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.

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