Friday, July 2, 2010

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 7/3/10

Saturday: Tomorrow night, while you are looking at an explosion of fireworks, the NASA spacecraft Kepler may be looking at an “explosion” of exoplanets. So far, Kepler has found evidence of more than 700 stars being dimmed by their planets crossing in front of them and blocking light. Astronomers still need to compare the pattern of dimming with the potential pattern of star wobble caused by being tugged on by one or more planets before that can say for certain that have actually found planets orbiting these stars. But if even half of these stars show the characteristic wobble, it will nearly double the number of planets known to orbit other stars, also known as exoplanets. And this is only the beginning. The Kepler spacecraft is monitoring the brightness of over 156,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre. This region is midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. It is about the size of your hand held at arm’s length and is about six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 11 p.m.

Sunday: This morning’s last quarter Moon is in the constellation Pisces the fish.

Monday: Mars and Saturn are moving towards each other in the night sky. At 10 p.m., Mars is one and a half fists above the west-southwest horizon. Saturn is a fist to the upper left of Mars and a little more than two fists above the southwest horizon.

Tuesday: Hot enough for you? Don’t blame the Earth-Sun distance. 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 is a few degrees cooler. If you are one of those people who measures twice and cuts once, the Earth-Sun distance is 152.1 million kilometers today. The Earth-Sun distance is 152.1 million kilometers. Now cut.

Wednesday: Last week, I speculated about which planet Regulus, the “little king” star in the constellation Leo, would chose to hang out with in the sky. Over the next few nights, you’ll see that choice and it is Venus. Venus and Regulus will be side-by-side, one fist above the west horizon at 10 p.m., for the rest of the week.

Thursday: Ripped from the headlines: The Moon wakes up with seven sisters this morning! The Seven Sisters, also known as the Pleiades, is a bright open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. However, you’ll need binoculars to get a good view of the Pleiades this morning since its stars will be obscured by the moon glow. The Pleiades is about a finger width above the moon at 4 a.m. See, getting up early allows you to start rumors.

Friday: Jupiter is finally rising in the evening sky… if you define evening as 11:56 p.m. Still, you don’t have to stay up extremely late to see it. By 1 a.m., it is one fist above the east horizon.

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

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