth. She started to take over his astronomy work, finishing and publishing their star catalog called Prodromus Astronomiae. Many people consider Elisabeth the first female astronomer.

Tuesday: Jupiter is two fists above the east-southeast horizon at 6 a.m.

Wednesday: Deneb, one of the three bright stars in the Summer Triangle, is nearly straight overhead at 7 p.m.

Thursday: While Stonehenge is an ancient burial ground visited by religious people for thousands of years, MIThenge is an 825-foot long hallway on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited by the Sun’s rays twice a year.  Every year in November and January, the setting Sun lines up with a narrow window at the end of the long hall and the light shines down to the opposite end. This season’s alignment is from November 10-12. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/0hwFQf or visit MIT. In addition, challenge yourself to find a similar alignment

Friday: We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. And a happy Friday. Martinmas is a holiday in many parts of the world commemorating Saint Martin of Tours. He was buried on November 11, 397. What does this have to astronomy? Not much except that the celebration on November 11 often doubles as a cross-quarter day celebration, a day that is halfway between an equinox and a solstice. Also, according to an agricultural calendar, November 11 marks the practical beginning of winter.
And what better way to spend Martinmas than by watching a meteor shower. The Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks tonight. These are slow moving meteors that result in the occasional fireball. The Taurid meteor showers produce a few bright meteors every hour so the waxing gibbous Moon won’t be much of a problem. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull, near the open star cluster called the Pleiades. This point is about three fists above the east horizon at 8 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist above the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.


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, October 26, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 10/29/16


Saturday: Venus is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 6:30 p.m. Saturn is right above it.

Sunday: What do Justin Bieber and Betelgeuse have in common? Both are superstars. One will shine brightly for about a few hundred thousand more years. The other will only seem to be around for that long. “Sorry” Beliebers. “If you Love Yourself”, you and your “Boyfriend” need to learn more about Betelgeuse, the real super giant star that is big enough to hold about one million Suns. “What Do You Mean” you don’t know where to look? For more information about Betelgeuse, go to http://goo.gl/0MyfHT. You’ll find it one fist above due east at 11 p.m.

Monday: Halloween. The pumpkins. The candy. The children going door-to-door dressed up as their favorite astronomer couple Elisabeth and Johannes Hevelius. At least they should because Halloween is, in part, an astronomical holiday. Halloween is a “cross-quarter date”, a day approximately midway between an equinox and a solstice. Historically, the Celts of the British Isles used cross-quarter dates as the beginnings of seasons. For the Celts, winter began with Halloween. So when all those little Hevelius’s come to your door tonight night, honor the Celts and give them a wintry treat. If they ask you for a trick, point out Mars, two fists above the south horizon at 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday: Happy Celtic New Year! Many historians think that November 1, known for the festival of Samhain, was the ancient Celtic New Year’s Day. Samhain, Old Irish for “summer’s end”, was a harvest festival that may have contributed to some of the customs of our current “holiday” of Halloween.

Wednesday: Jupiter is one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Thursday: Lacerta, the faint lizard constellation, is straight overhead at 8 p.m. It was named by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687 to fill the space between the much brighter and well-defined constellations Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus going clockwise from the constellation just south of Lacerta. Johannes

Friday: Tonight and tomorrow night is the peak of the Southern Taurid meteor shower. The meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Taurus the bull. This point is about three fists above the east horizon at 9 p.m. This point remains one and a half fists to the right of the arrow-shaped snout of the bull throughout the night. This is not a very active metoeor shower, about seven per hour. But it is rich in fireballs, the bright meteors that leave a long streak in the sky. The moon will be in the waxing crescent phase, near the south-southwest horizon, at peak viewing time so this might be your lucky meteor watching time. For everything you need to know about the Taurid meteor shower, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=50.

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, October 20, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 10/22/16


Saturday: Dead October flowers lead to November meteor showers. While the Leonid meteor shower is the big name event, the few bright and surprisingly colorful fireballs per hour you can see during the typical Southern and Northern Taurids meteor showers may make it worth your while to stay up late for a while. These two showers overlap from about October 19 to November 19. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull. This point is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist to the right of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.

Sunday: Venus, Saturn, and the star Antares form a small triangle less than one fist above the southwest horizon at 6:45 p.m. Venus is the brightest point of light in the triangle. Antares is to the lower left of Venus. Saturn is less than one fist to the upper left of Venus.

Monday: Rho Cassiopeiae is the most distant star that can be seen with the naked eye by most people. It is about 8,200 light years away. That means that the light that reaches your eyes from that star left over 8,000 years ago, before the beginning of time according to the Byzantine calendar. Rho Cassiopeiae is six fists above the northeast horizon at 8 p.m., just above the zigzag line that marks the constellation Cassiopeia.

Tuesday: Vega, the bright bluish star in the constellation Lyra, is six fists above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

Wednesday: Mars is a little less than two fists above the southern horizon at 7 p.m. Recent images from the MAVEN mission (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) show cloud formation on Mars. Clouds of water-ice crystals form when sunlight warms the surface, causing the atmosphere just above the surface to rise up, cool and condense. If this sounds familiar, it should. Clouds form the same way on Earth. If you’d like to see a recording of Martian cloud formation in action, go to https://goo.gl/vZvf21.

Thursday: If the Dawn spacecraft didn’t know any better, it may have played “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “It’s like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”. That’s because most movies show an asteroid belt as millions of large rocks close together, moving through space and difficult to navigate. A “jungle” of asteroids. In reality, the objects in the asteroid belt are far apart from each other and easy for Dawn to move through without danger. Follow the trail of the Dawn spacecraft using images found at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/live_shots.html.

Friday: Jupiter is less than a half a fist above the very thin crescent moon at 7 a.m. They are low in the east-southeastern sky, just ahead of the rising 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.