Friday, August 17, 2012

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 8/18/12

Saturday: Sometimes you find a quarter on the ground. Maybe you find a dollar in the lining of your jacket. But how often do you find a galaxy in a well-known part of the sky? The Hubble Space Telescope discovered a face-on spiral galaxy in the Coma Cluster of galaxies about 320 million light years away. This galaxy, called NGC 4911, contains regions of gas and dust as well as glowing newborn star clusters. The Coma Star cluster is in the constellation Coma Berenices, found two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 9 p.m. For more information about this newly discovered galaxy, plus a zoomable image, go to

Sunday: Need a caffeine pick-me-up? Make it a double. Need an astronomy pick-me-up? Make it a double-double. Find Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight. Less than half a fist to the east (or left if you are facing south) of the bright bluish star Vega is the “star” Epsilon Lyra. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through binoculars, it looks like two stars. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through a large enough telescope, you will notice that each star in the pair is itself a pair of stars.  Each star in the double is double. Hence, Epsilon Lyra is known as the double-double. The stars in each pair orbit a point approximately in the center of each respective pair. The pairs themselves orbit a point between the two pairs.

Monday: Do you miss Olympic beach volleyball already? I know I do. (Oops, is my wife reading this?) In order to keep this fine sport on your mind until Rio 2016, the southern sky offers a giant bathing suit bottom to look at. The constellation Capricornus is two fists above the south-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Many ancient cultures called this set of stars a sea goat. But our celebrity obsessed culture notes the triangle-shaped constellation looks like the bottom section of a swimsuit. If People magazine named the constellations, this one might be called Kardashian Formal wear.

Tuesday: The moon, Spica, Mars, and Saturn can nearly fit into a wide-angle binocular field of view tonight when they form a crooked rectangle. Mars is the left corner of the rectangle, Saturn is at the top, and Spica is at the lower right.

Wednesday: The 5:30 a.m. sky is crowded with planets. Let’s start with the hardest to find first. Mercury is a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon. Venus, the brightest point of light in the sky, is three fists above due east. Jupiter is five fists above the east-southeast horizon.

Thursday: Have you ever gone to a family reunion, looked around and asked, “How in the world are we related to each other?”. Astronomers look around the Solar System and wonder the same thing. The Mars Science Laboratory landed on Mars at the beginning of August to investigate whether it ever had conditions favorable for life. The Cassini Mission continues to study the plume of complex organic chemicals streaming from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And many astronomers consider the methane haze in the atmosphere in Saturn’s moon Titan similar to that of the early Earth. To learn more about the search for life in the Solar System and beyond, go to

Friday: Antares, sometimes called the “heart of the scorpion” because it is a red star in the middle of Scorpius, is a half a fist below the moon at 9 p.m. They are low in the south-southwest sky.

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

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