Monday, February 21, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/26/11

Saturday: How many stars can be seen in the constellation Orion? From tonight through March 6, you can help answer that question. The organization called GLOBE at Night is looking for people all over the world to count how many stars they can see in the constellation Orion. Participants use star charts found at to observe Orion and compare what they see to the charts. After making the observations, participants can go to the website and add their findings to those of thousands of other observers. The main goal of GLOBE at Night is to research the pattern of light pollution across the globe. A secondary goal is to increase interest in observing and awareness of the night sky. You can find the middle of Orion three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 9 p.m. In Orion, you’ll see four of the 30 brightest stars in the night sky: Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Alnilam.

Sunday: It’s getting dark. The last remnant of twilight has disappeared. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the western sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the west horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists above the horizon. It is 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. Look for this light after twilight in the middle evening for the next few weeks.

Monday: Jupiter is one fist above the west horizon at 7 p.m.

Tuesday: Venus is a half a fist to the right of the thin, waning crescent Moon at 6 a.m.

Wednesday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much thinner Mars”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Go to for more information about Saturn. Go to one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m. to see Saturn.

Thursday: You’ve seen the science fiction love story movies where humans travel to a comet in order to blow it up. Now watch the Valentine’s Day movies where human travel to a comet in order to study it. On February 14, the NASA Stardust spacecraft recorded its trip to within 115 miles of Comet Tempel 1. So get your significant other, go to and enjoy the ride. It’s probably better than another Twilight movie and much for you to see.

Friday: 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 cannot be seen. This is why some people call this phase the “dark moon” and reserve the name “new moon” for the first visible waxing crescent after the Moon moves out from directly between the Earth and Sun.

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

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/19/11

Saturday: This President’s Day weekend, let’s remember Abraham Lincoln: 16th president, country lawyer, man on the penny, and astronomer. Astronomer? Well, maybe not an astronomer, but someone who used observational evidence from the sky to solve a problem. In 1858, Lincoln defended Duff Armstrong, a family friend who was accused of murder. The prosecution thought they had a strong case because their primary witnesses claimed to have observed the killing by the light of the nearly full moon. Let’s listen in on the trial courtesy of the 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: How’d you see so well?
Witness: I told you it was Moon bright, Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: Moon bright.
Witness: Yes.
(Dramatic pause as Lincoln reaches for something)
Lincoln: Look at this. Go on, look at it. It’s the Farmer’s Almanack (sic). You see what it says about the Moon. That the Moon… set at 10:21, 40 minutes before the killing took place. So you see it couldn’t have been Moon bright, could it?
Lincoln used the known information about Moon rise and set times for August 29, 1858 as evidence in a trial. You may confirm Lincoln’s findings on the Moon set time by going to, the US Naval Observatory website, and filling out Form A. For more information about Lincoln’s “almanac trial”, go to

Sunday: The sky provides an effective lesson in geometry and in relative motions tonight. At 11 p.m., the moon, Saturn, and the bright star Spica form a small right triangle one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon. Saturn is to the upper left of the moon and Spica is to the lower left. By 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, this triangle as moved across the sky to about two fists above the southwest horizon. Saturn is now to the upper right of the moon and Spica is to the upper left. These are simply changes in their position in the sky due to the rotation of the Earth. But, because the moon is very close to the Earth, in an astronomical scale, we can observe the moon’s actual motion with respect to more distant objects. Thus, you will notice that the triangle tonight has a slightly different shape than the triangle tomorrow morning because the moon has moved eastward toward Spica in the sky.

Monday: Avast ye matey. Swab the poop deck. Pirates love astronomy. In fact, the term “poop” in poop deck comes from the French word for stern (poupe) which comes for the Latin word Puppis. Puppis is a constellation that represents the raised stern deck of Argo Navis, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. Argo Nevis was an ancient constellation that is now divided between the constellations Puppis, Vela and Carina. The top of Puppis is about a fist and a half to the left of the bright star Sirius in the south-southwest sky at 10 p.m. Zeta Puppis, the hottest, and thus the bluest, naked eye star in the sky at 40,000 degrees Celsius is near the uppermost point in Puppis.

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

Wednesday: Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, is two and a half fists above the south horizon at 9 p.m.

Thursday: Jupiter is a little more than one fist above the west horizon at 7 p.m. By mid-March, Jupiter will be lost in the glare of the Sun. But that will not make Jupiter any less interesting. Jupiter’s dark Southern Equatorial Belt (SEB) disappeared for most of 2010, probably covered by lighter colored ammonia clouds in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. But recent photographs taken using an infrared wavelength camera show that the ammonia clouds may be starting to part, revealing the SEB once again. For more information, go to

Friday: Have you been to outer space lately? Neither have I. But the iron meteorite slice just acquired by the Central Washington University Astronomy club has. It made the trip from the inner Solar System asteroid belt long ago, landed on a farm near UruaƧu, Brazil in 1992 and now resides in a display case near the middle of the first floor in Lind Hall on the CWU campus. Thanks to NASA and the Night Sky Network for providing this slice of a coarse octahedrite meteorites are composed primarily of nickel-iron alloys

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

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/11/11

Saturday: According to Greek mythology, the beautiful princess Andromeda was chained to a rock next to the ocean. Cetus the sea monster was about to devour her in order to punish her family. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came the great warrior Perseus, fresh off his defeat of the evil Gorgon, Medusa. The only similarity between Andromeda and Medusa was that Andromeda caused people to stand still and stares at her beauty while Medusa turned people to stone because of her ugliness. (And, you thought you looked bad in the morning.) Even though Perseus’ standing as the son of King Zeus and the slayer of Medusa was probably enough to win Andromeda under normal circumstances, Andromeda’s impending death-by-sea-monster was not a normal circumstance. So, Perseus drove his sword into the sea monsters neck and killed it. In a little known addendum to the story, Perseus carved “Percy (heart symbol) Andi” in the rock, thus originating the use of the heart symbol as a substitute for the word “love”.
You can find these lovers in the sky this Valentine’s Day. Just remember it is rude stare – and you never know when you might turn to stone. First, find the Great Square of Pegasus at 7 p.m. between one and a half and three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. The lowest star in Andromeda is the top star in the square. This represents Andromeda’s head. Perseus is at her feet, nearly straight overhead. Mirphak, the brightest star in Perseus is about eight fists above the west horizon. Perseus’ body is represented by the line of stars to the left and right of Mirphak.

Sunday: Venus, the brightest point of light in the sky, is a little more than one fist above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Monday: Give your sweetheart a ring for Valentine’s Day. No, no, no. Don’t break the bank. Show your sweetheart Saturn, the ringed planet. It is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: February is named for the Roman word februum which means purification. Februa, the Roman festival of ritual purification was held on February 15 according to the Roman lunar calendar. Feb-hand-sanitizer-rua is the soccer mom ritual of pre snack purification. It is held every Saturday during the summer before the orange slices are handed out.

Wednesday: Jupiter is one and a half fists above the west-southwest horizon at 7 p.m.

Thursday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation Leo the lion. You may have noticed that your calendar says the full moon is the 18th, not today. Why is that? Because your calendar lies. After all, the calendar says it is your spouse’s birthday and you know that it is not your spouse’s birth…. Oh no! It IS your spouse’s birthday. Run out and buy a gift before it… is… too… late. Oops, too late. You may as well read the rest of the column. The actual moment of the full moon, the time when the Earth is directly between the Moon and the Sun is Friday morning at 12:47 am. Thus, the moon spends most of its “close to full moon” time this evening, the 17th.

Friday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the solar system object formerly known as a planet.

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

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/5/11

Saturday: “E.T. phone Kepler 11”. This may be the iconic line of dialog if there is a sequel the hit movie “E.T.”. This past Wednesday, scientists working on the Kepler planet finding mission announced 1,235 planet candidates, 68 of which are approximately Earth-size. Five of the near Earth-size planets are in the habitable zone of their host star meaning the temperature is right for liquid water to exist in the surface. The most exciting find is the six planet (so far) system orbiting a Sun-like star dubbed Kepler-11. None of Kepler-11’s planets orbit in the habitable zone. But this is the largest group of planets ever discovered that transit their star. A transiting planet is one that passes between the Earth and its host star such that the host star’s light is dimmed a little bit. Kepler-11 is located about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the northwest horizon at 7 p.m. It is much too dim to be seen with the naked eye but it is near the bright star Deneb in the sky. To learn more about the Kepler mission, go to

Sunday: Jupiter is a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon at 7 p.m.

Monday: Are you looking for a little romance in your sky? If so, go to the planetarium show “Romantic Myths” given tonight at 7:50, 8:30 and 9:10 by the CWU Astronomy Club. Here you will learn important tips for meeting your loved one such as saving them from a sea monster or casting them into the sky. The shows are in the SURC Ballroom, up on the second floor. Located on the CWU campus at the intersection of N Chestnut Street and E 11th Avenue, the SURC has ample free parking available most evenings.

Tuesday: Small bodies can make big impacts. Think babies. Gymnasts. Ferrets. Comets. Comets? While the typical comets we observe are much larger than those other small bodies I listed, they are some of the smallest objects in the Solar System. Yet they have a big impact on our understanding of the formation of the Solar System. Larger objects have processes such as weathering and volcanism that cover up evidence of the early Solar System’s history. But, NASA isn’t covering up any evidence on its Year of the Solar System website. Go to to read more about how the small bodies have big impacts. And, no, I don’t mean bunny rabbits.

Wednesday: Winter is a good time to see think band of the Milky Way galaxy. It arches high in the high in the early evening starting in the southeast by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Climbing from Sirius through the "horns" of Taurus high overhead, it drops down toward M-shaped Cassiopeia in the north and the tail of Cygnus, the swan, in the northwest.

Thursday: Tonight’s first quarter Moon is in the constellation Aries the ram.

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

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