Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Ellensburg Sky for the week of 1/31/09

Saturday: February’s “Hot Topic” for the International Year of Astronomy is the Solar System. Galileo’s discoveries about the Sun, the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter helped move us from a privileged spot in the center of the perfect heavens to one of billions of planets in the turbulent neighborhood known as the Milky Way Galaxy. Some may say that makes them feel small and insignificant. I say it makes me feel empowered. All those planets and very few, perhaps only one, inhabited by beings with the capability to comprehend their surroundings. It is better to understand your situation as one in a billion than to blindly and incorrectly think you are at the top. Go to for more information about the Solar System. Go outside and look one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon for more information about Venus.

Sunday: Today is Groundhog Day. If Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow this morning, he is telling us that he follows the Chinese calendar and that spring starts early. On the Chinese calendar, equinoxes and solstices occur in the middle of their respective seasons. In order for the vernal equinox to occur in the middle of spring, spring must start on February 3 or 4, depending on the year. Thus, if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, spring may start on February 3 or 4 as on the Chinese calendar. If Phil sees his shadow, he is telling us he agrees with the western calendar and that there will be six more weeks of winter meaning spring will start near March 20.

Monday: Tonight’s first quarter Moon is in the constellation Aries the ram. Go to to learn more about the Moon.

Tuesday: If you have a small telescope, or even a good pair of binoculars with a tripod, you can improve on Galileo’s initial discovery of Saturn. And, if Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Museum of History and Science in Florence, is correct, Galileo’s poor eyesight may have influenced his initial judgment of the ringed planet. Galileo thought that Saturn had an inflated side and not spherical. British and Italian scientists want to exhume Galileo’s body to test his DNA to determine the extent of his vision problems. Find Saturn using your good eyes nearly two fists above the east-southeast at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Altair, one third of the Summer Triangle, is about one and a half fists above due east at 6 a.m.

Thursday: The bright star Arcturus is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Friday: Comet Lulin, discovered in July 2007, should be visible with binoculars for the next few weeks. At 6 a.m., it is near a bright star making it easier to find. First find the bright star Spica two and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon. About two fists to the left is a triangle that makes up the top of the constellation Libra the scales. Aim your binoculars at the triangle star, called Zuben Elgenubi, that is nearest to Spica. Comet Lulin should be right above Zuben Elgenubi.

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

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