Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 10/31/09

Saturday: Halloween. The pumpkins. The candy. The children going door-to-door dressed up has their favorite astronomers Antonia Maury and Edward Pickering. At least they should because Halloween is, in part, an astronomical holiday. Halloween is a “cross-quarter date”, a day approximately midway between an equinox and a solstice. Historically, the Celts of the British Isles used cross-quarter dates as the beginnings of seasons. For the Celts, winter began with Halloween. So when all those little Maurys and Pickerings come to your door, honor the Celts and give them a wintry treat.
Don’t forget to “fall back” tonight. Before you fall back on to your bed, set your clock back one hour to the real time. Daylight savings ends early Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This means one more hour of sky watching at night because the Sun will set one hour earlier. Ben Franklin proposed the idea of “saving daylight” by adjusting our clocks way back in 1784. Daylight savings time was first utilized during World War I as a way to save electricity. After the war, it was abandoned. It was reintroduced during World War II on a year-round basis. From 1945 to 1966, some areas implemented daylight savings and some did not. But, it was not implemented with any uniformity as to when it should start and stop. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 codified the daylight savings rules.

Sunday: Happy Celtic New Year! Many historians think that this day, known for the festival of Samhain, was the ancient Celtic new year’s day. Samhain, Old Irish for “summer’s end”, was a harvest festival that may have contributed to some of the customs of our current “holiday” of Halloween.

Monday: Tonight’s full Moon and the waning gibbous phase of the next few nights will obscure many meteorites. But, the one or two bright fireballs per hour you can see during the typical Southern Taurid meteor shower may make it worth your while to say up. The Southern Taurid meteor shower reaches a maximum over the next few nights with a peak on November 5. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull. This point is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist to the right of the Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke. If you stay up all night, you may notice Venus less than one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 6 a.m.

Tuesday: Orion is about two fists above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. If you are having trouble finding things in the sky, Orion is a good confidence builder.

Wednesday: Jupiter is two and a half fists above the south horizon at 7 p.m.

Thursday: The weather may be getting cold. But, NASA still has Hot Topics for the International Year of Astronomy. November’s topic is very hot. Starting at a few thousand degrees Celsius for most of their productive lives and moving on to 100,000 degrees Celsius for new white dwarf stars, stars can definitely heat up a room. (Not as much as an episode of Grey’s Anatomy with all of those good looking doctors but close.) Not all stars start at the same temperature or die the same way. The temperature of a star for most of its productive life can tell an astronomer a lot about how the star was formed and how it will end up. Four hundred years ago, Galileo would have never dreamed that the descendants of his telescope would see such a variety of stars, objects that many uninformed people still call little points of white light. For more information about the lives of stars, go to and click on November.

Friday: Mars is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11:30 p.m.

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

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