Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 12/24/11

What's up in the sky 12/24/11

Today: What would that special someone want to see on the back of Santa’s sleigh when she gets up early Christmas morning to eat one of Santa’s cookies? A fruit cake? No. A barbell? Maybe to work off the fruitcake. A subscription to The Daily Record? Of course. But what she really wants is a ring. And if she looks out a south-facing window, she’ll see her ring. Saturn the ringed planet, that is. Saturn is three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 7 a.m.

Sunday: Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw Jupiter being eclipsed by the Moon in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2, Bruce Palmquist version, informed by Michael Molnar). There are many theories as to the physical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem, the celestial object that guided the wise men to the location of Jesus. Some people think it was a recurring nova, a star that explodes. Some think it was a close alignment of bright planets. Some think it was a miracle that requires no physical explanation. In 1991, astronomer Michael Molnar bought an ancient Roman Empire coin that depicted a ram looking back at a star. Aries the ram was a symbol for Judea, the birthplace of Jesus. The Magi, or “wise men”, who visited the baby Jesus practiced astrology and would have been looking in that region of the sky for the king prophesied in the Old Testament. Molnar, a modern day wise person, used sky simulation software to model the positions of planets and the Moon in the region of Aries. According to his model, Jupiter was eclipsed, or blocked, by the Moon on the morning of April 17, 6 BC. Molnar’s theory is supported by a book written by the astrologer of Constantine the Great in 334 AD. The book describes an eclipse of Jupiter in Aries and notes a man of divine nature born during this time. See for more information.
Aries and Jupiter make an appearance in the Christmas sky tonight. At 8 p.m., Jupiter is five fists above the south horizon and the dim constellation Aries is about a fist and a half to the upper left of Jupiter.

Monday: Mercury is about a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.

Tuesday: Columbia the dove, representing the bird Noah sent out to look for dry land as the flood waters receded, is perched just above the ridge south of Ellensburg. Its brightest star Phact is about one fist above due south at 11 p.m.

Wednesday: Venus is about a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

Thursday: Have you ever looked down on the ground and spotted a penny? In Yakima? While you were standing in Ellensburg? If you have, then you may be able to see the star Hamal as more than just a point of light. It has an angular diameter that can be directly measured from Earth. Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation Aries the ram, has the same angular diameter as a penny 37 miles away. (For comparison, the moon is about half the diameter of a penny held at arm’s length.) Hamal is six and a half fists above due south at 7:45 p.m.

Friday: NASA’s Kepler satellite recently found the first two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star other than the Sun. Don’t expect to travel there soon. For one thing, the star is nearly 1,000 light years away. For another, the two planets orbit extremely close to their star, much closer than Mercury orbits our Sun. The star, called Kepler 20, is in the constellation Lyra the lyre, two and a half fists above the west-northwest horizon. Read the short article in the journal Nature at for more information.

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

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