Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 6/27/09

Saturday: Saturn is about one fist held out at arm’s length to the upper right of the Moon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: When people find out that you read this column, they may ask you all sorts of tough astronomy questions such as “Where can I see the Milky Way?” That one is easy. Just look in the mirror. We are all part of the Milky Way. The center of the Milky Way galaxy is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, about one and a half fists above due south at 11:30 p.m. The Milky Way is NASA’s “Go Observe” object for July. For more information, go to

Monday: Today’s first quarter moon is in… is in…. Actually, today’s first quarter moon is not even visible. The first quarter moon occurs one week after the new moon when the Sun, Earth, and Moon make a 90 degree angle. The right half of the Moon is illuminated. This month they form the right angle at 4:30 this morning when the Moon is below the horizon. That means that tonight’s moon will be more than half lit and last night’s moon was less than half lit. Look for this waxing gibbous Moon two fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: The constellation Cepheus the king (husband of Cassiopeia the queen) is about four fists above the northeast horizon at 11 pm. Cepheus is about one and a half fists above Cassiopeia. Cepheus looks like a house on its side with the roof peak pointing towards the west. Cassiopeia and Cepheus revolve around the North Star every night like a happy couple going through life together.

Wednesday: At midnight, Jupiter is about a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon.

Thursday: You have two good reasons to take a nap today. The first reason is that you will probably stay up late this weekend to watch many bright objects move rather quickly across the sky. The second is that you’ll want to stay up late tonight to watch a single bright object move rather quickly across the sky. The International Space Station will appear one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 12:25:09 tomorrow morning. It will move toward the east-northeast horizon for seven seconds before disappearing. If you miss this short trip, you have another chance at 1:56:35. This time, a much brighter ISS will appear three fists above the west-northwest horizon and move toward the east-northeast horizon for four minutes. How much would you pay for this experience? Wait, don’t answer yet. You have even one more chance at 3:30:40 tomorrow morning when the ISS appears one fist above the west-northwest horizon and moves toward the east-northeast horizon for five minutes. For more information about when you can see the International Space Station or any other human-made satellite throughout the year, go to

Friday: Are you feeling warm this time of year? Don’t blame the distance between the Earth and the Sun for the hot days of summer. The Earth is actually farther away from the Sun during the Northern Hemisphere winter than during the summer. Today, the Earth is at aphelion. Apo- is Greek for “away from” or “far from” and helios is Greek for Sun. So at aphelion, the Earth is farther from the Sun than on any other day. The Earth is about 3.3% farther from the Sun today than it is in January.
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 a few degrees cooler.

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

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 6/20/09

Saturday: Today is the first day of summer, the day that the Sun reaches its highest declination (the official name for sky latitude) of 23.5 degrees above the celestial equator. The celestial equator is the line that divides the northern sky from the southern sky. In Ellensburg, the Sun is about seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 1:00 p.m. (noon standard time). Contrary to popular belief, the Sun is never straight over head in Ellensburg or anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states. The northernmost portion of the world where the Sun can be directly overhead is 23.5 degrees north latitude. In ancient times, the Sun was in the constellation Cancer the crab on the first day of summer. Hence, 23.5 degrees north latitude has the nickname "Tropic of Cancer". Because the Earth wobbles like a spinning top, the Sun's apparent path through the sky changes slightly over time. Now, the Sun is in the constellation Taurus the bull on the first day of summer. However, citing the high cost of revising all of the science books, geographers are not changing the name of 23.5 degrees north latitude to "Tropic of Taurus". The first day of summer is often called the summer solstice. However, astronomers refer to the summer solstice as the point in the sky in which the Sun is at its highest point above the celestial equator. Thus, summer starts when the Sun is at the summer solstice point. This year, that happens at 10:45 p.m.

Sunday: In this tough economy you need to get up early to tweak your resume, write those cover letters, fill out applications, and look at the planets Venus and Mars. At 4 a.m., Venus and Mars are one fist above the east horizon. Mars is about a finger width to the upper left of Venus. They will remain in this location throughout the week. So take a break from the job search and look at the sky.

Monday: In 1981, the well known astronomy rock group Blondie released The Tide is High in two versions: the radio version and the astronomy version. In the astronomy version, Debbie Harry sang: “The tide is high ‘cause the moon is new. Higher still when the moon’s close, too.” Tonight's moon is new. The new moon is the phase where the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun. That means the moon and Sun are both stretching the Earth in the same direction causing the ocean water in line with the Sun and moon to be pulled upward. In addition, the moon is at perigee early tomorrow morning. Peri- means close and –gee refers to the Earth so this is the day of the month when the moon is closest to the Earth. This accentuates the upward pull on the water and makes the tides really high. Blondie hoped to release a third version titled “The Tide is Really High”. But, the record label finally said, “enough is enough.”

Tuesday: Jupiter is finally making its way into the evening sky. It rises just before midnight over the east-southeast horizon. By 1 a.m., it is one fist above the southeast horizon.

Wednesday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because my kids are home from school. Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 10 p.m. Vega, the third brightest star visible from Ellensburg, is about five fists above the east horizon. Deneb, at the tail of Cygnus the swan is about three and a half fists above the northeast horizon. The third star in the triangle, Altair, in Aquila the eagle is two fists above the east horizon.
If you want to put somebody off, tell them to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon.

Thursday: Two weeks I wrote about Mizar, the bright star in the bend of the Big Dipper handle. Don’t confuse it 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.

Friday: Venus, the Moon, and the bright star Regulus make an obtuse triangle in the western sky at 10 p.m. Regulus is a little less than one fist to the right of the Moon and Saturn is a little more than one fist to the upper left of the Moon.

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 6/13/09

Have you bought your favorite college graduate a graduation gift yet? Why not get her or him a star? I don’t mean from one of those organizations that offers to “register the name of YOUR star with the U.S. Patent Office”. No company owns the right to name stars after people. Besides, the stars those companies “name” are so dim you can’t find them. In this column, I’ll pick a constellation and representative star for each of the four colleges at a typical university. Then, I’ll briefly tell the story of the constellation and relate that story to the aspect of public service graduates from that college are uniquely qualified to engage in. Just like a couple can have “their” song, your favorite graduate can have her or his star.

Today: How do Brad and Angelina differ from Mars and Venus? One pair is a pair of bright, beautiful lovers spending their early mornings snuggling close together. The other pair was in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. This week the two planets are close together in the morning sky. Venus is one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 4:30 a.m. Mars is less than a pinky width to the upper left of Venus at this time. After how the nanny story hit the tabloids, I don’t know how close together Angelina and Brad will be.

Sunday: College of Arts and Humanities: You are the people who interpret the world in unique ways. Then, you share those ways with others. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus charmed everyone he met when he played the lyre or harp. After his wife died tragically, he journeyed to the underworld to charm its inhabitants in an effort to win his wife back to the living world. Your service reminder: use your talent to bring joy to others. The constellation Lyra and its bright star Vega should remind you of the power of the arts. Vega is five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Monday: College of Business. You are the future movers and shakers. The future CEOs. The future big donors to Central. Auriga represented a king of Athens who happened to be mobility impaired. Instead of sitting around waiting for others to transport him, he took the initiative to invent the four-wheeled chariot. He solved a problem for a special need. Your service reminder: address the problems of those in the most need. To remind you of that, look to the constellation Auriga. Its bright star Capella is about one fist above the north horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: Saturn is three fists above the west-southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: College of Education and Professional Studies. You are the teachers. The craftspeople. The facilitators of learning in a diverse world. Bootes, the herdsman, was such a person. Bootes’ job was to guide the northern constellations to the feeding place and the watering hole. He and his dogs were especially in charge of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the greater and lesser bears. Your service reminder: guide others to a better place in life. Look to the constellation Bootes and its bright star Arcturus to remind you of this. Arcturus is six fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Thursday: Are you up late working on your resume? Go outside and look for Jupiter. It is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 1 a.m.

Friday: College of the Sciences. You are the people who will systematically study how the world works. Agriculture is an important scientific application. Each year, farmers must use the findings of science to be successful. Who better to represent the College of the Sciences than Virgo, the goddess of the harvest? Virgo looms large in the sky holding an ear of wheat in her hand. Your service reminder: study the practical aspects of the scientific world. The ear of wheat, and your service reminder, is represented by the bright star Spica. Spica is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

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

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 6/6/09

Saturday: Every night’s “rival of Mars” is in the constellation Scorpius. Antares, which means “rival of Mars,” is the brightest star in Scorpius. Perhaps tonight it should be called “Ant-Luna” because it is attempting to rival the moon tonight. At 10 p.m., Antares is less than a finger’s width to the upper right of the moon. They remain close throughout the night. In the southern and eastern parts of the United States, the moon occults Antares. An occultation occurs when one object passes in front of, or blocks, another object.

Sunday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation Ophiuchus the serpent bearer. This month, Ophiuchus may be thinking of bearing some strawberries instead. Some Native American tribes call the June full moon the strawberry moon to honor (or remember) the short strawberry harvesting season. A more descriptive name this year is the Short Moon because this is the full above the horizon for the least amount of time this year – only eight hours. Summer full moons are always above the horizon less than winter full moons. Since the full moon is on the complete opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, the full moon is going to be in the sky whenever the Sun is not in the sky, namely the entire night. During the summer, the nights are shorter so the full moons time above the horizon will also be shorter.

Monday: Venus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 4:30 a.m.

Tuesday: Saturn is three and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: Jupiter is two and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon at 4 a.m.

Friday: 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. This morning, Mercury is as far away from the Sun as it will get this cycle. This is known as its greatest western elongation. Mercury is just above the east-northeast horizon at 4:30 this morning. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. After it passes behind the Sun, it will appear in the evening sky by late July.

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