Thursday, December 27, 2012
Saturday: Did you get a new telescope for Christmas? Skyandtelescope.com has a good article on how to get started using it. Go to http://goo.gl/2cJwo. Any observing tip to the night sky should include Jupiter. Jupiter is six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10 p.m. tonight. A small telescope should reveal Jupiter’s cloud belts and its four largest moons. These are called the Galilean moons because Galileo Galilei discovered them about 400 years ago.
Sunday: Mars is a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 5:30 p.m.
Monday: Forget about that big bright ball in Times Square. You can mark the start of the new year with one of the sky’s own big bright balls. That perennial favorite New Year’s Day marker, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, rises to its highest point in the sky a little after midnight on January 1. Thus, when Sirius starts to “fall”, the new year has begun. Look for Sirius about two and a half fists above due south at midnight.
Tuesday: Today is the day we celebrate the anniversary of something new – a new classification of celestial objects. Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres [pronounced sear’-ease], the first of what are now called “asteroids”, on January 1, 1801. Ceres is the largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. At first, Piazzi thought it was a star that didn’t show up on his charts. But, he noted its position changed with respect to the background stars from night to night. This indicated to him that it had to be orbiting the Sun. The International Astronomical Union promoted Ceres to the status of “dwarf planet” in August of 2006.
If the Sun looks big today, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. The Earth is at perihelion at about 9 p.m. tonight. If you dig out your Greek language textbook, you’ll see that peri- means “in close proximity” and helios means “Sun”. So, perihelion is when an object is closest to the Sun in its orbit, about 1.5 million miles closer than its average distance of 93 million miles. Since it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere now, the seasonal temperature changes must not be caused by the Earth getting farther from and closer to the Sun. Otherwise, we’d have summer when the Earth is closest to the Sun. The seasons are caused by the angle of the sunlight hitting the Earth. In the winter, sunlight hits the Earth at a very low angle, an angle far from perpendicular or straight up and down. This means that a given “bundle” of sunlight is spread out over a large area and does not warm the surface as much as the same bundle in the summer.
Wednesday: Venus is a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.
Thursday: Today’s early morning weather forecast: showers. Meteor showers, that is. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks this morning between midnight and dawn. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. That makes this shower mysterious because there isn’t any constellation with this name now. The shower was named after Quadrans Muralis, an obsolete constellation found in some early 19th century star atlases. These meteors appear to come from a point in the modern constellation Draco the dragon. This point is about three fists above the northeast horizon at 1 a.m. This year, the waning moon will be rising just before the peak observation time so the dimmer meteors will be obscured by moonlight. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Most meteors are associated with the path of a comet. This shower consists of the debris from an asteroid discovered in 2003. Keeping with the comet-origin paradigm, astronomers think the asteroid is actually an “extinct” comet, a comet that lost all of its ice as it passed by the Sun during its many orbits.
Friday: Has it been tough to wake up this past week? It should have been because the sunrise has been getting a little later since summer started. I know. I know. December 22 was the shortest day of the year. But, because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is elliptical and not circular, the Earth does not travel at a constant speed. It moves faster when it is closer to the Sun and slower when it is farther away. This leads to the latest sunrise occurring during the first week in January and the earliest sunset occurring in early December, not on the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year. On the first day of winter, however, the interval between sunrise and sunset is the shortest. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/SJC5r.
The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Saturday: Listen, do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Whoa oh, oh. The Beatles certainly didn’t write this song about the Barringer meteorite crater in Arizona. Astronomers are studying this 50,000-year-old impact to learn more about our planet’s violent history as well as the physics of impacts throughout the solar system. If you’d like to be let in on some of these secrets, go to http://goo.gl/sqbBe.
Sunday: I know you’re staying up late to train yourself to wait up for Santa. So look out a south-facing window at 1 a.m. and see Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, as high as it ever gets in the sky. It is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south.
Monday: Today is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of their god Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The holiday featured a break from work and school, a public banquet, and private gift giving. Some of these customs influenced the secular aspects of Christmas celebrations. Celebrate Saturnalia at 6 a.m.-alia by viewing the planet Saturn, two fists above due southeast.
Tuesday: Jupiter is nearly two fists above the east-northeast horizon at 5 p.m. Wow – night sky observations at 5 p.m. It must be getting close to winter.
Wednesday: Venus is one fist above due southeast at 7 a.m. Even though the sky is fairly well lit by the nearly rising Sun, Venus is bright enough to be easily seen. The bigger challenge is Mercury, a half a fist to the lower left of Venus and just above the horizon.
Thursday: Tonight’s first quarter moon is in the constellation Pisces the fish.
Friday: At 3:12 a.m., the Sun reaches its lowest point in the sky with respect to the background stars. This point is called the Winter Solstice. During the day that the Sun reaches this point, your noontime shadow is longer than any other day of the year. Also, the Sun spends less time in the sky on the day of the Winter Solstice than any other day making this the shortest day of the year. Even though it is the shortest day of the year, it is not the day with the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset. The latest sunrise is during the first week in January and the earliest sunset is during the second week in December. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the Sun rise and set time depends on more than its apparent vertical motion. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma. But, it is on the first part of the analemma to go below the horizon. During the first week in January, it is on the last part of the analemma to rise above the horizon. For more information on this, go to http://goo.gl/wE9nP.
The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Saturday: The earliest sunsets of the year occur all this week – 4:13 p.m. That seems counterintuitive because the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere isn’t until December 21. Since the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, the Sun does not appear to move across the sky at the same rate from day to day throughout the year. That means some parts of the year the Sun is “fast” and sometimes “slow”. Today, the Sun reaches the noontime position of due south at 11:52 a.m. meaning it will also reach the setting position a few minutes earlier than the expected time. For more information on this, go to http://goo.gl/kjnHP. Or just go watch the sunset. But don’t stare at the Sun.
Monday: Okay boys and girls. Let’s follow along with the moon this week as it tours the bright objects in the southeastern sky. At 6:30 a.m., the bright star Spica is less than a half a fist above the moon. Spica is believed to be the star that provided the ancient astronomer Hipparchus with the data to show that the Earth precesses like a spinning, wobbling top.
Tuesday: On these cold mornings, it is difficult to get going. You just want to plop into a chair and sit still. But, are you really sitting still? You’re moving at about 700 miles per hour due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis and 66,000 miles per hour due to the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. If that’s not enough, the entire solar system is orbiting the center of the galaxy at a whopping 480,000 miles per hour! So while you may be sitting still with respect to your living room (and all of the over achievers in your house), you are NOT sitting still with respect to the center of the galaxy. For more information about this concept, go to http://goo.gl/lPVPS. Before you barf from all of that motion, go outside at 6:30 a.m. and observe Saturn, less than a fist above the moon in the southeast sky. Because of Saturn’s rapid rotation, only 10.5 hours, it appears visible flattened.
Tuesday: At 6:30 this morning, the moon marks the right angle corner of a right triangle with the very bright Venus above it and Mercury to its lower left.
Wednesday: Just like during last month’s new moon, people are humming the astronomy version of 1981 Blondie hit The Tide is High: “The tide is high ‘cause the moon is new. Higher still when the moon’s close, too.” Tonight's moon is new. The new moon is the phase where the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun. That means the moon and Sun are both stretching the Earth in the same direction causing the ocean water in line with the Sun and moon to be pulled upward. In addition, the moon is at perigee so this is the day of the month when the moon is closest to the Earth. This accentuates the upward pull on the water and makes the tides really high.
Thursday: The Geminid meteor shower peaks late tonight and early tomorrow morning. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Gemini the twins. This point is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain near the bright star Castor, the right hand star of the “twin” stars Pollux and Castor. This shower is typically one of the best ones of the year producing bright, medium speed meteors with up to 80 meteors per hour near the peak. This year, the moon will be new during the peak night ensuring dark skies.
Most meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the orbital trail of a comet. The broken off comet fragments collide with the earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Astronomers had searched for a comet source for this shower since 1862 when the shower was first observed. Finally, in 1983, astronomers discovered the object that created the fragments that cause the meteor shower. To their surprise, it was a dark, rock that looked like an asteroid, not a shiny icy comet. Astronomers named this object Asteroid 3200 Phaethon. But, they still don’t know if it an asteroid or if it is a comet with all of its ice sublimated away by many close passes by the Sun. For more information about 3200 Phaethon, go to http://goo.gl/LuwGW.
Friday: Mars is less than a fist to the left of the thin crescent moon, low in the southwest sky.
The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Saturday: “Hey baby! What’s your sign?”
“Ophiuchus, of course”
The Sun is in the same part of the sky as the stars of Ophiuchus from about November 29 to December 17. This is what astrologers mean when they say the Sun is “in” a constellation. Thus, if you were born between these dates, you should be an Ophiuchus. The fact that the horoscopes never list Ophiuchus is a major flaw of astrology. Astrology says that some of our characteristics are based on the location of the Sun at our birth. How can astrologers leave out three weeks from their system? That is like a scientist saying she can explain the results of her experiment every month of the year except early December. Ophiuchus was a mythical healer who was a forerunner to Hippocrates. According to myth, he could raise people from the dead. Maybe that is why he is ignored by astrology. Raising people from the dead is much less impressive than giving spot-on advice such as “Today is a good day to watch your finances.”
The bright stars of Ophiuchus rise just before the Sun. Rasalhague (pronounced Ras’-al-hay’-gwee), the brightest star, is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 6:30 a.m.
Sunday: Jupiter is about five fists above the east-southeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. The Hyades open star cluster is the arrowhead-shaped object just to the lower right of Jupiter.
Monday: Has the Mars Curiosity Rover found something exciting on the surface of Mars? At a conference in Europe last week, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Charles Elachi hinted that the rover might have found organic compounds on Mars. Scientists working on the Curiosity mission will present their latest finding at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco today. Go to http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/ for the latest news on the mission. By the way, this is how real science works: drop a hint to create a buzz in the community, share the results with peers at a conference, refine the theory based on peer feedback, get the work accepted in a science journal and then say “we think we found something major”. It’s not as exciting as a TV news conference. But it is much more likely to lead to solid scientific findings.
Tuesday: The southern claw is close to gripping Venus this morning. The star Zubenelgenubi, based on the Arabic words for “southern claw”, is only one degree, less than a pinky thickness, to the lower right of Venus. This star’s name is a good example of how the constellation shapes have changed over time. Zubenelgenubi is now part of Libra. But Libra and Scorpius the scorpion used to be one constellation with Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali (northern claw) making up the scorpion’s large appendages. Venus is a little more than a fist above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m. Mercury is about a half a fist to the lower left of Venus.
Wednesday: Is that favorite astronomy-loving relative of yours asking for a telescope this Christmas? Well, she’s your favorite so get her what she wants with cost being no object. But if that so-so relative of yours would like a telescope, look no further than this Sky and Telescope article about low cost telescopes http://goo.gl/40zd6. The authors review and recommend three telescopes for under $100 at the time of publication. If your hated acquaintance wants an astronomy gift, show them a copy this column. After such a dud “gift”, you’ll never hear from them again. And that may be the best gift of all.
Thursday: Saturn actually starts the line-up of planets in the morning sky. It is nearly two fists above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m. The much brighter Venus is to Saturn’s lower left.
Friday: The earliest sunset of the year occurs today and throughout the next week, 4:13 p.m. This seems odd because the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, isn’t for about two more weeks. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the Sun rise and set time depends on more than its apparent vertical motion. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma. But, it is on the leading edge of the analemma, the first section to go below the horizon.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Saturday: This week brings a special treat to the morning sky. Two of the most interesting planets to look at with binoculars or a small telescope dance past each other in the sky. At 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, they are about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon. Saturn is about a thumb-width to the lower left of the much brighter Venus. With binoculars, you should be able to find Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, about eight Saturn-diameters to the lower left of Saturn.
Sunday: Most constellations don’t look like the object their name refers to. Most constellations don’t have such a simple to object to emulate as Triangulum. As you probably guessed, Triangulum is shaped like a princess. Wait…. Just a second…. I read my book wrong. Triangulum is shaped like a thin isosceles triangle. Mothallah is the only named star in the constellation. In Latin this star is called Caput Trianguli, the head of the triangle. Triangulum is seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 9 p.m. It is pointing down and to the right with Mothallah being the southernmost star at this time of night. The Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with binoculars about a half a fist to the right of Mothallah.
Monday: Venus and Saturn are about as close together as they are going to get in the morning sky at 6 a.m. They would both fit into the field of view of a small backyard telescope at less than a degree apart. While you are looking through your binoculars or small telescope, look at Saturn’s rings. They look so delicate. But they may have formed by violently shredding the outer envelop of an ancient moon before it collided with Saturn. For more information about Saturn’s rings, go to http://goo.gl/tjcSN.
Tuesday: Have you been shopping all weekend? Do you need an evening sky break? You deserve a big reward so make it a double. A Double Cluster, that is. The Double Cluster, also known as h and Chi Persei, consists of two young open star clusters in the constellation Perseus. Of course, young is a relative term as these clusters are about 13 million years old. Each cluster is spread out over an area about the same size as the full moon. To the naked eye, the Double Cluster shines with a steady, fuzzy glow. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars in the clusters. The Double Cluster is six and a half fists above the northeast horizon at 7 p.m., about a fist below the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia.
Wednesday: Well, it is late November. It is time to set the beaver traps before the swamps freeze so you have a supply of warm winter furs. You must be getting ready to do that because the November full moon is known as the full beaver moon. Or maybe you shop for winter coats at a fine Ellensburg business (shop local). If that is the case, you may think the name full beaver moon came about because the beavers, themselves, are preparing for winter. Setting their human traps for… I guess I shouldn’t continue that thought.
Thursday: Jupiter and the moon trek through the sky together tonight. They rise at about 4:30 p.m., just as the Sun sets. Look for them in the east-northeast sky. If you want an observing challenge, see if you can spot the bright star Aldebaran before 5 p.m. It is to the lower right of the moon. In fact, observing the relative positions of Jupiter, the moon, and Aldebaran throughout the night will show you how the different objects appear to move with respect to each other. Because Aldebaran is so far away, its observable motion is completely due to the Earth’s rotation. Jupiter, as one of the outer planets, moves slightly with respect to the background stars from night to night. If you carefully measured the distance between Jupiter and Aldebaran in the sky each night, you’d notice a change. The moon, being our nearest neighbor and being in orbit around us, moves noticeable with respect to the background stars throughout the night. By 9 p.m., the moon and Jupiter are twice as far apart from each other as they were at 5 p.m.
Friday: Do you like to look in a nursery and say “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”? Not me. I say, “It’s a star”. Of course, I like looking into a stellar nursery – a star forming region such as the Orion Nebula in the middle of Orion’s sword holder. The Orion Nebula looks like a fuzzy patch to the naked eye. Binoculars reveal a nebula, or region of gas and dust, that is 30 light years across. The center of the nebula contains four hot “baby” stars called the Trapezium. These hot stars emit the ultraviolet radiation that causes the Nebula’s gas to glow. The Orion Nebula is three fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Saturday: Are you disappointed because you are not going anywhere for Thanksgiving? Why not take a (virtual) trip to outer space using Google’s new visualization tool called 100,000 Stars. It shows the stars in our neighborhood in a very good simulation of 3-D. The Sun is initially at the center. If you zoom in, you can click on neighboring stars and learn more about them. For more information and a link to the tool, go to http://goo.gl/hg6Oc.
Sunday: You know winter is coming when Orion is visible in the evening sky. It is about a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon at 9 p.m.
Monday: When you think of space, the first image that comes to mind is a few large, massive bodies surrounded by a lot of empty space. After all, it is called “outer space”, not “outer stuff”. But that so-called empty space is filled with powerful radiation and high-speed sub-microscopic particles. Much of this is dangerous to life. However, many planets, including Earth, have a shield against radiation and particles called a magnetic field. Jupiter’s magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets. Find Jupiter three fists above the east horizon at 8 p.m. For more information about magnetic fields, go to http://goo.gl/OYShj.
Tuesday: The first quarter moon is in the constellation Capricornus the sea goat. It is three and a half fists above the south horizon at 6 p.m. You may be having trouble finding Capricornus because it is the second dimmest constellation in the Zodiac.
Wednesday: Are you thankful that you live in a solar system with multiple planets? You should be. A giant planet like Jupiter cleans up planetary debris that could have collided with Earth and hindered the formation of complex life. Any inhabitants of the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae are thankful for this, as well. Upsilon Andromedae, a star in the constellation Andromeda, was the first Sun-like star discovered to have multiple planets orbiting it. So far, all of its planets are giant planets like Jupiter. But, the system is likely to also contain smaller planets. The dim star, but certainly not its planets, is barely visible straight overhead at 9 p.m.
Thursday: Some of us have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. But, probably not as much as Andromeda had to be thankful for. 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. Her mother Queen Cassiopeia and her father King Cepheus didn’t know what to do. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came Andromeda’s boyfriend, the great warrior Perseus. 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 monster’s neck and killed it. This was the first time in recorded history that a set of parents actually welcomed an uninvited Thanksgiving visit from the boyfriend. Perseus is about five fists above the east-northeast horizon and Andromeda is about seven fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m.
Friday: Venus is a little more than one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 6 a.m. Saturn is to the lower left of Venus, about a fist above the horizon.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Saturday: The Nature of Night event takes place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Black Hall on the CWU campus. There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more. Have you ever wanted to meat an owl? You can at this event. The event is free. Go to http://goo.gl/J6vzt for more information. Wait, don’t go to a computer. Go directly to Black Hall, G-12 on the map found at http://www.cwu.edu/newmap.html. The Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education at CWU and various community sponsors work together to put on this event.
Sunday: We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. And a happy Friday. Martinmas is a holiday in many parts of the world commemorating Saint Martin of Tours. He was buried on November 11, 397. What does this have to astronomy? Not much except that the celebration on November 11 often doubles as a cross-quarter day celebration, a day that is halfway between an equinox and a solstice.
Monday: As one planet sets at 6 p.m., another rises. Mars is less than a half a fist above the southwest horizon while Jupiter is less than a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon. By 9 p.m., Jupiter is more than three fists above the east horizon.
Tuesday: In 1981, the well-known astronomy rock group Blondie released The Tide is High in two versions: the radio version and the astronomy version. In the astronomy version, Debbie Harry sang: “The tide is high ‘cause the moon is new. Higher still when the moon’s close, too.” Tonight's moon is new. The new moon is the phase where the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun. That means the moon and Sun are both stretching the Earth in the same direction causing the ocean water in line with the Sun and moon to be pulled upward. In addition, the moon is at perigee early tomorrow morning. Peri- means close and –gee refers to the Earth so this is the day of the month when the moon is closest to the Earth. This accentuates the upward pull on the water and makes the tides really high. Blondie hoped to release a third version titled “The Tide is Really High”. But, the record label finally said, “Enough is enough.”
Wednesday: Imagine Opie and Andy Taylor walking down the dirt path at night to that fishing hole in the sky. They’d probably be looking to catch Pisces, the two fish already conveniently tied together with two ropes. The ropes are connected at the star Alrescha, Arabic for “the cord”. Alrescha is four and a half fists above due south at 10:30 p.m. The fish are attached to lines of stars that branch out at one o’clock and three o’clock from Alrescha. By the way, “The Fishing Hole”, The Andy Griffith Show’s theme song, was rated the 20th best TV theme song of all time by ign.com. That’s too low of a rating in my opinion.
Thursday: At 6 a.m., the very bright planet Venus is one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon and the mush dimmer planet Saturn is a fist to the lower left of it.
Friday: The Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. These meteors appear to come from a point in Leo the lion. This point is about one fist above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night and into the morning as it will remain about one fist above the bright star Regulus. If the weather cooperates, this could be a great night to see a lot of meteors because the moon sets before midnight. That means the meteors will be moving through a very dark sky. The Leonid meteors are particles from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, a comet discovered by Ernst Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle around January 1, 1866. Go to http://goo.gl/OPP6D to see a picture of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. Even if there are only a dozen meteors visible per hour, you’ll want to enjoy it.
Friday, November 2, 2012
Saturday: Don’t forget to “fall back” tonight. Before you fall back on to your bed, set your clock back one hour to the real time. Daylight savings ends early Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This means one more hour of sky watching at night because the Sun will set one hour earlier. Ben Franklin proposed the idea of “saving daylight” by adjusting our clocks way back in 1784. Daylight savings time was first utilized during World War I as a way to save electricity. After the war, it was abandoned. It was reintroduced during World War II on a year-round basis. From 1945 to 1966, some areas implemented daylight savings and some did not. But, it was not implemented with any uniformity as to when it should start and stop. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 codified the daylight savings rules.
Sunday: Lacerta, the faint lizard constellation, is straight overhead at 9 p.m. It was named by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687 to fill the space between the much brighter and well-defined constellations Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus going clockwise from the constellation just south of Lacerta. Chinese know this group of stars as a flying serpent or dragon.
Monday: The South Taurid meteor shower is past its peak and the North Taurid meteor shower has not quite reached its peak. However, together, these two showers will produce a few meteors per hour. It is not worth your while to stay up all night for this. But if you are outside anyway, look up. Oops, not while you are crossing the street. You can follow these showers throughout the night, as they will remain near the bright planet Jupiter. Jupiter is four fists above the east horizon at 10 p.m. and six and a half fists above the south horizon at 2 a.m.
Tuesday: Did you look up Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak based on last week’s Halloween costume suggestion? Jill Tarter is an American astronomer and the director of the Center for SETI Research. The character played by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact was based on Dr. Tarter. Seth Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. One of the stars they may have studied is Pollux, the brightest star in the constellation Gemini. Pollux is the brightest star visible at night that is known to have a planet orbiting it. It is two fists above the east-northeast horizon at 11 p.m., a half a fist below its “twin star” Castor.
Wednesday: While Stonehenge is an ancient burial ground visited by religious people for thousands of years, MIThenge is an 825-foot long hallway on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited by the Sun’s rays twice a year. Every year in November and January, the setting Sun lines up with a narrow window at the end of the long hall and the light shines down to the opposite end. This season’s alignment is from November 10-13. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/NGbOj of visit MIT.
Thursday: Venus is two fists above the southeast horizon at 6 a.m.
Friday: When Napoleon Dynamite danced to the Alphaville song, “Forever Young” at his prom, he didn’t know he might have been learning about the giant asteroid Vesta. According to the latest pictures from the Dawn spacecraft, Vesta is continually stirring up its outermost layer bringing fresh material to the surface. This makes Vesta look “forever young, Vesta wants to be forever young. Vesta wants to live forever, forever, and ever.” Go to http://www.universetoday.com/98284/vesta-looks-forever-young/ for more information. Vesta is visible with binoculars, about midway between Jupiter and Betelgeuse, three fists above the east horizon at 10 p.m.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Saturday: Dead October flowers lead to November meteor showers. While the Leonid meteor shower is the big name, the few bright and surprisingly colorful fireballs per hour you can see during the typical Southern and Northern Taurids meteor showers may make it worth your while to say up. This shower reaches a maximum over the next few nights with a peak on the early mornings of November 5th and 12th. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull. This point is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist to the right of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.
Sunday: At 6 p.m., Mercury is less than a half a fist above the southwest horizon and Mars is one fist above and a little bit south of the southwest horizon.
Monday: The harvest is over. Animals that have filled themselves up with the excess bounty are wondering around through forests that have lost their leaves. It is a hunter’s paradise. The only thing missing is nighttime lighting. Enter the hunter’s moon. Tonight’s full moon, called the hunter’s moon, is in the constellation Aries the ram.
Tuesday: Late October to-do list. Buy costume. Check. Watch Orion rise in the east-southeast sky just before midnight. Check. Take kids to Boo Central. Double check. Once again, CWU clubs and organizations will turn the SURC Ballroom into a monstrously fun, safe, and educational place to trick or treat. In fact, it will be “science or treat” for kids who visit the CWU astronomy and physics club booths. Boo Central runs from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. in the SURC Ballroom on the CWU campus. Contact Campus Activities at 963-1691 for more information.
Wednesday: Halloween. The pumpkins. The candy. The children going door-to-door dressed up as their favorite astronomers Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak. At least they should because Halloween is, in part, an astronomical holiday. Halloween is a “cross-quarter date”, a day approximately midway between an equinox and a solstice. Historically, the Celts of the British Isles used cross-quarter dates as the beginnings of seasons. For the Celts, winter began with Halloween. So when all those little Tarters and Shostaks come to your door tomorrow night, honor the Celts and give them a wintry treat. If they ask you for a trick, point out Venus, a half a fist above the southwest horizon.
Thursday: Happy Celtic New Year! Many historians think that this day, known for the festival of Samhain, was the ancient Celtic New Year’s Day. Samhain, Old Irish for “summer’s end”, was a harvest festival that may have contributed to some of the customs of our current “holiday” of Halloween.
Friday: Venus is two fists above the east-southeast horizon and Jupiter is three and a half fists above the west horizon at 7 a.m.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Saturday: The Orionid meteor shower consists of the Earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail. This shower peaks for the next two nights and early mornings. This is not a meteor shower that results in a meteor storm. There will be about 15-20 meteors per hour, many more meteors than are visible on a typical night. The first quarter moon sets at about midnight so it will not be out during most of the prime late night and early morning viewing hours. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about three fists above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. If you fall asleep tonight, you can catch the tail end of the shower every night until early November.
Sunday: Mars is a half a fist above due southwest at 7 p.m. If you look very carefully, you should be able to see the bright star Antares right below it. This gives you a great opportunity to see Mars and the anti-Mars. Antares is Ancient Greek for “anti-Mars”.
Monday: “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” Constellations can be considered neighborhoods in the nighttime sky. But, the stars in those constellations are not necessarily neighbors in real life. For example, the bright stars in the constellation Cassiopeia range from 19 to over 10,000 light years away from Earth. One constellation that consists of real neighbors is Ursa Major. Or, more specifically, the Big Dipper. Five stars in the Big Dipper are all moving in the same direction in space, are about the same age and are all about 80 light years from Earth. “Please won’t you be my neighbor?” Skat, the third brightest star in the constellation Aquarius is a neighbor to these five Big Dipper stars, all of which are about 30 light years from each other. They are thought to have originated in the same nebula about 500 million years ago. Just like human children do, these child stars are slowly moving away from home. Skat is about three fists above due south at 10 p.m. The much brighter Fomalhaut is a fist and a half below Skat. And, it’s not fun being below Skat.
Tuesday: Jupiter is nearly two fists above the east-northeast horizon at 10 p.m.
Wednesday: The Stargate movies and TV shows have access to a portal to other planets. Harry Potter has access to a portal to the Chamber of Secrets. You have access to a Portal to the Universe. This portal is not in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom but on the web at http://www.portaltotheuniverse.org/. It is a repository of up-to-date astronomy news, blogs, and podcasts. A recent story highlights the discovery of a planet that orbits two stars that, in turn, is orbited by another pair of stars. And if a planet in a 4-star system isn’t amazing enough, this planet was discovered by professional scientists and citizen scientists working together to review data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. That’s right. Non-professionals like you and I can comb through data at http://www.planethunters.org/ and possibly help discover a new planet… orbiting two stars… that are orbited by two additional stars… that give away free ice cream every weekend. Okay, I was joking about that last part.
Thursday: Halloween is next week so make sure you load up on peanut clusters, almond clusters, and open star clusters. That last one will be easy (and cheap, actually free) because two of the most prominent open star clusters in the sky are easily visible in the autumn sky. The sideways V-shaped Hyades Cluster is two fists above due east at 10 p.m. Containing over 300 stars; the Hyades cluster is about 150 light years away and 625 million years old. The Pleiades Cluster, a little more than three fists above due east, is larger at over 1000 stars and younger. Compared to our 5 billion year old Sun, the 100 million year age of the Pleiades is infant-like.
Friday: Hit the road Mercury. And don’t you come back no more, no more. For a few weeks, Mercury has been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the sky. Today, Mercury is as far away from the Sun as it will get on the evening half of this cycle. This is known as its greatest eastern elongation. Yet, this distance does not translate into good viewing because Mercury will be very low in the sky. Mercury is less than a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 6:00 p.m. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. After it passes in front of the Sun, it will appear in the morning sky by late November.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Saturday: The Ellensburg weather is cooling down. But the space weather is remaining hot. More specifically, the Sun is moving toward a sunspot maximum which means an increase in solar storms. Keep your eye on the space weather by going to http://www.spaceweather.com.
Sunday: Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a dolphin. A dolphin? The constellation Delphinus the dolphin is nearly six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 8:30 p.m. The constellation’s two brightest stars are called Sualocin and Rotanev, which is Nicolaus Venator spelled backwards. Venator worked at the Palermo Observatory in Italy in the mid nineteenth century. He slipped these names into Giuseppe Piazzi’s star catalog without him noticing. The Daily Record (shop Ellensburg) would never let anything like that get into their newspaper. Their editing (shop Ellensburg) staff is too good. Nothing (pohs grubsnellE) evades their gaze.
Monday: The Milky Way makes a faint white trail from due northeast through straight overhead to due southwest at 9 p.m. Starting in the northeast, the Milky Way “passes through” the prominent constellations Auriga the charioteer, Cassiopeia the queen, and Cygnus the swan with its brightest star, Deneb, nearly straight overhead. After Cygnus, you’ll see Aquila the eagle with its brightest star Altair about four and a half fists above the southwest horizon. As you started your visual journey, you may have noticed Jupiter rising above the east-northeast horizon.
Tuesday: The elusive Mercury is less than a half a fist above the west-southwest horizon at 6:15, right after sunset. Normally that orientation would present a big challenge. But this evening, Mercury is less than a pinky width to the left of the moon.
Wednesday: Mars is a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m. Its “rival”, the bright star Antares, is less than a half a fist to the lower left of Mars. Both are about a fist to the left of the thin crescent moon. It was big news in August when the newest Mars rover landed on the red planet to look for signs of water. But sometimes Mars sends clues are way free of charge. A meteorite that fell in Morocco last year may contain evidence that the Martian surface was once altered by water, acidic water that is unlike most water on Earth. Go to http://goo.gl/amO4F for more information.
Thursday: What time is tea time? Certainly not during an autumn evening. The constellation Sagittarius the archer, with its signature teapot shape, is sinking into the south-southwest horizon by 8 p.m. The handle is on top and the spout is touching the horizon ready to pour that last cup of tea.
Friday: The Orionid meteor shower consists of the Earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail. This shower peaks for the next two nights and early mornings. This is not a meteor shower that results in a meteor storm. There will be about 15-20 meteors per hour, many more meteors than are visible on a typical night. The first quarter moon sets at about midnight so it will not be out during most of the prime late night and early morning viewing hours. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about three fists above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. If you fall asleep tonight, you can catch the tail end of the shower every night until early November.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Saturday: Tire track forensic analysis comes to Mars? It’s not needed yet but the possibility now exists. Mars Curiosity rover took a photo of its own wheel track in a small sandy ridge. Go to http://goo.gl/VwyQh for a photo of the rover’s wheel track and Buzz Aldrin’s boot print. Mars is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m.
Sunday: The Draconid meteor shower peaks tonight. The meteors appear to come from a point in the head of Draco, the dragon constellation. This point is about five fists above the northwest horizon at 10 p.m. tonight. This point remains near the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco throughout the night. Typically, this is a minor shower. However, Draconid meteors are slow moving which means you will have a easy time differentiating true Draconid meteors, from Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, from stray grains of dust that happen to enter the Earth’s atmosphere near where we see the constellation Draco. Tonight and tomorrow night’s nearly last quarter moon will rise after the late evening peak of the shower so viewing should be favorable. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment.
Monday: While you are looking for Draconid meteors for a second night, start thinking about the Orionid meteor shower. The Orionid meteor shower, which consists of the earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail, peaks on the morning of October 21 but produces meteors from now until early November. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about three fists above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second.
Tuesday: The bright star Arcturus is a fist and a half above the west horizon at 8 p.m.
Wednesday: Since Halloween is coming up, the stores are filled with bags of candy clusters. Instead, take time to look at a star cluster. The Hyades cluster is an open star cluster that represents the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull. It is one of the biggest and nearest star clusters with about 200 stars 150 light years away. The Hyades cluster was the first cluster to be the subject of detailed motion studies. These studies allowed astronomers to pinpoint the distance to the Hyades and provide important information about the scale of the universe. Aldebaran, nearly two fists above due east horizon at 11 p.m., is a foreground star and not a part of the Hyades cluster. This cluster should be easy to find for the next few weeks because it will be less than a fist to the right of the bright planet Jupiter.
Thursday: Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is nearly two and a half fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.
Friday: Venus is about a half a fist to the upper left of a thin waxing crescent moon at 6 a.m.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Saturday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation. This morning’s other Moon is…. Wait a minute. The Earth has only one Moon. True. And it has always had only one Moon. Not necessarily true. According to the best existing model, about four billion years ago, a Mars-sized object collided with the young Earth. The resulting debris coalesced to form the Moon. However, this model left a mystery: why is the Moon so asymmetric? Hardened-lava lowlands dominate the near side while the far side is dominated by mountainous highlands. According to a recent revision of the prevailing model, the early collision formed a large Moon and a small Moon. Over the years, the small Moon caught up to and collided with the large Moon. The highlands are the material from the collided small Moon. For more information about this theory, go to http://goo.gl/6JlcA.
Sunday: Mnemonics are helpful for remembering astronomy facts. (Similarly, “Johnny Mnemonic”, the 1995 cyberpunk film, was helpful in getting Keanu Reeves’ career going.) After all, school children all around the country are learning the order of the planets by remembering, “My very excellent mother just served us nine….” Oops, I guess that one needs updating. Well, here’s one that will not need updating for nearly 100,000 years: the order of the stars in the Big Dipper. Because the nighttime stars are so far away from us, their actual motion through the sky, called their “proper motion” is not noticeable over even thousands of years. That is why the constellations have remained the same since ancient times. But two stars in the Big Dipper have a proper motion large enough such than in 100,000 years, the stars will no longer make a dipper shape. Until then, you can remember the names of the seven dipper stars in order from handle to cup by remembering this helpful advice for teens: “AM, ask mom. PM, dad”. The stars are Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phad, Merek, and Duhbe. The Big Dipper is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the north horizon at 11 p.m.
Monday: Scandalous! The goddess of love will be cozying up to the little king. Venus will be about a pinky-width or less from the bright star Regulus, whose name mean “little king” in Latin. At 6:30 this morning, Regulus will be just to the lower left of Venus, three fists above the east horizon. Because Venus is so close to the Earth, it moves an easily noticeable amount in the sky each day. Compare its position to that of Regulus for the next few days.
Tuesday: The smoke is starting to clear so we can see objects in the sky better than we could a few weeks ago. Luckily the Big Bear Solar Observatory in California doesn’t have this problem. Astronomers have improved the optics of the telescope so much that it is able to resolve features on the surface of the Sun that are just a few miles across. Remember, never look at the Sun without proper eye protection. Instead, go to http://goo.gl/XIBh6 for images of the Sun and more information about the telescope.
Wednesday: Mars is less than a fist above the southeast horizon at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday: At 10:30 p.m., Jupiter is about one fist above the east-northeast horizon.
Friday: The constellation Orion is four fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m. The Orion is a cloud of gas and dust visible with binoculars about a half a fist below the “belt” of three stars. If you are feeling especially attracted to the nebula, that might be because astronomers think there may be a black hole in the middle. They have not directly observed the back hole, which would be the closest known one to Earth at a distance of 1,300 light years. But the motion of stars in the region is consistent with them being near a black hole 100 times the mass of the Sun. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/AGjFf.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Saturday: At precisely 7:47 a.m., the center of the Sun crosses the celestial equator and passes into the southern sky. The celestial equator is an imaginary line that divides the sky into a northern and southern half. When the Sun is in the southern half of the sky, it appears to take a shorter path from rising to setting. It also does not get as high in the sky at noon. This leads to shorter days and longer nights. Since the Sun crosses the celestial equator today, there is an instant when it is equally in the northern and southern sky, called the north and south celestial hemispheres. This so-called “equal night” is given by the Latin word equinox. Thus, today is known as the Autumnal Equinox. However, the day and night are not of equal duration today. The sun rises at 6:50 a.m. and sets at 6:58 p.m. Day and night are closest to equal duration on Tuesday.
Sunday: “You know Aries and Cancer and Draco and Libra. Leo and Pisces and Virgo and Hydra. But, do you recall, the pointiest asterism of all? Triangulum, the three sided asterism, had a very pointy edge….” Sorry. Some stores have started putting up their Christmas decorations and that has put me in the mood to modify some Christmas songs. Anyway, Triangulum is a small constellation between the more prominent Andromeda and Aries. Its main feature is a skinny triangle oriented parallel to and nearly four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 10 p.m.
Monday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By 6 a.m., it is more than six fists above due south. Venus, the brightest point of light in the sky, is nearly three fists above the east horizon at 6 a.m.
Tuesday: Did you time the exact length of the day and night on Saturday, the first day of autumn? They were not equal in duration. Many people think that the day and night are the same duration on the autumnal equinox. The day is a little longer than the night for two reasons. First, the Sun is an extended object so even when the middle part has set, the upper half is still above the horizon lighting the sky. The second, and more influential reason is that the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is really still below the horizon. Day and night are closest in duration today.
Wednesday: It has been dry in Ellensburg. But for a few days each month, the moon often spends time in the watery part of the sky. Tonight is one of those nights. At 10 p.m., Capricornus, the sea goat is one to two fists to the lower right of the moon. Aquarius, the water bearer, is just above and to the right of the moon. Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish, is three fists below the moon. This constellation features the bright star Fomalhaut.
Thursday: The bright bluish star Vega is nearly straight overhead at 8 p.m.
Friday: The cloudy season is coming to Ellensburg. Don’t feel bad. According to astronomers from the European Southern Observatory, it is always cloudy season on HD 85512b, a newly discovered planet orbiting the star called… wait for it… wait for it… called HD 85512. These astronomers developed a method to estimate the cloud cover on planets orbiting distant stars. They think HD 85512b may be cloudy enough to have liquid water on its surface even though it is fairly close to its host star. While the presence of surface water does not guarantee finding life, it is a critical component. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/bGxMD.