Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/29/11

Saturday: The “Hot Topic” for February during the 2009 International Year of Astronomy was the Solar System. Even though 2009 has done the way of popular netbooks and a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, the Solar System lives on. Galileo’s discoveries about the Sun, the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter helped move us from a privileged spot in the center of the perfect heavens to one of billions of planets in the turbulent neighborhood known as the Milky Way Galaxy. Some may say that makes them feel small and insignificant. I say it makes me feel empowered. All those planets and very few, perhaps only one, inhabited by beings with the capability to comprehend their surroundings. It is better to understand your situation as one in a billion than to blindly and incorrectly think you are at the center of everything. Go to for more information about the Solar System. Go outside and look two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m. for more information about Jupiter.

Sunday: Venus is a half a fist above the Moon in the southeast sky at 6:30 a.m.

Monday: The bright star Arcturus is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: The good news is the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter. The better news is the farther north you go in the United States, the longer the days get. Here in Ellensburg, there is one more hour of daylight than on the first day of winter. In the southern part of the US, there are only 30 more minutes of sunlight. Of course, on the North Pole, the day length goes from zero hours to 24 hours.

Wednesday: Today is Groundhog Day. If Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow this morning, he is telling us that he follows the Chinese calendar and that spring starts early. On the Chinese calendar, equinoxes and solstices occur in the middle of their respective seasons. In order for the vernal equinox to occur in the middle of spring, spring must start on February 3 or 4, depending on the year. Thus, if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, spring may start on February 3 or 4 as on the Chinese calendar. If Phil sees his shadow, he is telling us he agrees with the western calendar and that there will be six more weeks of winter meaning spring will start near March 20.

Thursday: One year ago, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spotted its first of many never-before-seen near Earth asteroids. While there is no danger of this asteroid hitting Earth in the foreseeable future, the United States’ government is worried about the threat of a rogue asteroid hitting Earth. So much so that Congress mandated that by 2020, NASA must find 90% of all potential Earth-impacting asteroids down to 140 meters across. I may write a book about this search called “Going Rogue – An Asteroid Life”. Here is an excerpt.
I’d rather “stand with our North Korean allies” than be in the path of even a small asteroid streaking towards Earth. Would it be dangerous? You betcha! The asteroid that created the mile-wide impact crater in Arizona was only 25 meters in diameter and packed a wallop about 150 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I say “Thanks but no thanks” to that kind of risk, even if this size impact occurs only once every few hundred years.

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

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/22/11

Saturday: Draco Malfoy makes an appearance in all seven books of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps you’ve heard of these. But, the constellation Draco the dragon makes an appearance in the sky every night. It is a circumpolar constellation as viewed from Ellensburg meaning it never goes below the horizon. The head of the dragon is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due north at 9 p.m. Eltanin, the brightest star in the constellation, is at one corner of the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco.

Sunday: Jupiter, the brightest point of light in the evening sky, is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m. Uranus, one of the dimmest lights sometimes visible to the naked eye can be easily found using binoculars because it is very close to Jupiter in the night sky. First find Jupiter. Then, move your binoculars so Jupiter is in the upper left section. Uranus is in the lower right section. Notice how I wrote that they are very close in the night sky. In actuality, they are about 1.5 billion miles apart. This is 15 times farther than the Sun is from the Earth.

Monday: Deneb Kaitos, the "tail of the whale," tries to swim away from Jupiter in the southern sky tonight. The moderately bright orange star forms the tail of Cetus the whale. At 7 p.m., it appears about two fists above the southwest horizon and less than a half a fist to the lower left of Jupiter.

Tuesday: Venus is one fist above the southeast horizon at 6 a.m.

Wednesday: Saturn, the bright star Spica, and the last quarter Moon line up in the southern sky this morning.

Thursday: Are you interested in participating in astronomy research? You don’t need to go back to school. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars getting a fake degree from an online university. The scientists working on the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would like your input on which objects they should target for close-up pictures. While you may think the scientists are just trying to build interest in their project by having people look at pretty pictures, there is a real scientific benefit to having many eyes searching for interesting targets. There aren’t enough scientists to carefully inspect all of the low power images. And, surprisingly, computers are not nearly as effective as people in making educated judgments of images. So, go to and click on the HiWish button. You’ll be on your way to suggesting close-up targets for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Friday: What is the number one threat to the peaceful use of space? Missiles from rogue nations? Nope. Aliens? You wish after seeing that beer commercial during NFL games. It is space junk. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk orbit the earth, most of it in the main human-made satellite region. The US Department of Defense is tracking over 21,000 objects greater than four inches across to assess the danger they pose. Go to to find out what large pieces of that space junk is visible any night. You may select your location from a map, from a list, or enter it manually.

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

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/15/11

Saturday: Who can forget that memorable song by Three Dog Constellations Night, “The sky is black. The stars are white. Together we learn to find the light.” Well, maybe it didn’t go like that. This is good because not all stars are white. Most stars are too dim to notice a color. But, the stars in the constellation Orion provide a noticeable contrast. Betelgeuse, five fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10:30 p.m. is a red giant. Rigel, the bright star about two fists to the lower right of Betelgeuse, is a blue giant.
By the way, the three dog constellations are Canis Major, the greater dog; Canis Minor, the lesser dog; and Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. Canis Major contains Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.

Sunday: Jupiter is three fists above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m.

Monday: Some objects we can observe every day lead to very difficult scientific questions. The star that we call Epsilon Auriga varies in brightness for a two year period every 27 years. Scientists were not sure of the exact cause of this dimming. The most recent episode started in the summer of 2009 and will end this year. But recent images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which sees infrared wavelengths, are helping scientists solve the puzzle. Epsilon Auriga is actually a binary system. The bright star in the Epsilon Auriga system is orbited by a smaller star which is surrounded by a huge cloud of sand grain-sized particles. This cloud, which is approximately the size of Jupiter’s orbit in diameter, causes the main star in the system, creatively called Epsilon Auriga A, to be only half as bright as its maximum. You can follow the cycle with the naked eye. Epsilon Auriga is about a fist to the upper right of Capella, one of the brightest stars in the sky. Capella is seven and a half fists above due east at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: How do you study the life cycle of a dog? Easy. Get a dog from the animal shelter, care for it for 15 years and study it. How do you study the life cycle of a star? Easy. Pick a star, watch it for a few billion years, and…. Wait a minute. Astronomers can’t observe something for a few billion years. Instead, they study stars that are at different points in their long life cycle and piece together the information from those different stars. What they do is like studying a one-year-old dog for a few minutes, then studying a different two-year-old dog for a few minutes, and so on. The sky in and near the constellation Orion provides an example of four objects at different points of star life.
First, find Rigel, the bright star in the lower right corner of the constellation Orion. This star, rapidly burning its fuel for a high energy but short lived existence, is three and a half fists above due south at 9:30 p.m. About one fist up and to the left are the three objects of Orion’s sword holder. The middle “star” is really a star forming region called the Orion nebula. There you’ll find baby Suns. Now, look about two fists to the right and a little below Rigel. You should be looking at a star that is about one tenth as bright as Rigel but still the brightest in its local region. The third star to the right of that star is Epsilon Eridani, the most Sun-like close and bright star. Betelgeuse, in the upper left corner of Orion, is a star at the end of its life that started out life a bit larger than the Sun.

Wednesday: It’s cold. The snow is blowing in your face. Food is scarce. Packs of wild animals are wondering around howling. Does this describe your house after someone broke your window during your New Year’s party? It also describes wolf packs around Native American villages. That’s why many tribes call January’s full moon, which occurs this morning at 5:36 the Full Wolf Moon. It is also called the Moon after Yule.

Thursday: Saturn finally makes its way into the late evening sky. It is a half a fist above the east horizon at midnight.

Friday: Venus is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

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

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/8/11

Saturday: One Family Affair explored the trials of well-to-do civil engineer and bachelor Bill Davis as he attempted to raise his brother's orphaned children in his luxury New York City apartment (as described on Wikipedia). Another family affair explores the set of planets, dwarf planets, comets, and asteroids that orbits our Sun. Just as studying your own family history can tell you about yourself, one reason astronomers study the rest of the solar system is to learn more about the Earth. Comets and asteroids hold many more detectable clues about the early solar system than the Earth does because the Earth’s surface is constantly changing. For more information about this Family Affair go to

Sunday: Hit the road Mercury and Venus. And don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. For the past few weeks in the case of Mercury or months in the case for Venus, these two planets have been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the morning sky. Today, both are as far away from the Sun as they will get in the morning this cycle. This is known as a planet’s greatest western elongation. Mercury is about a fist above the southeast horizon and Venus is about two fists above the south-southeast horizon at 7:00 a.m. Over the next few weeks, Mercury and Venus will move toward the Sun in the sky, eventually passing behind the Sun and appearing in the evening sky.

Monday: Another boring Monday night? Not this week. Go to the CWU Astronomy Club’s Monday Astronomy Event from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. We will meet in Lind Hall, room 215 for a brief introduction to the night sky and an impressive demonstration of the size of the galaxy. There will be numerous telescopes in use to view Jupiter and other interesting celestial objects. Dress warmly. If the sky is overcast, come anyway to hear a presentation about the Solar System. Lind Hall is on the corner of Chestnut Street and University Way. There is ample close free parking near Lind Hall at this time of night. If you are staying home, at least go outside and look for Jupiter, one fist held upright and at arm’s length below the Moon in the southwest sky at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: You never see a giraffe on the ground in Ellensburg. But you can look for one every night in the sky. The constellation Camelopardalis the giraffe is circumpolar from Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees north meaning it is always above the horizon. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the appearance of the stars in Camelopardalis. The brightest star in the constellation appears only about half as bright as the dimmest star in the Big Dipper. However, the actual luminosities of the three brightest stars in Camelopardalis are very high, each at least 3,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Alpha Camelopardalis, a mind boggling 600,000 times more luminous than the Sun, is seven fists above due north at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: What you see with the naked eye isn’t all that can be seen. While astronomers can learn a lot from observing the sky in the visible wavelengths, many celestial objects radiate more light, and more information, in wavelengths such as radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. Last year, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to study objects that radiate in the infrared range such as asteroids, cool dim stars, and luminous galaxies. For an interesting comparison of how different wavelengths show different aspects of a galaxy, go to If it wasn’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies.

Thursday: January is the coldest month of the year so it is time to turn up the furnace. Fornax the furnace one fist above due south at 7 p.m.

Friday: Saturn is four fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.

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