Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 5/28/11

Saturday: The constellation Aquila the eagle is starting its migration across the summer evening sky this month. Aquila, marked by its bright star Altair, rises above the east horizon at about 11 p.m. Not all animal migrations are fully understood by scientists. We might be inclined to attribute bird migrations to instinct. This answer certainly did not satisfy the theologian C. S. Lewis. In his short work “Men Without Chests”, he wrote, “to say that migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way”. In science (and theology), Lewis is telling us to look for real causes and not simply labels such as instinct. The cause for Aquila’s migration is the Earth orbiting the Sun. As the Earth moves around the Sun, certain constellations move into the evening sky as others get lost in the glare of the setting Sun.

Sunday: The Moon tries to get in on the morning planet action over the next few days. This morning at 4:30, Jupiter can be seen a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon.

Monday: Cygnus the swan flies tonight. Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation, whose name means “tail” in Arabic, is two fists above the northeast horizon at 10 p.m. Cygnus’ wings make a vertical line one half a fist to the right of Deneb. Its head, marked by the star Albireo, is two fists to the right of Deneb. While Deneb is at the tail of Cygnus, it is at the head of the line of bright stars. It is 160,000 times more luminous than the Sun making it one of the brightest stars in the galaxy. It does not dominate our night sky because it is 2,600 light years away, one of the farthest naked eye stars. If Deneb were 25 light years away, it would shine as bright as a crescent moon. Compare that to Vega, which is 25 light years away. Vega is three and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon at this time.

Tuesday: At 4:30 a.m., Venus is a half a fist to the right of the Moon, just above the east-northeast horizon. Mars is to the upper

Wednesday: Are you feeling lucky today? Then go outside and yell to the sky “come and get me!” Asteroid 2009 BD will nearly oblige. This asteroid, discovered in 2009, is about 30 feet across and will come within 200,000 miles of hitting the Earth today. While 200,000 miles seems like a lot, it is only 90% of the Earth-Moon distance. Asteroid 2009 BD is somewhat rare in that it has nearly the same orbit as the Earth. Its orbit is a little bit larger and a little bit more elliptical meaning it often gets close to hitting the Earth. If an asteroid this size hit the Earth, scientists estimate it would cause approximately the same amount of damage as an atomic bomb.

Thursday: The month of June is named after Juno, the queen of the Roman gods and the mythological protector of the Roman state. In ancient Rome, the month began when the crescent moon was first seen in the evening sky from Capitoline Hill in Rome. If we still started months this way, June wouldn’t begin until about two weeks from now.

Friday: Saturn is four fists above the south-southwest horizon at 10 a.m.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 5/21/11

Saturday: There are times when people live up to their namesake. For example, Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko lived up to the expectation of success that comes with being named after Elvis Presley. He won three world championships and two Olympic medals. The planet Venus does not live up to its namesake. While the planet was named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty, it is not a loving place. The surface of the planet is 460 degrees Celsius (860 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to melt lead. The barometric pressure on the surface is over 90 times greater than on Earth’s surface. Most missions to Venus have failed either before sending back data or after only a few minutes of sending back data. Not a very neighborly attitude from our nearest planetary neighbor. The European Space Agency probe called Venus Express is by far the longest-lived probe. It has been sending data back to Earth for the past five years from a relatively safe polar orbit of Venus. One of the findings that surprised scientists is that Venus had active volcanoes in its recent past. For more about volcanoes on Venus and throughout the solar system, go to Venus is the brightest of the three volcano-laden planets low in the eastern morning sky. At 5 am, Venus is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon. Mercury is a pinky thickness below Venus and Mars is a pinky thickness to the upper left of it.

Sunday: If you are getting up early to spot the three inner solar system planets mentioned above, you might as well look for Jupiter, as well. It is one fist above the east horizon and well to the upper right of the other three morning planets.

Monday: Late spring and early summer is a good time to look for star clusters. Last week, you learned about M3, the third object cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier over 200 years ago. One of the best clusters is the globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, also called M13. (Hummm. Guess what number that object is in Messier’s catalog.) Globular clusters are compact groupings of a few hundred thousand stars in a spherical shape 100 light years across. (For comparison, a 100 light year diameter sphere near out Sun would contain a few hundred stars.) The globular cluster in Hercules is six fists above due east at 11 p.m. First find Vega, the bright bluish star about four fists above the east-northeast horizon. Two fists to the upper right of Vega is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the two stars that form the uppermost point of the keystone. The globular cluster is one third of the way south of the uppermost star on the way to the rightmost star of the keystone. It looks like a fuzzy patch on the obtuse angle of a small obtuse triangle. If you don’t know what an obtuse angle is, you should not have told your teacher, “I’ll never need to know this stuff”.

Tuesday: This morning’s last quarter moon is in the constellation Aquarius the water bearer.

Wednesday: When it is sitting low in the western sky, many people mistake the star Capella for a planet. It is bright. It has a slight yellow color. But, Capella is compelling on its own. It is the fourth brightest star we can see in Ellensburg. It is the most northerly bright star. It is a binary star consisting of two yellow giant stars that orbit each other every 100 days. At 10 p.m., Capella is two fists above the northwest horizon. If you miss it tonight, don’t worry. Capella is the brightest circumpolar star meaning it is the brightest star that never goes below the horizon from our point of view in Ellensburg.

Thursday: The bright summer star Antares is a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Friday: Saturn is four fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m. Scientists have discovered an electrical connection between Saturn and its moon Enceladus. The water cloud above the jets of water that spray out from Enceladus’ active volcanoes contains a charged plasma cloud. Particles from this cloud interact with Saturn’s magnetic field. For more information about this phenomenon, go to

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 5/14/11

Saturday: Betelgeuse, the second brightest star in the constellation Orion, is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due west at 9 p.m. It is on the short list of stars that could go supernova in the near future: near future meaning next million years. Most heavy elements such as radium and polonium are formed in supernova. Why not go celebrate the discovery of radium and polonium by watching living history re-enactress Carole Berg perform an evening with Madam Marie Curie. Berg, a chemistry professor at Bellevue College, performs all around the northwest as Marie Curie for audiences of all ages and all levels of science. This event is on the CWU campus in the Hertz Hall Auditorium starting at 7 p.m. Hertz Hall is H-8 in the campus map found online at 2011 is the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie being awarded her Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of radium and polonium. What else do you have to do tonight, put together a collage of newspaper clippings?

Sunday: Saturn is four fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m.

Monday: Give me an “M”. Give me a “3”. What does that spell? “M3.” “Big deal,” you say. It was a big deal to French comet hunter Charles Messier (pronounced messy a). M3 was the 3rd comet look-alike that Messier catalogued in the late 1700s. M3 is a globular cluster, a cluster of over 100,000 stars that is 32,000 light years away. It is too dim to be seen with the naked eye but is fairly easy find with binoculars. First find Arcturus five and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m. (See Wednesday’s entry to learn how to find Arcturus.) Move your binoculars up a little so two stars of nearly identical brightness are in your field of view. When the top star is in the lower left part of your field of view, there should be a fuzzy patch near the center of your field of view. This is M3.

Tuesday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation Libra the scales. Since this is the time for “May flowers”, the May full moon is called the Full Flower Moon.

Wednesday: This is a good time of the year to find the Big Dipper. It is nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. The cup is to the west and the handle is to the east. You can always use the Big Dipper to find some other bright stars. First, follow the curve, or arc, of the Big Dipper down three fists into the southern sky. This is the bright star, Arcturus, the second brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg. Next, continue on a straight line, or spike, another three fists down toward the south horizon to the star Spica. Spica is the tenth brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg. It is known as the Horn Mansion, one of 28 mansions, or constellations, in the Chinese sky. You now know how to use the Big Dipper handle to “arc” to Arcturus and “spike” to Spica.

Thursday: The bright star Antares is one fist above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Friday: For the entire month of May, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter can be found in the eastern morning sky just before sunrise. Tomorrow morning just before sunrise, the packing is so close that Mercury, Venus and Mars could hide behind your thumbnail held at arm’s length. Venus is about 40 times brighter than Mercury and 100 times brighter than Mars. For a movie of how the planets will dance around each other this month, go to

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 5/7/11

Saturday: The Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) invites you to “Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe” (GISS) at Helen McCabe Park this morning and early afternoon. Go to for more information about the entire event. I invite you to Get Intimate with Super Spectacular Saturn (GISSS) tonight. Saturn is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 10 p.m. With a small telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn and at least one of its moons – Titan. With a good pair of 10X50 binoculars and a tripod, Titan will be visible tonight to the right of Saturn. The “10X” in 10X50 indicated the binoculars have a magnification of ten times. The “50” means that the diameter of the lenses on the front are 50 millimeters. 10X50 is a common size for binoculars.

Sunday: So you think your mother has problems on Mother’s Day because she has you as you as a child? Her mother issues can’t be as bad as Cassiopeia’s issues. First, she was chained to a chair for boasting about her beauty. Second, she has to revolve around the North Star night after night. Third, her daughter Andromeda was nearly sacrificed to a sea monster. Look for poor Cassiopeia about one and a half fists above the north horizon at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.

Monday: Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury are spending the week wishing a happy mother’s day to Venus, named after the goddess of love. They are together in the morning sky all week. At 5:15 a.m., Jupiter and Venus are a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon. Jupiter is one finger to the left of the much brighter Venus. (Mercury and Mars are much dimmer and below the other two planets.) As the days go by, Venus will move to the left and Jupiter will move up in the sky.

Tuesday: Are you interested in observing the night sky but you don’t know what to look at or you don’t know if the sky will cooperate. NASA’s Night Sky Network has a night sky planning page at Here you’ll find links to star charts, a local weather forecast, local sky conditions and more.

Wednesday: Jupiter and Venus are less than a pinky-width apart at 5:15 a.m. in the low eastern sky. Hopefully, you have been following the planets throughout the week. Their noticeable movement with respect to the background stars is evidence that they are much closer to us than the stars.

Thursday: Do people think you have a magnetic personality? Cor Caroli, the brightest star of Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs, understands how you feel. It has one of the strongest magnetic fields among main sequence stars similar to our Sun. This strong magnetic field is thought to produce large sunspots that cause the brightness of Cor Caroli to vary. Cor Caroli is nearly straight overhead at 10:30 p.m. Its name means "Heart of Charles," in honor of England's King Charles II.

Friday: Are you a henpecked husband? King Cepheus was. He was so captivated by his wife Cassiopeia’s beauty that he let her rule their home. You can tell who is boss by looking in the northern sky at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia is the prominent W-shaped grouping of stars two fists above the north horizon. Cepheus is the much dimmer house-shaped grouping of stars about a fist to the right of Cassiopeia.

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