Friday, May 17, 2013
Saturday: Saturn is nearly three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southeast horizon. With the naked eye, and through binoculars, Saturn looks to be a dull orange color. This is because of the different gasses in the atmosphere. But a close up view reveals even more colors - brown, yellow, and even blue – emphasizing different gases, cloud layers, and wind patterns. For a true-color close-up view of Saturn and Titan, its largest moon, go to http://goo.gl/vqI3Z.
Sunday: 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 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.
Monday: Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter are clustered low in the west-northwest sky after sunset for most of the week. At 9 p.m. tonight, Jupiter is about a fist above the horizon, Venus is a half a fist above the horizon, and Mercury is to the lower right of Venus. As the week goes on, Venus and Mercury move upward in the sky and Jupiter moves downward. By Thursday, the rapidly moving Mercury has passed up Venus. By next week, both Venus and Mercury are above Jupiter.
Tuesday: Spica remains less than a half a fist to the left of the moon throughout the night.
Wednesday: Saturn remains about a half a fist or less above the moon throughout the night.
Thursday: 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 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.
Friday: 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 due east 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”.
The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Saturday: The moon is midway between Jupiter and Aldebaran low in the western sky right after sunset. At 9 p.m., the moon is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon. Jupiter should be relatively easy to find about a half a fist above it. For a real challenge, look a half a fist below the moon to try find Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the bull.
Sunday: So you think your mother has problems on Mother’s Day because she has 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 sacrificed to a sea monster. Look for poor Cassiopeia about one and a half fists above the north horizon at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.
Monday: 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 five and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 10 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.
Tuesday: In an old Saturday Night Live spoof advertisement for a turkey you can pump (http://vimeo.com/12389925), 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. 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.
Wednesday: The bright star Antares is one fist above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.
Thursday: This is a good time of the year to find the Big Dipper. It is nearly straight overhead at 10 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: Saturn is about two and a half fists above south-southeast at 10 p.m.
The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Saturday: Jupiter is two fists held upright and at arms length above the west-northwest horizon at 9 p.m.
Sunday: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. But since this meteor shower has a fairly broad peak range, there will be many more meteors than in the typical pre-dawn sky throughout the month. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. The meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius near the star Eta. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 4 a.m. The moon will be new in a few days so it should not interfere with your viewing. You could be rewarded with some bright, fast meteors. The Eta Aquarid meteors slam into the Earth at about 40 miles per second. They often leave a long trail. The Eta Aquarid meteors are small rocks that have broken off Halley’s Comet. For more information about the Eta Aquarids, go to http://meteorshowersonline.com/eta_aquarids.html.
Monday: Mother’s Day is less than a week away. What are you going to get her? Get her a Gem(ma). The star Gemma, also known as Alphekka, is the brightest star in the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Gemma, Latin for jewel is the central gemstone for the crown. It is four fists above due east at 10 p.m.
Tuesday: The bright bluish star Vega is two fists above the northeast horizon at 10 p.m.
Wednesday: This weekend, celebrate Mother’s Day with the big mom of the sky, Virgo. Ancient Greeks and Romans associated this portion of the sky with their own goddess of the harvest, either Demeter (Greeks) or Ceres (Roman). Demeter was the mother of Persephone and Ceres was the mother of Proserpina. According to myth, each of these daughters was abducted causing their mothers great grief. The first star in Virgo rises in the afternoon. Spica, the bright bluish star in the constellation rises at 6:30 and is three fists above the south-southeast horizon at 10 p.m. Saturn is about twice as bright and orange. It is about a fist to the lower left of Spica.
Thursday: Tonight’s moon is new. That means you won’t be able to see it. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Contrary to the belief of toddlers and immature politicians, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Note a double negative statement followed by a triple negative statement. I’m not unsorry about that.) Now, back to the science. What would happen to the earth if the moon really didn’t exist? In the summer blockbuster Oblivion, aliens destroy the moon and Tom Cruise survives. But the long-term effects on the earth would be devastating to life as we know it. The moon stabilizes the spin axis of the earth keeping the seasons fairly uniform over time. For more information on what would happen to the earth if the moon were destroyed, go to http://goo.gl/jM1d4. For more information on Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Cruise.
Friday: Here is your early evening viewing challenge. At 8:45, Venus is about a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon and a finger width to the right of the young crescent moon.
The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.
Friday, April 26, 2013
Saturday: 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 three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 1 a.m. It is two fists 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, and 4/15/13, you know that Saturn was also in opposition on those dates. Thus, it is in opposition about 13 days later each year. 13 days is about one twenty-ninth of a year. This implies that it takes Saturn about 29 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.
Sunday: Many ancient philosophers thought the pattern of movement in the heavenly bodies represented a “musica universalis” ore “universal music”. For example, Pythagoras, the right triangle guy, hypothesized that the Sun, Moon, and planets emitted their own characteristic hum based on their orbital motion. Of course we now know that it not the case. But that does not mean astronomy and music are unrelated. At noon Pacific Daylight Time today, Italian pianist and composer Giovanni Renzo will give an online Cosmic Concert with music to accompany beautiful pictures and videos of the night sky. Go to http://goo.gl/YTSgO for more information about the concert and http://goo.gl/QUuLI for a live stream of the concert.
Monday: How many stars can you see in the constellation Leo the lion? This week, you can help answer that question. The organization called GLOBE at Night is looking for people all over the world to count how many stars they can see in one of three constellations. Participants use star charts found at http://www.globeatnight.org/ to observe Leo, Orion, or Crux and compare what they see to the charts. After making the observations, participants can go to the website and add their findings to those of thousands of other observers. The main goal of GLOBE at Night is to research the pattern of light pollution across the globe. A secondary goal is to increase interest in observing and awareness of the night sky. You can find Leo, the best observing choice for Ellensburg, five fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. Regulus, one of the brightest stars in the sky, is at the bottom of the constellation, just over four fists above the southwest horizon.
Tuesday: Are you thirsty. I’ll wait while you get some water. I will NOT wait while Corvus the crow gets you some water. The Greco-Roman god Apollo made this mistake. He sent Corvus the crow to get some water in the cup known as Crater. Some figs distracted Corvus and he waited for them to ripen so he could eat them. When Corvus got back late, Apollo put Corvus and Crater in the sky with the gently tipping cup just out of the reach of the perpetually thirsty crow. Corvus is a trapezoid-shaped constellation about two fists above due south at 11 p.m. Crater is just to the right of Corvus.
Wednesday: Winter must be over because the winter constellations are becoming less visible. Orion is setting due west starting at about 9 p.m. At this time, Orion’s belt is a little more than half a fist above the west horizon and Betelgeuse is nearly two fists above the west horizon. By mid-May, Orion will be lost in the glare of the Sun.
Thursday: Do people think you have a magnetic personality? The star Cor Caroli understands how you feel. Cor Caroli has one of the strongest magnetic fields among main sequence stars similar to our Sun. This strong magnetic field is thought to produce large sunspots that cause the brightness of Cor Caroli to vary. Cor Caroli is nearly straight overhead at 10:30 p.m.
Friday: Jupiter is two fists above the west horizon at 9 p.m.
Monday, April 15, 2013
Saturday: Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo the lion is less than a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the moon at 9 p.m. They are midway up in the southern sky.
Sunday: Remember the old saying: April showers bring… meteors. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight and close to straight overhead near dawn. The best time to look is just before dawn since that is when the radiant, or point from which the meteors appear to come, is high in the sky. This year, the Moon is in the waxing gibbous phase meaning it will be bright and be out for most of the night. Typically, this is one of the least interesting major meteor showers of the year. However, it is also one of the most unpredictable. As recently as 1982, there were 90 meteors visible during a single hour. In addition, the Lyrid meteor shower has historical interest because it was one of the first ones observed. Chinese records say “stars fell like rain” in the shower of 687 B.C. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.
Monday: You know Metis and Thebe and Adrastea and Amalthea. Io and Ganymede and Callisto and Europa. But do you recall? There are 67 Jovian moons in all. (As of July 2012.) Less than 50 years ago, Jupiter was thought to have only 12 moons. But, astronomers are red-nosed with delight that the advent of supersensitive electronic cameras has caused the number of discovered moons to rapidly increase. Jupiter’s 67 moons range in size from Ganymede, with a diameter of 5,262 kilometers, to S/2002 J12 and S/2003 J9, with a diameter of only one kilometer. Our moon has a diameter of 3,475 kilometers. (One kilometer is 0.62 miles.) Saturn is second place in the moon race with 62. Uranus is next with 27. Then comes Neptune with 13, Mars with 2, and Earth with 1. Even dwarf planets have moons. Pluto has 5, Eris has 1, and Haumea has 2. Eris is an outer solar system object that was discovered in 2005 and named in September of 2006. Because astronomers thought it was larger than Pluto, people called it the tenth planet for a while. (More recent measurements show Eris to be a little smaller than Pluto.) Haumea, the newest dwarf planet with a moon, was discovered in 2004 and officially named a dwarf planet on September 17, 2008. Jupiter, the “mooning” champ, is a half a fist above the west horizon at 9 p.m. Go to http://goo.gl/Xkoeq for more information about Solar System moons.
Tuesday: Avast ye matey. Swab the poop deck. Pirates love astronomy. In fact, the term “poop” in poop deck comes from the French word for stern (poupe) which comes for the Latin word Puppis. Puppis is a constellation that represents the raised stern deck of Argo Navis, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. Argo Nevis was an ancient constellation that is now divided between the constellations Puppis, Vela and Carina. The top of Puppis is about a fist and a half to the left of the bright star Sirius in the south-southwest sky at 9 p.m. Rho Puppis, one of the brightest stars in the constellation, is about one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at this time.
Wednesday: Jupiter is two and a half fists above the west horizon at 9 p.m.
Thursday: Tonight’s full moon is called the Full Pink Moon because it marks the appearance of moss pink, one of the first spring flowers.
Friday: Saturn is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Saturday: Do you like clusters? Candy clusters? Data clusters? The German band Cluster? Tonight, the moon shows that it likes star clusters because it is between two of them at 9 p.m. The V-shaped Hyades cluster is less than a half a fist held out at arms length to the left of the moon and the more compact Pleiades is a little more than a half a fist to the right of the moon. Containing over 300 stars, the Hyades cluster is about 150 light years away and 625 million years old. The Pleiades Cluster has over 1000 stars and much younger. Compared to our 5 billion year old Sun, the 100 million year age of the Pleiades is infant-like.
Sunday: Sure Jupiter is the brightest point of light in the night sky this evening. But did you know you can also see it during the day? Today is a good day to try. You’ll need binoculars and the moon. First, find the waxing crescent moon five fists above the southeast horizon at 2 p.m. Aim your binoculars so the moon is near the bottom of your field of view. Jupiter will be in about the middle of your field of view. If the sky is completely cloud-free and steady, you may be able to see Jupiter with the naked eye. Hold two fingers out at arm’s length. Rotate them sideways and place them right above the moon. Jupiter will be right above your fingers. For more information about other celestial objects visible during the day, go to http://goo.gl/yMW12.
Monday: The nighttime stars take little more than an instant to rise. The Moon takers about two minutes to rise. That’s absolutely speedy compared to the constellation Virgo which takes four hours to rise. The first star in Virgo rises at 4:30 in the afternoon today. Spica, the brightest star in the constellation, rises at 7:30. By 9 p.m., Spica is a fist and a half above the southeast horizon.
Tuesday: The Boys of Summer have started their season. The stars of winter are ending theirs. At 10 p.m., four of the brightest wintertime stars have either set or will soon be setting. Sirius is about a half a fist above the west-southwest horizon. Rigel has set. The red giant Betelgeuse is a fist and a half above the west horizon. And Aldebaran is a fist above the west-northwest horizon.
Wednesday: The Lyrid meteor shower peaks next week. But there will be increased meteor activity for the next two weeks in the vicinity of the constellation Lyre. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at midnight and close to straight overhead near dawn.
Thursday: Tonight’s first quarter moon is in the constellation Cancer the crab. At 10 p.m., the Beehive cluster is less than a fist above the moon. (See, I told you the moon liked star clusters.) The Beehive cluster, also called Praesepe, is an open star cluster of about 600 stars, all about 600 light years from Earth.
Friday: Saturn is less than one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 6 a.m.
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Saturday: Some people in town today for the Yakima River Canyon Marathon may be looking for a little running inspiration. While nothing can take the place of a 20+ mile long run for marathon preparation (I know), certain objects in the night sky are inspiring. In the Bible, Job specifically mentions the star Arcturus, or the bear keeper, to his friend as a sign of God's majesty. He describes God as that "Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers (constellations) of the south" (Job 9:9, King James Version). Whatever your religious beliefs, it is clear that Job was impressed with this very bright star. See the star that inspired Job about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 9 p.m.
Sunday: If you ran far yesterday, you don’t want to stay up late looking at the stars. So do something during the day that will help you and other night sky enthusiasts: make sure your outdoor light fixtures are shielded or at least facing down. This will cut down on light pollution, stray light that obscures the stars, and it will help you celebrate the start of International Dark Sky week. Go to http://goo.gl/w6Hi7 for more information on how to do an outdoor lighting audit and get more information about International Dark Sky week.
Monday: Jupiter is three fists above the west horizon at 9 p.m.
Tuesday: The Virtual Messier Marathon I described in last week’s column has been moved to today at 11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. See astronomers find, show, and talk about interesting celestial objects. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/rDpyl. I noticed that none of my readers went to this link last week so now is your chance. (See, I’m checking up on you.)
Wednesday: Tonight’s moon is new. Don’t bother looking for it. The new moon is the phase where the moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun. Hence the side of the moon facing Earth is not receiving any sunlight and cannot be seen. The new moon is not a big deal this month. But, May 10, the new moon will be covering most of the Sun leading to an annular solar eclipse in some parts of the world such as Australia and the Solomon Islands. An annular solar eclipse occurs when the Moon, as seen from Earth, is relatively far from Earth in its orbit and not large enough to cover the Sun even though they are nearly perfectly lined up. Instead, there is bright ring or annulus around the Moon. The resulting eclipse is called an annular solar eclipse because of this ring.
Thursday: You probably didn’t know this but several British New Wave bands were really into astronomy. Take the band “Dead or Alive” (please). The original lyrics to their song “You Spin my Round (Like a Record) were thought to be: “ You spin me right round, baby, right round, like the Whirlpool Galaxy, right round, round, round.” (Well, that’s what I thought them to be.) The Whirlpool Galaxy was the first galaxy observed to have a spiral shape. Since then, astronomers have discovered many galaxies, including our own Milky Way Galaxy, have a spiral shape. Go to http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic0506a/ for more information about the Whirlpool Galaxy. Go to your small telescope to find the Whirlpool Galaxy in the night sky. It is in the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. At 10 p.m., find Alkaid, the end star of the Big Dipper handle, five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon. The Whirlpool Galaxy is two fingers to the upper right of Alkaid.
Friday: Saturn is a little more than a fist above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.