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.

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