Friday, August 11, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/12/17

Saturday: The Perseid meteor shower hits its peak late tonight/early tomorrow morning. The meteors appear to come from a point just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon. If you fall asleep or forget to set your alarm, you will be able to observe this shower from about 11 p.m. to dawn for the next few nights in about the same location in the sky. The Perseid shower is one of the longest lasting showers. The waning gibbous moon will obscure most of the dimmer meteors. For tips about optimizing your viewing this year, go to http://goo.gl/Ylk9jA. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. These meteors are sand to pea-sized bits of rock that fell off of Comet Swift-Tuttle. They are traveling about 40 miles per second as they collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Sunday: At 9 p.m., Jupiter is one fist above the west-southwest horizon and Saturn is two fists above due south.

Monday: The total solar eclipse is a week from today. If you are lucky enough to find a spot in the path of totality, you know to bring your eclipse glasses. After all, the “total” part of the eclipse lasts two minutes while the partial part lasts two hours. Sky & Telescope magazine has put together a list of things you might not think about needing. Find it at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/2017-total-solar-eclipse/10-things-might-need-eclipse-day/.

Tuesday: Altair, at one corner of the Summer Triangle, is four fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Altair is one of the closest bright stars, so close that fictional astronauts visited a planet orbiting Altair in the 1956 movie “Forbidden Planet”.

Wednesday: Do you get all of your astronomy news from this column? If so, it is time to up your game. CWU astronomer Cassie Fallscheer is giving a presentation tonight from 6:30 to 7:30 at Hal Holmes Center. Go to https://goo.gl/oEM5vN for more information.

Thursday: Need a caffeine pick-me-up? Make it a double. Need an astronomy pick-me-up? Make it a double double. Find Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, nearly straight overhead at 10:00 tonight. Less than half a fist to the east (or left if you are facing south) of the bright bluish star Vega is the “star” Epsilon Lyra. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through binoculars, it looks like two stars. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through a large enough telescope, you will notice that each star in the pair is itself a pair of stars.  Each star in the double is double. Hence, Epsilon Lyra is known as the double double. The stars in each pair orbit a point approximately in the center of each respective pair. The pairs themselves orbit a point between the two pairs.

Friday: Let’s all sing the galactic black hole monster song: “D is for dusty, that’s good enough for me. D is for dusty that’s good enough for me. D is for dusty that’s good enough for me. Oh dusty, dusty, dusty starts with D.” Astronomers know that spiral galaxies such as our own have super massive black holes in the center, black holes that are billions of times the mass of the Sun. They thought they got to be this massive by mergers where two galaxies collide and the gas, dust and black holes at the center of each colliding galaxy form a larger central black hole. But many distant galaxies show no signs of galactic mergers. Astronomers think the black holes at the center of these galaxies grew simply by snacking on the gas and dust that comes from supernova explosions and normal star formation. Just like the Cookie Monster gains weight by snacking on individual cookies rather than eating a cookie factory. Cookie crumbs, I mean dust, block your view of the center of our galaxy.  It is about one fist above due south at 10 p.m., between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/L9ppJf.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/5/17

Saturday: The Perseid meteor shower hits its peak late for the next few nights with Friday and Saturday being the peak of the peak. The meteors appear to come from a point just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon. If you fall asleep or forget to set your alarm, you will be able to observe this shower from about 11 p.m. to dawn for the next few nights in about the same location in the sky. The Perseid shower is one of the longest lasting showers. The waning gibbous moon will obscure most of the dimmer meteors. For tips about optimizing your viewing this year, go to http://goo.gl/Ylk9jA. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. These meteors are sand to pea-sized bits of rock that fell off of Comet Swift-Tuttle. They are traveling about 40 miles per second as they collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Sunday: Seventeenth century astronomers documented the appearance of a new star, or “nova”, in 1670. However as modern astronomers studied the records of the star, called Nova Vulpeculae 1670, they realized it didn’t have the characteristics of a typical nova because it didn’t repeatedly brighten and dim. It brightened twice and disappeared for good. Turning their telescopes to the region, they discovered the chemical signature to be characteristic of a very rare collision of two stars. For more information about this discovery, go to http://goo.gl/rJnC2G. Nova Vulpeculae 1670 is right below the binary star system Alberio, the head of Cygnus the swan. Alberio is seven fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Monday: Saturn is two fists above due south and Jupiter is one and a half fists above the west-southwest horizon at 9:17 p.m.

Tuesday: If you want to show your loved ones a celestial sign that they should hang up their clothes, show them Brocchi's Cluster, commonly known as the Coat Hanger cluster because of its resemblance to an upside down coat hanger. The cluster is six fists above the southeast horizon at 10:30 p.m., midway between Altair and Vega, the two brightest stars in the Summer Triangle. You'll need binoculars to make out the shape. First find Altair four fists above the southeast horizon. Slowly move your binoculars up toward Vega. You will run into the coat hanger along the way. And while you are at it, put away your shoes.

Wednesday: Venus is two fists above the east horizon at 5 a.m.

Thursday: Many big city dwellers never see the milky white, nearly continuous band of stars known as the Milky Way. As cities grow and add more lights, it has become harder to see the bulk of the Milky Way galaxy, our home in the universe. But, there are two easy ways to see the Milky Way. The first way is to look in the mirror. You are part of the Milky Way. The second way is to look from due north through the point straight overhead (called the zenith) to due south from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for the next two weeks. This is the time of year when the Milky Way is highest in the sky and away from the city lights on the horizon.

Friday: It’s not too early to start planning for the solar eclipse coming August 21. Sky & Telescope magazine has an article about what to look for if you are in the path of totality: confused animals, the corona, and the diamond rings. Confused? Just read the article at https://goo.gl/BjFGYE. To learn more about the eclipse conditions in your area, go to www.greatamericaneclipse.com.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/29/17

Saturday: Hit the road Mercury. And don’t you come back no more, no more. For a few weeks, Mercury has been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the sky. Today, Mercury is as far away from the Sun as it will get on the evening half of this cycle. This is known as its greatest eastern elongation. Yet, this distance does not translate into good viewing because Mercury will be very low in the sky. Mercury is less than a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 9:10 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 September.

Sunday: At 9:50 p.m., Jupiter is one fist above the west-southwest horizon and Saturn is two fists above due south.

Monday: Do you want an easy way to find due north? A compass points to magnetic north, which is a few degrees off of true geographic north. Well, tonight’s your night. Capella, the brightest star in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, is due north at exactly 9:39 p.m. It looks like a bright light on a pole on the north ridge because is only about three degrees above the horizon.

Tuesday: In Scotland, August 1 was known as Lammas, the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year. You can remember this by looking at Spica, named after the Latin word for “ear of wheat”, one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. August 1 is known as a cross-quarter day, a day approximately half way between an equinox and a solstice.

Wednesday: It’s a moonless August morning. The first remnant of dawn has not appeared yet. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the east sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the east horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the horizon about two hours before sunrise. Don’t be scared. It’s 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. This is one of the best times of year to see the zodiacal light in the morning.
This is also one of the best times of the year to see meteors. The Perseid meteor shower peaks in a week and a half. But you should see increased meteor activity for the next three weeks just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon.

Thursday: NASA just developed a faster and more cost-effective way to send a probe to a large solid metal asteroid. Psyche! Oh…. Did you think I was using the word “Psych” for its urban dictionary meaning of negating the statement before it? As in, “The writer of this column is a really smart guy. Psych.” No, NASA did just develop way to put a probe in orbit around the solid metal asteroid called Psyche four years earlier than originally planned. Thanks to a new five-panel x-shaped design for its solar array, NASA’s Discovery will gather more energy from the Sun and avoid the need for an Earth gravity assist. For more information about the Discovery mission to Psyche, go to https://goo.gl/rG6Qh7.

Friday: Venus is two fists above the east horizon at 5 a.m.


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

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/22/17

Two new Harry Potter History of Magic books are coming out on October 20. Can’t wait until then? You better brush up on some of the character names.

Saturday: At 9:15 p.m., the bright star Regulus is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. But, who is this Regulus? He has many potential identities. The most interesting from a pop culture standpoint is Regulus Black, the brother of Sirius Black who is Harry Potter’s godfather. Regulus Black was a former follower of Voldemort, the bad guy of the Harry Potter series. However, Regulus tried to dissociate himself from Voldemort and was killed. He would be in the pile of forgotten Harry Potter characters except that he is so interesting. Also, in the sixth book, Harry found an important note written by someone known only by the initials R.A.B. Hmmm. R.A.B. Regulus A. Black perhaps? Mercury and Jupiter are near Regulus in the sky. Mercury is to the lower right of Regulus. You probably noticed it before noticing Regulus. Jupiter is much more noticeable at two fists above the southwest horizon.

Sunday: But what does the “A” stand for? Anthony? Abercrombie? Alfonzo? Not astronomical enough. It stands for Arcturus, the second brightest star visible in the nighttime sky in Washington and at Hogwarts. Arcturus is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. The bright star Spica is below Arcturus, one third of the way up from the southwest horizon.

Monday: Bellatrix Lestrange is Sirius Black’s cousin. But, far from being kissing cousins. They are killing cousins. Bellatrix kills Sirius in a fight at the Ministry of Magic. Bellatrix the star is the third brightest star in the constellation Orion the hunter. It is one fist above the east horizon at 4:45 a.m.

Tuesday: Of course, Bellatrix is in cahoots with “he who must not be named”. Now, that’s a poorly written sentence, using an obscure synonym for “conspiring” and a vague reference. I must be under the curse “writicus dreadfulium”. Clearly this is the work of Tom Riddle, whose mother is named Merope Gaunt. Merope is a star in the Pleiades, an open star cluster nearly four fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Wednesday: Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter’s young nemesis, is related to Sirius Black. Draco’s mother, Narcissa Black (Sirius’ cousin), helped develop a plan to trap Harry at the Ministry of Magic in the fifth book. Draco’s namesake, the constellation Draco the dragon, is one of the largest constellations in the sky, winding around the North Star. Draco’s head is a four-sided figure nearly straight overhead at 11 p.m.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m., near the constellation Scorpius. Draco Malfoy was so impressed with this constellation name that he used it for the first name of his son.

Friday: Not every woman in the Black family is evil. Let’s focus on the good. Andromeda Black, Bellatrix’s sister, is a good witch and the mother of Tonks, a young witch from the last few Harry Potter books. (If these Harry Potter references are confusing, you better start reading the books.) Andromeda the constellation is an interesting one. It contains the Andromeda galaxy, the most distant object visible with the naked eye from a dark site. To locate the Andromeda Galaxy, first find the Great Square of Pegasus. At 11 p.m., the left hand corner of the square is about two and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon. Less than two fists to the left and down a little bit is another star the same brightness as the star at the corner of the square. From that star, hop about a half a fist up to a star that is about one fourth as bright. Less than another half fist in the same direction is a fuzzy oval patch of light known as the Andromeda Galaxy. The galaxy is impressive to see in binoculars. It consists of about 400 billion stars and is 2.2 million light years away.


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, July 13, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/15/17

Saturday: Jupiter is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon ay 10 p.m. With binoculars or a small backyard telescope, you can see up to four if its moons. With a large backyard telescope you can see its Great Red Spot, a storm larger than the Earth. With the URL to this Sky and Telescope article: https://goo.gl/y8B7qx, you can really see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The NASA Juno probe recently sent back the first close-up images of the Spot. Over the past few decades, it has been getting smaller and less red. Soon it will be called the “So-so rust-colored spot”. Jupiter and the future So-so rust-colored spot are two fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: The Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks for the next few weeks into mid-August. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Aquarius near the star Delta Aquarii, also known as Skat. This point is about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 1 am tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain a fist above Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that section of the sky. The best time to view the shower is just before morning twilight. For more information about this year’s shower, go to http://goo.gl/Uoxvda. 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: Say "Cheese". 167 years ago today, Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, became the first star ever photographed. The photograph was taken at the Harvard Observatory using the daguerreotype process. Vega is the third brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg, behind Sirius and Arcturus. Vega is nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight. 

Tuesday: Last week marked the two-year anniversary of NASA’s New Horizons probe passing by Pluto. If the band Nirvana was still together, they’d probably rewrite one of their hit songs to be called Heart-Shaped Spot, after one of Pluto’s most distinctive features. “She eyes me like a dwarf planet when I am weak. I’ve been imaging your heart-shaped spot for weeks.” Astronomers think this heart-shaped spot is a large plain of nitrogen ice that consists of convective cells 10-30 miles across. Solid nitrogen is warmed in the interior of Pluto, becomes buoyant, and bubbles up to the surface like a lava lamp. You will find great pictures and information about what New Horizons found this past year at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/. Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint. People should be more interested in astronomy.

Wednesday: Saturn is two fists above due south at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday: Take a two and a half hour walk. Too long, you say? Forty-eight years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first ever walk by humans on another world. They spend two and a half hours setting up scientific instruments and collecting rocks for study back on Earth. Michael Collins orbited the Moon in the spacecraft the astronauts would use to return to Earth.

Friday: One month from today, the Moon will pass between the Earth and Sun as seen from a large swath across the United States. This total solar eclipse will be the first one visible in the lower 48 states since 1979. If you want to travel to the path of totality, plan ahead. Scientists estimate that this might be the most viewed total solar eclipse in history. Leave early. Make sure you have a full tank of gas. Bring extra food and water. Don’t forget safe solar eclipse glasses and the proper filters for your binoculars or telescope. For more information about the eclipse, go to the Great American Eclipse website at https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/8/17

Saturday: Being in a coma is a bad thing. Looking at the Coma Star Cluster is a good thing. The Coma Star Cluster is an open cluster of about 50 stars that takes up more space in the sky than 10 full Moons. It looks like a fuzzy patch with the naked eye. Binoculars reveal dozens of sparkling stars. A telescope actually diminishes from the spectacle because the cluster is so big and the telescope’s field of view is so small. The Coma Star Cluster is in the faint constellation Coma Berenices (ba-ron-ice’-ez) or Queen Berenice’s hair. Queen Berenice of Egypt cut off her beautiful hair as a sacrifice to the gods for the safe return of her husband Ptolemy III from battle. The Coma Star Cluster is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 11:00 p.m. 

Sunday: Look straight up at midnight. The head of Draco the dragon will be looking straight down on you. The brightest star in the head is called Eltanin. If you chose to wait a VERY long time, Eltanin will be the brightest star in the night sky. Currently 154 light years away, it is moving towards Earth and will be only 28 light years away in about 1.3 million years, claiming the title as brightest star.

Monday: The elusive Mercury is a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. At this same time, Jupiter is two and a half fists above due southwest.

Tuesday: Last week, I wrote about Mizar. This week, I need to warn you not to confuse Mizar with its rhyming brother Izar in the constellation Bootes. Izar is also a binary star with about the same apparent brightness. And both were featured in different episodes of Star Trek. Izar was featured in the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” from the original series. It is the base of Fleet Captain Garth, a former big shot in the federation and one of Kirk’s heroes before he went insane. Garth kidnaps Kirk and Spock before eventually being out smarted. Mizar doesn’t play as big a role in its episode. It is the star of the home world of one of the alien species in The Next Generation episode “Allegiance”. Izar is one fist above the bright star Arcturus and seven fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m. Mizar is seven fists above the northwest horizon at this time.

Wednesday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 11 a.m.

Thursday: What you see with the naked eye isn’t all that can be seen. While astronomers can learn a lot from observing the sky in the visible wavelengths, many celestial objects radiate more light, and more information, in wavelengths such as radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. In 2012, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to study objects that radiate in the infrared range such as asteroids, cool dim stars, and luminous galaxies. For an interesting comparison of how different wavelengths show different aspects of celestial objects, go to http://goo.gl/nvuax. For example, if it weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies. 

Friday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m. The bright star Aldebaran is about a half a fist to the lower right of Venus.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/1/17

Saturday: Jupiter, the Moon, and Spica make a small triangle in the southwest sky at 10 p.m. Jupiter is the bright point of light one fist to the lower right of the Moon. Spica is dimmer than Jupiter and closer to the Moon in the sky at about a half a fist below the Moon.

Sunday: 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, even though it is “just” a star. 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 a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the north-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.

Monday: Hot enough for you? Don’t blame the Earth-Sun distance. Surprisingly, the overall temperature of the Earth is slightly higher in July, when the Earth is farthest from the Sun, than in January, when it is closest. That’s because in July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. (This is the real cause of the seasons.) The Northern Hemisphere has more land than the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, in July, the large amount of Northern Hemisphere land heats up the entire Earth about two degrees Celsius warmer than in January. In January, the watery Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun. But, water does not heat up as fast as land so the Earth is a few degrees cooler. The distance between the Earth and Sun is its greatest today, 152.1 million kilometers. This is called aphelion from the Greek prefix “apo” meaning “apart” and Helios, the Greek god of the Sun.

Tuesday: Tonight, while you are taking a break from looking at an explosion of fireworks, the NASA Kepler spacecraft is taking a break after finding an “explosion” of exoplanets. Last month, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope released a catalog of 219 new planet candidates. Ten of those are near-Earth size and orbiting in the habitable zone of their host star. And there are probably more to come. The Kepler spacecraft is monitoring the brightness of over 156,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre. This region is midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. It is about the size of your hand held at arm’s length and is about six fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m. For more information about this find, go to https://goo.gl/9ksqva.

Wednesday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Thursday: Saturn is less than a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon at 10 p.m.

Friday: Mizar is a well-known binary star in the constellation Ursa Major. You can find it at the bend in the Big Dipper handle, nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. tonight. Its name is Arabic for waistband. Mizar has an optical double called Alcor, which is less than a pinky width away and can easily be seen with the naked eye. Optical doubles are stars that are close together in the sky but do not orbit a common center of mass as true binary stars. Not wanting to deceive sky gazers who call Mizar a binary star, two stars that DO orbit a common center of mass, Mizar actually is a binary. It was the first binary star system discovered by telescope. Mizar A and Mizar B are about 400 astronomical units apart from each other and about 80 light years from Earth. 400 astronomical units is about 10 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.