Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 9/3/11

Saturday: Geometry review: part 2. School starts this week so it is time to continue our little geometry review from last week. Did you forget last week’s lesson? Well, go to the litter box, dig out last Saturday’s paper and review it. Then go outside at 9 p.m. with notebook in hand. Ready? A square is a quadrilateral with four sides of equal length and four right angle corners. A good example in the sky is the Great Square, an asterism (group of stars) consisting of three stars from the constellation Pegasus and one star from the constellation Andromeda. At 9 p.m., the bottom of the Great Square is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east.

Sunday: There is a lot to see at the Kittitas County Fair. But there is not a lot to see in the sky when you are at the fair because the fair lights, which are fairly bright, obscure most celestial objects. Jupiter is one of the few objects bright enough to be seen. As you are getting home from the fair at 11 p.m., look for Jupiter about one fist above the east horizon. Luckily Galileo didn’t do his observing at the Kittitas County Fair because he would not have been able to see Jupiter’s moons. So what, you say? Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter provided strong evidence that objects other than the Earth could have satellites, thus supporting the hypothesis of a Sun-centered solar system.

Monday: Labor Day was the brainchild of labor unions and is dedicated to American workers. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882. The Greek mythical hero Hercules probably wished there was a Labor Day to commemorate his work. As punishment for killing his family while he was temporarily insane, he had to perform twelve nearly impossible tasks such as killing monsters or stealing things from deities. Humm. Maybe we shouldn’t commemorate his labors. But we can enjoy his constellation. The keystone asterism representing the body of Hercules is six fists above the west horizon at 10 p.m. For more information about the Labors of Hercules, go to http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/labors.html.

Tuesday: The calendar says summer is nearing an end. School starting tomorrow says summer is nearing an end. The summer triangle in the sky begs to differ as it is still high in the sky. Vega, the brightest star in the triangle, is a little bit west of straight overhead at sunset. Deneb is a little bit east of straight overhead and Altair is five fists above the south horizon.

Wednesday: The little king must have ordered a lot of merchandise on eBay. Mercury, named after the Roman god of trades, passes by Regulus, Latin for “little king” over the next few mornings. This morning, Mercury, the brighter of the two objects, is about a finger thickness above Regulus. By Saturday morning, they’ll be side-by-side and you will not be able to fit an outstretched pinky between them. This interaction offers an excellent opportunity to see why planets are called “planets”, from the Greek word meaning “wanderer”. All planets move with respect to the background stars. Because Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, it moves the fastest in its orbit. And it is, on average, our second nearest planetary neighbor. Both of these contribute to Mercury’s motion through the sky being the greatest of all the planets. This is probably the reason this planet was named after the speedy, messenger god.

Thursday: Fomalhaut, the brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, is one fist above the south-southeast horizon at 11 pm. It is the southernmost bright star visible from Ellensburg.

Friday: Mars is four fists above the east horizon at 6 a.m.

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

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