Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Ellesnburg WA sky for the week of 3/28/15

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 two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 10 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 give you a head start in celebrating International Dark Sky week, which occurs in mid-April. 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. You won’t need to have dark skies to see Jupiter less than a fist to the upper left of the moon at 9 p.m.

Monday: Mars is one fist and Venus is two and a half fists above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: The Space Shuttles have been retired. But NASA is still making plans about the future of space flight. Here is a small NASA poster summarizing the future of American Human spaceflight: http://goo.gl/D8KWj. It is interesting to compare the sizes of these real spaceships to the dozens of fictional spacecraft summarized on a poster found at http://goo.gl/F95aEL.

Wednesday: After a long journey through space, there is nothing will quench your thirst better than a few drops of refreshing Mars water. Wait! Is this an April Fool’s Day joke? No. In 2010, after analyzing photos taken by the Mars Phoenix Lander, a group of astronomers discovered what they interpreted as drops of very salty liquid water on one of the Lander’s legs. But we are not going to travel 18 months to Mars just to lick a few drops of water off a metal leg. We want waterfront property if we are going all that way. The high-resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken images of dark rivulets that form, grow, and fade in the Martian southern hemisphere. Even though Mars is very cold, this liquid could contain enough salt to lower its freezing point by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to remain liquid.
Newsflash! Earlier this year, Astronomers found evidence that Mars may have had an ocean of water that has since been lost. Maybe it’s too late for that waterfront property after all. Go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_on_Mars for an overview of the history of, you guessed it, water on Mars. Mars is one fist above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south-southwest horizon at 6 a.m.

Friday: You’ve seen all of the top 100 lists: top 100 ways to please your mate, top 100 restaurants in the local region, etc. Now get excited for the lunar 100 at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/the-lunar-100/. This list describes 100 interesting landmarks on the moon that are visible from Earth. They are listed from easiest to see, starting with the entire moon itself at number 1, to most difficult (Mare Marginis swirls, anyone?). Stay up all night to binge watch the moon or just make a few observations a month. It’s your decision. It’s our 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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/21/15

Red but feeling blue
That describes Mars this weekend
Moon fled for Venus

Saturday: Mars is about two finger widths to the right of the moon at 8 p.m.

Sunday: April is Global Astronomy Month (GAM). While many astronomy experiences come from looking up, you can also experience astronomy looking down… at pen and paper. GAM has launched an Astropoetry blog and is looking for contributors, hopefully ones that are better than mine above. Even if you’ve never written a poem before, this is your opportunity to express your love for astronomy in a unique way and possibly share it with others. Go to http://goo.gl/SeOd4r for more poetry. The moon is expressing its love for Venus by moving upward in the early evening sky. At 8 p.m., Venus is about two finger widths to the right of the moon.

Monday: The Milky Way is pretty easy to spot on the early spring sky. Just look up. Everything you see in the sky, including that bird that just startled you, is in the Milky Way. But, even the path of densely packed stars in the plane of our galaxy that look like a river of milk is easy to find. Look due south at 9 p.m. Follow the fuzzy path just to the left of the bright star Sirius two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the horizon, to the right of the bright star Procyon four and a half fists above the southwest horizon, through Capella five fists above the west horizon, through W-shaped Cassiopeia, and down to due north.

Tuesday: Jupiter is six fists above due south at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Orion is getting lower and lower in the nighttime sky. Its second brightest star, Betelgeuse, is only two fists above the west-southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Thursday: 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. At 10:18 tonight, it will be as close as it gets to the horizon, about two degrees above due north. Watch it reach this due north position about 4 minutes earlier each night.

Friday: You need to get up early tomorrow to cheer on your favorite runners at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon starting at 8 a.m. on Canyon Road just south of Berry Road. So why not get a little viewing in? Saturn is two fists above the south-southwest horizon at 6 a.m. The bright star Antares is a half a fist to the lower left of Saturn.


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, March 12, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/14/15

Saturday: Has there ever been life on Mars? Astronomers don’t know. But the Mars Curiosity Rover has been digging up some strong evidence that Mars was hospitable to life in the past. At the end of 2012, the first drilling assignment for Curiosity found clay-like minerals that form in the presence of water. In December 2013, scientists announced the strongest evidence yet for an ancient fresh-water lake in Gale Crater. Planetary geologist John Grotzinger said that Earth microbes could have thrived in this lake if they were placed there. Earlier this month, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile found evidence that Mars was once had an ocean that held more water than the Arctic Ocean and covered a greater percentage of Mars’ surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth. In brief, they came to this conclusion after analyzing the chemical signature of light that passes through the Martian atmosphere. For more information about this ancient ocean and the method of discovery, go to http://goo.gl/bOqD4U. Mars is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 8 p.m., about a fist below the bright planet Venus. By the way, the name of the observatory in Chile really is Very Large Telescope. See for yourself at http://www.eso.org/paranal.

Sunday: Jupiter is five and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 9 p.m.

Monday: Vega is a half a fist above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: Astronomers are often fascinated with large objects. Planets that could fit 1000 Earths (Jupiter). Stars that would fill up the entire inner Solar System (Betelgeuse). Galaxies with 400 billion stars (Milky Way). But what about the smallest objects? One of the smallest stars is Proxima Centauri, the closest known star other than our Sun. It is about 12% of the mass of the Sun. The smallest theoretically possible star would be about 7.5% of the mass of the Sun. Any smaller and it could not support fusion reactions. For more on small stars, go to http://goo.gl/EHBdOX.

Wednesday: Ask someone which day in March has the same duration day and night. Go ahead, ask someone. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. If that person said the first day of spring, they are wrong. Today, three days before the first day of spring, is the date in which day and night are closest in duration. There are two main reasons for this. First, the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is actually below the horizon. This makes the Sun appear to rise before it actually rises and appear to set after is actually sets. Second, spring starts when the center of the Sun passes through the point called the vernal equinox. But, the Sun is not a point. The upper edge of the Sun rises about a minute before the center of the Sun and the lower edge sets a minute after the center of the Sun. Thus, even if we didn’t have an atmosphere that bends the sunlight, daytime on the first day of spring would still be longer than 12 hours.

Thursday: Saturn is about two and a half fists above the southern horizon at 6 a.m.

Friday: Look up in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. No, it’s the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox!? Spring starts at 3:45 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The first day of spring is often called the vernal equinox. This label for the day is misleading. The vernal equinox is actually the point in the sky where the Sun’s apparent path with respect to the background stars (called the ecliptic) crosses the line that divides the stars into north and south (called the celestial equator). This point is in the constellation Pisces the fishes. At the vernal equinox, the Sun is moving from the southern region of background stars to the northern region. Since the Sun crosses the vernal equinox at night, tomorrow will actually be the first full day of spring.
Because the Earth slowly wobbles like a spinning top, the vernal equinox is slowly moving into the constellation Aquarius. By the year 2597, the vernal equinox will reach the constellation Aquarius and the “Age of Aquarius” will begin. Until then, we’ll be in “the age of Pisces”.
Those of you lucky enough to be sailing in the North Atlantic or Arctic Oceans this morning will witness a total solar eclipse. Just east of Iceland, the eclipse happens at about 9:45 a.m. Europe and North Africa will see varying degrees of a partial solar eclipse.


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, March 5, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/7/15

Saturday: Don't forget to set you clocks ahead one hour tonight for the annual ritual called daylight savings. Daylight savings originated in the United States during World War I to save energy for the war effort. But a recent study by two economists shows that switching to daylight savings time may actually lead to higher utility bills. When the economists compared the previous few years of energy bills in the section of Indiana that just started observing daylight savings, they discovered that switching to daylight savings cost Indiana utility customers $8.6 million in electricity. In an even more important consequence of daylight savings, Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia discovered a 7% jump in traffic accidents on the Monday after we "spring ahead". Blame it on the lost hour of sleep. And, sky watchers will lose even more sleep because the sky stays light for an additional hour.

Sunday: It’s getting dark. The last remnant of twilight has disappeared. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the western sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the west horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists above the horizon. It is not really a ghost. It is an effect called the zodiacal light. This light comes from sunlight reflecting off dust grains in our solar system. The effect is the most visible when the band of constellations called the zodiac makes a steep angle with the horizon. You need a clear dark sky with no haze or light pollution to see the zodiacal light. At its brightest, the zodiacal light rivals the light of the central Milky Way. Look for the ghostly patch after twilight for the next few weeks.

Monday: Jupiter is five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 9 p.m.

Tuesday: It is often said that Earth is a water world because about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. What would it look like if all that water on the surface were gathered up into a ball? That “ball” would be about 700 km in diameter, less than half the diameter of the Moon. The Astronomy Picture of the day shows us right here http://goo.gl/4wXLM

Wednesday: The group AC/DC sings that “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t noise pollution, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die.” Unfortunately, because of excess and improper outdoor lighting in cities, even those as small as Ellensburg, our view of the night sky is gonna die. Lights that are aimed upward illuminate the atmosphere and obscure dim objects. To watch an informative and entertaining video about the effects of light pollution, go to http://goo.gl/R1AoCz. To watch ACV/DC sing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, go to http://goo.gl/dZJ8my. To watch a night sky object that is not affected by light pollution, look at Venus, two fists above the west horizon at 8 p.m. Mars is a slightly more challenging find, one fist above the west horizon. If you have binoculars, you can easily spot Uranus. First find Mars. Uranus is just below Mars.

Thursday: Saturn is a half a fist to the lower right of the moon at 6 a.m.

Friday: Did you know that a statistical analysis can tell us that Friday the 13th is not a lucky day? “Beating the odds” is one definition of luck. Because of the pattern of the Gregorian calendar, Friday is the most common day of the week to be the 13th day of the month. Thus, when you encounter a Friday the 13th, you are not beating the odds because Friday is the most likely 13th day of the month. The least likely day? A tie between Thursday and Saturday.


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, February 26, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/28/15


Saturday: “The crow rises in the southeast,” said spy number one. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize that code,” replied spy number two. Spy one exclaimed, “That’s because it’s not a code, you idiot. I’m talking about the constellation Corvus the crow.” This very bad spy movie dialogue is to remind you that Corvus had a very bad life. According to one myth, Corvus brought the god Apollo the news that his girlfriend was seeing someone else. In a classic case of punishing the messenger, Apollo turned the formerly beautifully colored crow black. The box-shaped Corvus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: Tonight is a great night to look for the Big Dipper. Tomorrow will be a great night to look for the Big Dipper. In fact, every night for many centuries will be great nights to look for the Big Dipper. But the Big Dipper’s shape slowly changes over many, many, many, many centuries. (Have I reached my word count yet?) Tens of thousands of years ago, it didn’t look like a dipper and tens of thousands of years from now, it will no longer look like a dipper. For a short video simulation of the changing Big Dipper, go to http://goo.gl/df1yV. For a look at the current Dipper, face northeast at 8 p.m. The lowest star, Alkaid, is two and a half fists above the horizon.

Monday: Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is two and a half fists above due south at exactly 8:09 p.m.

Tuesday: Venus is one and a half fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m.

Wednesday: If you ask an astrobiologist for the three most likely places to find evidence of life in the Solar System, other than Earth, they’d probably say Mars, Europa (“Didn’t they sing “The Final Countdown”?”), and Enceladus. Mars makes sense because you know scientists have sent a lot of probes there. Astronomers first discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, first piqued astrobiologists’ interest a few years ago then NASA’s Cassini probe discovered jets of water containing organic materials shooting out. Last year, the German space agency started a project called Enceladus Explorer, EnEx for short, to collect sample from deep within Enceladus. For more information on the Enceladus mission, go to http://goo.gl/VPxzs. Mars is one fist above the west horizon at 7 p.m., just below the much brighter Venus. Jupiter and Europa are three and a half fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m. You have to stay up really late or get up early to see Saturn. Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m. By the way, the Swedish group Europe sang “The Final Countdown”. And they were “heading for Venus” in the song, not to the worlds of the outer Solar System.

Thursday: In this busy world, it is important to know what time it is. We have many devises that give us the time. A phone. A computer. A watch. But who has time to build a phone, computer or even a watch. Not you. But everyone has enough time to build a simple Sun Clock. All you need is a pencil, a compass and a print out of the clock template. Go to https://www.exploratorium.edu/science_explorer/sunclock.html for more information.

Friday: Today, the Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Over the next 16 months, Dawn will gather information the former planet, now considered a dwarf planet. That’s right. After Ceres was first discovered on the first day of the 19th century, 1/1/1801, astronomers called it a planet. However, as more objects were discovered in this region of the solar system, they were all called asteroids for their star-like appearance. “Aster” is Greek for star. For more information, including numerous images, go to http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/main.

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, February 19, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/21/15

Saturday: Venus and Mars are very close together, one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon. How close together, you ask. You could not fit the largest full moon in between them. The full moon subtends an angle of about 0.5 degrees and the two planets are 0.4 degrees apart tonight.

Sunday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much hotter starlet”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Saturn is two fists above due south at 6 a.m. The star(let) Antares is about a fist to the lower left of Saturn.

Monday: Headline from the tabloids: Earth sends robot to Mars in order to take a selfie. In January 2014, the Mars Curiosity rover took a picture of its night sky that included the Earth and moon. Both would easily be visible to the naked eye for a human standing on Mars. Since you can’t go to Mars, go to http://goo.gl/DqprKF look at the picture.

Tuesday: Mercury will be as far away from the Sun in the sky as it will get this orbital cycle. This "farthest away" point is known as the planet's greatest elongation. Since Mercury is in morning sky, it is west of the Sun and this occurrence is called the greatest western elongation. This morning will be the best morning to observe Mercury for the next few weeks. Mercury is about a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at 6:15 a.m. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. By mid April, it will be visible in the evening sky.

Wednesday: Did you know you can see stars in the daytime? Of course every smart elementary school child would answer, “the Sun is a star so, of course you can see stars in the daytime.” You, in your aged wisdom would retort, “I said stars, plural, and the Sun is only one star.” Then her even more learned middle school aged sister would note, “You can even see some of the brighter so-called night time stars during the day if you know where to look.” Today is one of those days, if you have binoculars. First, locate the moon high in the southeast sky at 5 p.m. Next, find it with your binoculars. If the moon is on the left hand side of the field of view, the star Aldebaran will be near the center. You may be able to find Aldebaran earlier but 5 p.m. is the best time because the star is high in the sky while the Sun is low in the sky.

Thursday: 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 10 p.m. Zeta Puppis, the hottest, and thus the bluest, naked eye star in the sky at 40,000 degrees Celsius is near the uppermost point in Puppis.

Friday: I hope you got your sweetie something red for Valentine’s Day two weeks ago. If not, I suggest a nice picture of the Red Valley on Mars. This January, the Mars Express probe took the first high-resolution stereo color image of Tinto Vallis, or Red Valley, the mouth of an ancient water flow on Mars. For more information and many photos of Tinto Vallis, go to http://goo.gl/ptJcr. Mars is one fist above the east-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.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/14/15

Saturday: 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. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came the great warrior Perseus, fresh off his defeat of the evil Gorgon, Medusa. The only similarity between Andromeda and Medusa was that Andromeda caused people to stand still and stare at her beauty while Medusa turned people to stone because of her ugliness. (And, you thought you looked bad in the morning.) 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 monsters neck and killed it. In a little known addendum to the story, Perseus carved “Percy (heart symbol) Andi” in the rock, thus originating the use of the heart symbol as a substitute for the word “love”.
You can find these lovers in the sky this Valentine’s Day. Just remember it is rude to stare – and you never know when you might turn to stone. First, find the Great Square of Pegasus at 7 p.m. between one and a half and three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. The lowest star in Andromeda is the top star in the square. This represents Andromeda’s head. Perseus is at her feet, nearly straight overhead. Mirphak, the brightest star in Perseus, is about eight fists above the west horizon. Perseus’ body is represented by the line of stars to the left and right of Mirphak.

Sunday: Venus and Mars are neighbors near the western horizon this week. At 6:30 this evening, Venus is a little more than a fist above the west-southwest horizon. Mars is less than a half a fist to its upper left. As the days go by, Venus will slowly move up from the horizon and Mars will move down to the horizon. By early next week, they will nearly bump into each other in the sky. Of course, they will really be millions of miles apart.

Monday: The first human-made probe to visit a dwarf planet will reach its destination early next month. But it has already started sending back pictures. The Dawn mission will arrive at Ceres on March 6. Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It was actually classified as a planet for a few years after it was discovered in 1801. As with any good science mission, Dawn has answered a few questions and raised many more. Since you can’t see Ceres in the night sky – it is now out during the daytime – do to http://goo.gl/hdCRIx for a two second movie of Ceres rotation.

Tuesday: Jupiter is five and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, at that time classified as the ninth planet. However, as astronomers started discovering a lot of similar objects in that part of the solar system, they realized that had a classification crisis on their hands. Should everything in this region of the solar system be named a planet? Eventually the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto and all future Pluto-like objects as dwarf planets. According to his wife, if Mr. Tombaugh were alive today, he maybe disappointed at the reclassification but he’d accept it because, as a scientist, he’d recognize the implications the new naming scheme would have on future discoveries. Besides, noted astronomer Hal Levison, while Tombaugh didn’t discover the ninth planet, he discovered the Kuiper Belt and that’s a whole lot more interesting. The New Horizons probe will reach Pluto July 14, 2015. See http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ for more information.

Thursday: Saturn is two and a half fists above due south at 6:15 a.m.

Friday: Along with Pluto, Tombaugh discovered numerous asteroids, variable stars, and star clusters. Up until recently, the responsibility of naming all of these objects would have belonged to the International Astronomical Union. But in 2013, the IAU revised their naming rules to let individuals suggest names for certain celestial objects. They are running a contest to name certain objects. For more information, go to http://www.nameexoworlds.org/.


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.