Wednesday, November 28, 2012

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

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 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 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.

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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

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

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.

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/17/12

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

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

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.

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/10/12

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 for more information. Wait, don’t go to a computer. Go directly to Black Hall, G-12 on the map found at 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 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 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.

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 11/3/12

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 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 for more information. Vesta is visible with binoculars, about midway between Jupiter and Betelgeuse, three fists 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.