Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/29/08

Saturday: Do you ever look into the night sky and wonder if any other stars have planets? So far, astronomers have discovered planets orbiting 280 stars. But, until earlier this month, none of those planets were discovered by direct photography. On November 13, astronomers confirmed that pictures they took of Fomalhaut (pronounced Fo’-mal-ought) show a planet about three times the mass of Jupiter in an orbit that averages 115 astronomical units from the star. One astronomical unit is the average distance between the Earth and Sun. For comparison, Pluto’s orbit is about 40 astronomical units from the Sun. Fomalhaut is nearly a fist and a half held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 6:15 p.m.

Sunday: Have you been shopping all weekend? Do you need an evening sky break? You deserve a big reward so make it a double. A Double Cluster, that is. The Double Cluster, also known as h and Chi Persei, consists of two young open star clusters in the constellation Perseus. Of course, young is a relative term as these clusters are about 13 million years old. Each cluster is spread out over an area about the same size as the full moon. To the naked eye, the Double Cluster shines with a steady, fuzzy glow. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars in the clusters. The Double Cluster is six and a half fists above the northeast horizon at 7 p.m., about a fist below the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia.

Monday: Should I start every entry with a question? Maybe. But, you should definitely start every morning this month by finding Saturn, the highest planet in the sky this month. It is nearly five fists above due south at 6:30 a.m. this morning.

Tuesday: Where is Venus? About 0.7 astronomical units from the Sun. Helpful, aren’t I. You can find Venus one fist above the southwest horizon at 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday: Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Team USA beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics may have been a miracle. But, star birth isn’t. It’s taking place in the Orion Nebula, a giant star-forming region in the middle of Orion’s sword. The Orion Nebula looks like a fuzzy patch to the naked eye. Binoculars reveal a nebula, or region of gas and dust, that is 30 light years across. The center of the nebula contains four hot “baby” stars called the Trapezium. These hot stars emit the ultraviolet radiation that causes the Nebula’s gas to glow. The Orion Nebula is three fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Thursday: Is Jupiter still visible in the evening sky? Barely. It is a fist above the southwest horizon at 5:30 p.m.

Friday: Not every day starts with a question. But every clear night includes Capella. Capella is the brightest circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon from our point of view in Ellensburg. It is straight overhead a little after midnight tonight.

The positional information in this column about stars and any planet except Mercury is accurate for the entire week.

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