Friday, July 13, 2012

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 7/14/12

Saturday: Being in a coma is a bad thing. Looking at the Coma Star Cluster is a good thing. The Coma Star Cluster is an open cluster of about 50 stars that takes up more space in the sky than 10 full Moons. It looks like a fuzzy patch with the naked eye. Binoculars reveal dozens of sparkling stars. A telescope actually diminishes from the spectacle because the cluster is so big and the telescope’s field of view is so small. The Coma Star Cluster is in the faint constellation Coma Berenices (ba-ron-ice’-ez) or Queen Berenice’s hair. Queen Berenice of Egypt cut off her beautiful hair as a sacrifice to the gods for the safe return of her husband Ptolemy III from battle. The Coma Star Cluster is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 11:00 p.m.

Sunday: This morning at 4:30, the waning crescent moon will be in between Jupiter and Venus, one and a half to two fists above the east horizon. Throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, the Moon will actually line up with Jupiter, blocking it from viewers in those locations. This is called an occultation.

Monday: The long summer days remind us to take some time to safely observe the Sun. The best way to do that is to go to and watch the great images and videos that come from the Solar Dynamics Observer, or SDO for short. We are approaching a sunspot maximum scheduled to peak 2013. So what, you say? Sunspots and associated phenomena greatly influence the strength of solar flares. The strongest flares can affect satellites orbiting the Earth and even electronics on the Earth’s surface.

Tuesday: Say "Cheese". 162 years ago today, Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, became the first star ever photographed. The photograph was done at the Harvard Observatory using the daguerreotype process. Vega is the third brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg, behind Sirius and Arcturus. Vega is nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight.

Wednesday: Spica, Saturn, and Mars make a skinny almost-right triangle low in the southwest sky at 10 p.m. Saturn is two fists above the southwest horizon. Spica, at the right angle of the triangle, is about a half a fist below it. Mars is about a fist and a half to the right of Spica.

Thursday: Pluto is not taking its “demotion” to dwarf planet lying down. Instead, it is proving to still be an interesting object to study by moving up on the list of solar system objects with moons.  Last week, astronomers announced the discovery of a fifth moon orbiting Pluto. This moon, with a diameter of about 10 miles, orbits in the same plane as Pluto’s other four moons. This indicates that a large object collided with the dwarf planet a long time ago, forming a collection of debris that didn’t have enough energy to leave the gravitational pull of Pluto. For more information about this discovery, go to

Friday: Take a two and a half hour walk. Too long, you say? Forty-three years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first ever walk by humans on another world. They spend two and a half hours setting up scientific instruments and collecting rocks for study back on Earth. Michael Collins orbited the Moon in the spacecraft the three astronauts would use to return to Earth.

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

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