Friday, August 14, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 8/15/09

Saturday: 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.

Sunday: There are two “close encounters of the planetary kind” today. At 5 a.m. in the eastern sky this morning, Mars is a half a fist to the upper right of the Moon.
If you don’t like getting early, start! It is a tough economy and you are sleeping in? What’s up with that? Oops. Back to astronomy. There is also an evening encounter to allow you to keep up with your beauty sleep. Mercury and Saturn are about a half a fist above due west at 8:30 p.m. Mercury, the brighter object of the two, is about a thumb width below Saturn.

Monday: Gemini the twins become Gemini the quadruplets this morning. Venus is about a half a fist below the Moon in the eastern sky at 5 a.m. in the constellation Gemini. Pollux and Castor, the two brightest stars in Gemini, are a fist to the left of the Moon and Venus. Pollux is the bottom star and the brighter of the two.

Tuesday: Fomalhaut, the bright star in the Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fishes, is about one fist above the southeast horizon at midnight. It is the southernmost bright star visible from Ellensburg.

Wednesday: 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 can not be seen.

Thursday: The brightest star in the nighttime sky is creeping back into the morning sky. Sirius is a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at 5:30 a.m.

Friday: You may have trouble holding your water at midnight. But not the Big Dipper. The cup of the Big Dipper is facing upward in a water-holding orientation about two fists above the north horizon at midnight.

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

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