Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/30/16

Saturday: As the rock group Journey once thought of singing, “Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’. Know where the Dipper’ll be tomorrow.” Every night, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia make a wheel in the sky that turns around the North Star in a counter clockwise direction. Every year on May 3 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 4 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 5 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 6 at 10 p.m., well, you get the idea. Of course, there are subtle charges in the position from night to night. Each northern constellation moves about one degree counter clockwise from one night to the next. But this is not going to change their position in the sky drastically over a few days. So if you know where the Big Dipper is tonight, you DO know where it’ll be tomorrow. If you are really struggling to understand this concept, Don’t Stop Believin’ in yourself. Just keep studying Faithfully.

Sunday: Mother’s Day is 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 held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 10 p.m.

Monday: Makemake has a moon (E-I-E-I-O). Last week you read the Solar System moon summary in this column. Or, you used the Solar System moon summary to protect the bottom of a very small birdcage. Never the less, that summary just became out of date. This past week, astronomers announced the discovery of a moon around the distant icy Kuiper Belt object known as Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay-MAH-kay). Makemake joins Haumea, Eris, and an obscure object called Pluto as the only Kuiper Belt objects known to have a moon. Of course, many more moons will be discovered in the outer Solar System. Makemake is too dim for you to see in the night sky. But you may read about the discovery at https://goo.gl/xO2DcL.

Tuesday: Jupiter is five fists above the south 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.

Thursday: 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 of May. 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 above the east horizon at 4 a.m. The Moon is new tonight so it won’t be lighting the sky and obscuring the dimmer meteors. So you could be rewarded with many 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://earthsky.org/?p=3954.

Friday: There’s a triangle just above the southeast sky at 11:30 p.m. The bright planet Mars is about one fist above the southeast horizon. Antares is a half a fist below Mars. Saturn is about a fist to the left of the Mars-Antares pairing.


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, April 20, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/23/16

Saturday: Ah, the signs of spring. Trees budding. Flowers blooming. Young lovers frolicking. The Spring Triangle rising. In order of brightness, Arcturus, Spica, and Regulus form a triangle that rises as the Sun is setting. By 9 a.m., Regulus is five fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south, Spica is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon, and Arcturus is three fists above the east horizon. For the next few months, Jupiter joins the triangle, five fists above the south-southeast sky.

Sunday: Are you thirsty when you get up in the morning? If so, that’s okay because the Big Dipper is positioned to hold water in the morning sky. Look three fists above the northwest horizon at 5 a.m. You’ll see three stars that make a bent handle and four stars that make a cup.

Monday: There’s a trapezoid in the early morning south-southeast sky about one and a half fists above the horizon. In order of brightness, the Moon, Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares mark the corners of a four-sided figure with two parallel sides. Antares and Saturn make up the lower left-hand side. Mars and the Moon, the upper right side. Follow them over the next hour as the Sun starts to rise. Determine how bright the sky can be before you can no longer see Mars.

Tuesday: 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 11:30 p.m.

Wednesday: 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 2013.) Just 60 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 14, 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. Go to http://goo.gl/Xkoeq for more information about Solar System moons.

Thursday: Its two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, are not visible in typical backyard telescopes. But they are an interesting study. The prevailing view among most astronomers is that they are captured asteroids. That makes sense given Mars’ proximity to the asteroid belt. But resent findings by European astronomers indicate that Phobos is very porous and made of material similar to the surface of Mars. This implies that Phobos may consist of chunks of Martian debris that was blasted off by numerous impacts and gravitationally bound together. Unfortunately, the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe launched late 2011 to collect material from Phobos crashed to Earth after malfunctioning. For more information about this new model of Phobos’ formation, go to http://goo.gl/8sw3rM.

Friday: Winter must be over because the winter constellations are becoming less visible. Orion is setting in the 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.


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, April 13, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/16/16

Saturday: 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 one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon.

Sunday: Jupiter is less than a half a fist above the moon at 10 p.m.

Monday: 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. Mercury is about a fist above the west-northwest horizon at 6:00 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 early June.

Tuesday: Capella is a half a fist above the north-northeast horizon at 5 a.m.

Wednesday: You’ve seen all of the top 100 lists: top 100 ways to make a birdhouse, top 100 sushi restaurants in Ellensburg, etc. Now get excited for tomorrow night’s full Moon by reading about and finding some of the lunar 100 at http://goo.gl/ldGvH6 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.

Thursday: Remember the old saying: April showers bring… meteors. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks this morning and tomorrow morning. 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 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 full so the extra light will obscure all but the brightest meteors. 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. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/j87bVB.

Friday: At midnight tonight, Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares make a small triangle low in the southeastern sky. Antares, the dimmest of the three is less than a half a fist above due southeast. Mars, the brightest of the three is about a half a fist to the upper left of Antares. Saturn is about a fist to the lower left of Mars.


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, April 7, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/9/16

Saturday: 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, six fists above the north-northeast horizon. The Whirlpool Galaxy is two fingers to the upper right of Alkaid.

Sunday: This afternoon, you can gather evidence that the Moon moves through the sky with respect to the background stars and you can prove to yourself that some stars, other than the Sun, are visible during the day. And you can also observe a stellar occultation. “What? The occult on a Sunday? That’s sacrilege!” No, that’s one celestial object blocking another. To occult is to block something. At about 3 p.m., the Moon will pass between the Earth and the bright star Aldebaran. First, go out at about 2 p.m. and look at the Moon through a small telescope or even high quality binoculars. You may be able to see a point of light to the left of the Moon. That’s Aldebaran; the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull. At about 2:40, the unlit portion of the Moon will block Aldebaran. Since that part of the Moon is not lit and can’t be easily seen from Earth, it will look like Aldebaran just disappears. At about 3:35 p.m., Aldebaran will reappear from behind the upper half of the crescent Moon.

Monday: Poor Jupiter. Objects from space just keep bombarding it. On March 17, two amateur astronomers, unbeknownst to each other, had their cameras aimed at Jupiter when a brief flash of light appeared on the limb. This is the fifth time such an impact has been observed in the past ten years. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/6eV7ql. To make you own Jupiter observations, look four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Mercury is one fist above the west horizon at 8:30 p.m.

Thursday: Mars finally makes its way into the evening (sort of) sky. It is less than a half a fist above the southeast horizon at midnight. Saturn is visible in the same spot about 30 minutes later.

Friday: Do you want to inspire people to celebrate the beauty of the night sky? To raise awareness of the negative effects of light pollution? Then continue to celebrate International Dark Sky Week by going to http://goo.gl/xc29se and taking action. I suggest clicking on “Lighting” and then “Residential/Business Lighting” to see examples of more effective outdoor lighting. The best lighting for observing the night sky is also the best light for safety because effective yard lights focus their energy on the ground, where it is needed, and not up into the sky.


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 29, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/2/16

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 starts tomorrow. 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 four fists above due southwest at 9 p.m.

Monday: It you didn’t run the Yakima River Canyon Marathon two days ago, satisfy that marathon craving by attending a virtual Messier Marathon. Charles Messier (pronounced messy a) was an 18th century French astronomer best known for his catalog of 110 nebulae and star clusters. Amateur astronomers love to find as many of these as they can in one night. During the online Messier Marathon, you’ll see the images broadcast on the Internet. The fun starts this morning at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (when astronomers on the nighttime side of Earth point their telescopes towards interesting celestial objects). For more information, go to http://goo.gl/e2cYkS.

Tuesday: The bright star Sirius is one and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Can’t sleep? Catch Saturn and Mars just above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. Mars is the pale red dot a little more than a half a fist above the southeast horizon. Saturn is about half as bright and a half a fist to the lower left of Mars.

Thursday: The elusive Mercury is a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon at 8:30 p.m.

Friday: Two weeks ago, I asked you to watch the bright star Deneb to observe how its time at due north changes from night to night. It reached due north at 9:27 p.m. two Fridays ago. Tonight, it reaches due north at 8:32 p.m., 55 minutes earlier. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, it also rotates on its axis. (Wow Bruce, really? We learn so much from you!) Because it does both motions counterclockwise as viewed from above the Earth’s North Pole, any given spot on Earth faces the distant stars a little bit earlier each day than that spot faces the Sun. Based on the specific rotational and revolution speed, it amounts to three minutes and 56 seconds earlier each day. That’s 27.5 minutes earlier each week and… wait for it… wait for it… 55 minutes earlier every two weeks. Depending on where you live, those due north times may be off by a few minutes. But the two-week difference will be the same no matter where you live. (I apologize for my smart aleck statement earlier. You DO teach us a lot.)


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.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/26/16

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. Last year, 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 two fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. 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: 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.

Monday: The moon passes by Mars and Saturn in the early morning sky for the next two mornings. This morning at 6 a.m., Mars is about a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon. Saturn is about a fist to the left of Mars. Tomorrow morning, the Saturn is almost directly below the Moon.

Tuesday: The bright star Arcturus is two and a half fists above due east at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Jupiter is three fists above the east-southeast horizon at 8 p.m.

Thursday: 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 numerous arts initiatives 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://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2016-programs/astroarts.html for more information about the AstroPoetry contest and a children’s AstroArt contest. 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.

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? To symbolize the long trail of a marathon, follow the long trail of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It seems to rise up from the ground due south. It its highest, it is five fists above due east. It sinks back to the ground due north. The thickest part of the Milky Way is in the southern sky because that is the direction of the center of the galaxy.


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, March 16, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/19/16


 Saturday: 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 9:30 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”. 

Sunday: Geometry lesson in the skies: triangles.  Mars is about two and a half fists held upright and at arms length above the south-southwest horizon at 6 a.m. Mars is the right hand point of the triangle. Antares is the bright object about one fist to the lower left of Mars. Saturn is about a fist and a half to the left of Mars. Mars is about twice as bright as Saturn and Saturn is about twice as bright as Antares. 

Monday: Tonight is a great night to show yourself that the Moon changes its position throughout the night. When the Sun sets, Jupiter is to the upper left of the Moon low in the eastern sky. See how many fingers you can fit between the Moon and Jupiter. Try it again at midnight and at 6 a.m., just before the pair sets. You should notice the two getting farther apart in the sky. That's because the Moon is close enough to the Earth that its actual motion affects where we see it in the sky. The distant stars also move but they are so far away, it can take many centuries to detect their motion. 
Bonus activity: try to spot Jupiter just to the left of the Moon even before the Sun sets. 

Tuesday: 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. 

Wednesday: 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. 

Thursday: 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. 

Friday: 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 10:22 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. 

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