Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/21/09

Saturday: How many stars can you see in the constellation Orion? This week, you can help answer that question. The organization called GLOBE at Night is looking for people all over the world to count how many stars they can see in the constellation Orion. Participants use star charts found at http://www.globe.gov/GaN/ to observe Orion and compare what they see to the charts. After making the observations, participants can go to the website and add their findings to those of thousands of other observers. The main goal of GLOBE at Night is to research the pattern of light pollution across the globe. A secondary goal is to increase interest in observing and awareness of the night sky. You can find Orion four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southwest horizon at 8 p.m. In Orion, you’ll see four of the 30 brightest stars (Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Alnilam) in the night sky.

Sunday: Jupiter is less than a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon at 6 a.m.

Monday: According to the latest count, there are over 444,000 asteroids in the asteroid belt. Ceres, the largest one, is closer to Earth this year than is has been 1857. You can spot it with binoculars in the constellation Leo Minor. First find the bright star Regulus. It is nearly five fists above the southeast horizon at 9 p.m., at the bottom of a backwards question mark. Count three bright stars up the question mark. Put that star on the right hand edge of your binocular field of view. Ceres will be a fairly dim point of light on the left-hand side of your field of view. Go back to that same portion of the sky for the next few nights. The point of light that moved from your first observation is Ceres.

Tuesday: Ours isn’t the only solar system with planets. Near the top of the constellation Cancer the crab at the extreme limit of naked eye visibility is 55 Cancri, a binary star system 41 light years from Earth and the star with the most known planets other than our Sun. There are five known planets in orbit around 55 Cancri, seven fists above the south-southeast horizon at 9 pm. Four of the planets are similar in size to Jupiter and one is similar in size to Neptune. It is unlikely that any of these planets have life and almost certainly not complex life as it exists on Earth. For more information about planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, called extrasolar planets, go to http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/.

Wednesday: Saturn is four fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Thursday: Tonight’s Moon is new. Don’t bother looking for it. The new moon is the phase where the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun. Hence the side of the Moon facing Earth is not receiving any sunlight and cannot be seen. This is why some people call this phase the “dark moon” and reserve the name “new moon” for the first visible waxing crescent after the Moon moves out from directly between the Earth and Sun.

Friday: Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.

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