Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Ellensburg Sky for the week of 1/28/12

Saturday: Winter is the best season for finding bright stars. And if you only want to set aside a few minutes, 10 p.m. tonight just might be the best time because the winter hexagon is due south. Starting at the bottom, find Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon. Going clockwise, Procyon (6th brightest star visible from Washington state) is about two and a half fists to the upper left of Sirius. Pollux (12th brightest) is about two and a half fists above Procyon. Capella (4th brightest) is about two and a half fists to the upper right of Procyon and close to straight overhead. Going back to Sirius at the bottom, Rigel (5th brightest) about two and a half fists to the upper right of Sirius. Aldebaran (9th brightest) is about three fists above Rigel. Betelgeuse (7th brightest) is in the center of the hexagon. Adhara (16th brightest) is a little more than a fist below Sirius and Castor (17th brightest) is right above Pollux. That’s nine of the 17 brightest stars visible in the northern United States in one part of the sky.

Sunday: Jupiter is a fist to the left of the Moon, five fists above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m.

Monday: The good news is the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter. The better news is the farther north you go in the United States, the longer the days get. Here in Ellensburg, there is one more hour of daylight than on the first day of winter. In the southern part of the US, there are only 30 more minutes of sunlight. Of course, on the North Pole, the day length goes from zero hours to 24 hours.

Tuesday: Two year ago, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spotted its first of many never-before-seen near Earth asteroids. While there is no danger of this asteroid hitting Earth in the foreseeable future, the United States’ government is worried about the threat of a rogue asteroid hitting Earth. So much so that Congress mandated that by 2020, NASA must find 90% of all potential Earth-impacting asteroids down to 140 meters across. I may write a book about this search called “Going Rogue – An Asteroid Life”. Here is an excerpt.
I’d rather “stand with our North Korean allies” than be in the path of even a small asteroid streaking towards Earth. Would it be dangerous? You betcha! The asteroid that created the mile-wide impact crater in Arizona was only 25 meters in diameter and packed a wallop about 150 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I say “Thanks but no thanks” to that kind of risk, even if this size impact occurs only once every few hundred years.

Wednesday: Venus is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

Thursday: Today is Groundhog Day. If Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow this morning, he is telling us that he follows the Chinese calendar and that spring starts early. On the Chinese calendar, equinoxes and solstices occur in the middle of their respective seasons. In order for the vernal equinox to occur in the middle of spring, spring must start on February 3 or 4, depending on the year. Thus, if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, legend is that spring will start on February 3 or 4 as on the Chinese calendar. If Phil sees his shadow, he is telling us he agrees with the western calendar and that there will be six more weeks of winter meaning spring will start near March 20.

Friday: Mars is one fist above the east horizon at 10 p.m.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Ellensburg Sky for the week of 1/21/12

Saturday: Draco Malfoy makes an appearance in all seven books of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps you’ve heard of these. But, the constellation Draco the dragon makes an appearance in the sky every night. It is a circumpolar constellation as viewed from Ellensburg meaning it never goes below the horizon. The head of the dragon is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due north at 9 p.m. Eltanin, the brightest star in the constellation, is at one corner of the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco.

Sunday: 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.

Monday: Jupiter is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: How many of you live a sedentary lifestyle? Well, get off the couch, go outside and look at the sky. Mars, which is one fist above the east horizon at 10 p.m., should remind you of the sedentary lifestyle tonight because it is stationary. Being stationary does not mean hovering in the sky all night in the exact same location like that spaceship your weird uncle supposedly saw. A stationary planet still rises and sets with the other objects in the sky because this motion is due to the Earth’s rotation. Outer planets such as Mars typically move slightly westward each night with respect to the background stars. As they are in the process of being passed up by Earth, they appear to slow down and stop their westward motion for a night. Tonight is that night. For an effective demonstration of this, go to

Wednesday: Venus is about a fist to the left of the newly crescent Moon low in the western sky at 6 p.m.

Thursday: Are you interested in participating in astronomy research? You don’t need to go back to school. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars getting a fake degree from an online university. The scientists working on the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would like your input on which objects they should target for close-up pictures. While you may think the scientists are just trying to build interest in their project by having people look at pretty pictures, there is a real scientific benefit to having many eyes searching for interesting targets. There aren’t enough scientists to carefully inspect all of the low power images. And, surprisingly, computers are not nearly as effective as people in making educated judgments of images. So, go to and click on the HiWish button. You’ll be on your way to suggesting close-up targets for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Friday: What is the number one threat to the peaceful use of space? Missiles from rogue nations? Nope. Aliens? You wish they’d take you away after seeing the preview of Men in Black 3. It is space junk. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk orbit the earth, most of it in the main human-made satellite region. The US Department of Defense is tracking over 21,000 objects greater than four inches across to assess the danger they pose. Go to to find out what large pieces of that space junk is visible any night. You may select your location from a map, from a list, or enter it manually. The bright object three and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 6:30 a.m. is definitely not space junk. It is Saturn.

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Ellensburg Sky for the week of 1/14/12

Saturday: Who can forget that memorable song by Three Dog Constellations Night, “The sky is black. The stars are white. Together we learn to find the light.” Well, maybe it didn’t go like that. This is good because not all stars are white. Most stars are too dim to notice a color. But, the stars in the constellation Orion provide a noticeable contrast. Betelgeuse, five fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10:30 p.m. is a red giant. Rigel, the bright star about two fists to the lower right of Betelgeuse, is a blue giant.
By the way, the three dog constellations are Canis Major, the greater dog; Canis Minor, the lesser dog; and Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. Canis Major contains Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.

Sunday: The Weather Girls recorded “It’s Raining Men” in 1982. This weekend, The Phobos-Grunt Boys will be singing, “It’s raining probes, hallelujah. It’s raining probes. Should have gone to Mars. Launched. Burn, didn’t work. Russia’s good at clean and jerk.” Russia launched the unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe on November 9. It was supposed to make the 1.25 year trip to Mars’ moon Phobos, study the surroundings, collect soil samples, and bring them back to Earth. However, the final boost to push it from Earth’s gravitational pull failed and it got stuck in low earth orbit. It is expected to burn up in the atmosphere this weekend with any large pieces reaching Earth on Sunday.

Monday: This morning’s last quarter Moon is in the constellation Virgo, making a small triangle with the bright Spica to its upper right and Saturn to its upper left. The triangle is about three fists above the south horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Tuesday: How do you study the life cycle of a dog? Easy. Get a dog from the animal shelter, care for it for 15 years and study it. How do you study the life cycle of a star? Easy. Pick a star, watch it for a few billion years, and…. Wait a minute. Astronomers can’t observe something for a few billion years. Instead, they study stars that are at different points in their long life cycle and piece together the information from those different stars. What they do is like studying a one-year-old dog for a few minutes, then studying a different two-year-old dog for a few minutes, and so on. The sky in and near the constellation Orion provides an example of four objects at different points of star life.
First, find Rigel, the bright star in the lower right corner of the constellation Orion. This star, rapidly burning its fuel for a high energy but short lived existence, is three and a half fists above due south at 9:30 p.m. About one fist up and to the left are the three objects of Orion’s sword holder. The middle “star” is really a star forming region called the Orion nebula. There you’ll find baby Suns. Now, look about two fists to the right and a little below Rigel. You should be looking at a star that is about one tenth as bright as Rigel but still the brightest in its local region. The third star to the right of that star is Epsilon Eridani, the most Sun-like close and bright star. Betelgeuse, in the upper left corner of Orion, is a star at the end of its life that started out life a bit larger than the Sun.

Wednesday: Jupiter is five fists above the southwest horizon at 8 p.m.

Thursday: January is the coldest month of the year so it is time to turn up the furnace. Fornax the furnace one fist above due south at 7 p.m.

Friday: Venus is two fists above the southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/7/12

Saturday: One Family Affair explored the trials of well-to-do civil engineer and bachelor Bill Davis as he attempted to raise his brother's orphaned children in his luxury New York City apartment (as described on Wikipedia). Another family affair explores how a well-to-do Solar System raises its constituents from birth, through growth, change, and death. Just like Buffy and Jody started off full of energy, planets start out hot and molten. Cissy got wrinkles as she approached middle age; planets become cratered as they age. We watched the TV show “Family Affair” to learn about a nontraditional Manhattan family grew and changed. Astronomers study other planets to learn how the Solar System will evolve. For more information about this Solar System Family Affair, go to Mars, one of the most studied members of the Solar System family, is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: It’s cold. The snow is blowing in your face. Food is scarce. Packs of wild animals are wondering around howling. Does this describe your house after someone broke your window during your New Year’s party? It also describes wolf packs around Native American villages. That’s why many tribes call January’s full moon, which occurs tonight at 11:31, the Full Wolf Moon. It is also called the Moon after Yule.

Monday: The rapper Lil Bow Wow, now known by his adult name, Bow Wow, has a new album coming out soon. The sky has its own lil bow wow coming out every night this winter. Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, the lesser dog, is about three fists above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: You never see a giraffe on the ground in Ellensburg. But you can look for one every night in the sky. The constellation Camelopardalis the giraffe is circumpolar from Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees north meaning it is always above the horizon. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the appearance of the stars in Camelopardalis. The brightest star in the constellation appears only about half as bright as the dimmest star in the Big Dipper. However, the actual luminosities of the three brightest stars in Camelopardalis are very high, each at least 3,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Alpha Camelopardalis, a mind boggling 600,000 times more luminous than the Sun, is seven fists above due north at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: What you see with the naked eye isn’t all that can be seen. While astronomers can learn a lot from observing the sky in the visible wavelengths, many celestial objects radiate more light, and more information, in wavelengths such as radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. Last year, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to study objects that radiate in the infrared range such as asteroids, cool dim stars, and luminous galaxies. For an interesting comparison of how different wavelengths show different aspects of a galaxy, go to If it wasn’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies.

Thursday: The ringed planet Saturn and Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, are three fists above the south horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Friday: If Friday the 13th is supposed to be unlucky, then this is your unlucky year. There are three Fridays that fall on the 13th this year! And they occur 13 weeks apart! And the government is charging an extra $13 tax those Fridays! Okay, I made up that last one. But I’m not making up that Boötes the herdsman is the 13th largest constellation by area. Boötes is a kite-shaped constellation. Arcturus, at the bottom of the Boötes kite and the second brightest star visible from Washington, is six fists above the south horizon at 6:30 a.m.

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