Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/2/13

Saturday: 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.

Sunday: Saturn is about a half a fist to the upper right of the last quarter moon at 6 a.m. They are about three fists above due south.

Monday: “E.T. phone Kepler 20… if you are feeling cold”. This may be the new iconic line of dialog if there is a sequel the hit movie “E.T.”. About a year ago, scientists working on the Kepler planet-finding mission announced the discovery of two Earth-size planets orbiting a star other than our Sun. This star, dubbed Kepler-20, is a little smaller and cooler than the Sun. The planets are much closer to their star than Earth is to the Sun. Kepler 20e is around 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt glass. The planets orbiting Kepler 20 were discovered using the transit method where a planet passes between the Earth and its host star such that the host star’s light is dimmed a little bit. If this planet seems too inhospitable, just wait. Astronomers studying the Kepler missin data think that at least one star out of every six has Earth-size planets. Many of these planets will be at a more temperate location. Kepler-20 and numerous other stars being studied by Kepler is located about one fist above the northwest horizon at 7 p.m. It is much too dim to be seen with the naked eye but it is midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega in the sky. To learn more about the Kepler mission, go to

Tuesday: Antares is about a half a fist to the lower right of the moon at 6 a.m.

Wednesday: Winter is a good time to see the thick band of the Milky Way galaxy. It arches high in the high in the early evening starting in the southeast by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Climbing from Sirius through the "horns" of Taurus high overhead, it drops down toward M-shaped Cassiopeia in the north and the tail of Cygnus, the swan, in the northwest.

Thursday: Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, is two and a half fists above due south at 9:30 p.m.

Friday: Where is Bruce Willis when you need him? On February 15, an asteroid about half the size of a football field will pass about 17,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. This is above low earth orbiting objects such as the International Space Station but below the higher belt of weather and communication satellites. Luckily, there are no satellites orbiting 17,000 miles above the earth. For more information, go to

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/26/13

Saturday: 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 recent party? It also describes wolf packs around Native American villages. That’s why many tribes call January’s full moon, which occurs this evening, the Full Wolf Moon. It is also called the Moon after Yule. When the Moon is full, it is difficult to see dim objects in the sky because of the sky glow. But why struggle to find dim objects when there is so much to see on the big, bright object in front of you? The lunar crater called Tycho is best seen during a full Moon. Tycho was formed about 109 million years ago when an asteroid struck the Moon, leaving a crater over 50 miles in diameter and ejected dust trails that radiate out hundreds of miles in all directions. For more lunar highlights, go to, a resource of the Night Sky Network.

Sunday: 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.

Monday: Jupiter is about six fists above the south horizon at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Saturn is almost exactly three fists above almost exactly due south at 6 a.m. How close to three fists? Try 3.02 fists. How close to due south? Try 0.01 degrees! That one earned an exclamation point.

Thursday: Three years 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 patterned after Sarah Palin’s life 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.

Friday: Have you ever seen a bright light streaking through the sky and wondered if it was a meteor? Or, perhaps the mother ship coming to take you back home? Well, if you think it is a meteor, go to to see if others have reported seeing it. If you remember some details of your sighting, you may fill out a brief report online. Your report will help astronomers identify and possibly catalog celestial objects in Earth-crossing paths.

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

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/19/13

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: Saturn is three fists above the south horizon at 7 a.m.

Monday: Jupiter is about a finger thickness from the moon throughout the night. At 7 p.m., Jupiter is just above the moon, six fists above the southeast horizon. In parts of the South Pacific, the moon will occult Jupiter. In musical language, that can be describes as “Some enchanted evening, you may see a planet, you may see a moon, across a crowded sky.”

Tuesday: You think wintertime weather is bad in Ellensburg. Astronomers have discovered storms and earth-sized clouds on a brown dwarf. These are cool, small stars that are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen atoms and fuse hydrogen. In fact, they are more similar to gas giant planets such as Jupiter that to the Sun. In this context, the discovery of storms similar to the giant Red Spot on Jupiter makes sense. For more information, go to

Wednesday: Let’s review three important sets of three cats. There’s Josie, Valerie, and Melody of Josie and the Pussycats. Felix, Tom, and Sylvester from old time cartoons. And, if you want to get away from the mind-numbing effects of television, there’s Leo the lion, Leo Minor, and Lynx in the night sky. Leo is by far the most prominent of these three constellations. Its brightest star called Regulus is nearly four fists above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. The backwards question mark-shaped head of Leo is above Regulus and the trapezoid-shaped body is to the left of it. Leo Minor consists of a few dim stars right above Leo. Pretty wimpy. The long dim constellation spans from just above Leo Minor to nearly straight overhead. You and fellow stargazers won’t need to wear a long tail or ears for hats to enjoy these stellar cats.

Thursday: Are you looking for a vacation spot close by? One that is not to warm and not too cold. One that is “just right”. Last month, astronomers discovered that the star Tau Ceti, one of our closest neighbor at 12 light years away, may have five planets. One of those planets orbiting the Sun-like star is in the so-called Goldilocks Zone where the temperature is just right for having liquid water. You’ll want to do some research before you travel there. Tau Ceti is four and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 7 p.m. For more information about the discovery, go to

Friday: 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.

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/12/13

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: Mars is halfway between the crescent moon and the southwest horizon at 5 p.m. You may need binoculars to see it, even if the horizon is clear.

Monday: 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.

Tuesday: Jupiter is six fists above the south horizon at 8 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 weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies.

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

Friday: Tonight’s first quarter moon is in the constellation Aries the ram.

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

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 1/5/13

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 Jupiter, the dad of the Solar System family, is about six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 9 p.m.

Sunday: The waning crescent moon is between Saturn and the bright star Spica at 6 a.m. Saturn is about a fist to the upper left and Spica is a little more than a fist to the upper right of the moon. All three are low in the southeastern sky.

Monday: Venus is less than a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m. Because Venus is the brightest point of light in the night sky, you should be able to find it despite its proximity to the nearly rising Sun.

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: Have you ever looked down on the ground and spotted a penny? In Yakima? While you were standing in Ellensburg? If you have, then you may be able to see the star Hamal as more than just a point of light. Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation Aries the ram, has an angular diameter that can be directly measured from Earth. It appears to be the same size as a penny as seen from 37 miles away. (For comparison, the moon is about half the diameter of a penny held at arm’s length.) Hamal is six and a half fists above due south at 7 p.m.

Thursday: The rapper Lil Bow Wow, now known by his adult name, Bow Wow, has had the same new album coming out “soon” for the past two years. The sky has its own lil bow wow dependably coming out every night this winter. Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, the lesser dog, is about three and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m. As the seventh brightest star in the night sky, Procyon is definitely not “Underrated”.

Friday: Orion stands tall in the southern sky. At 10 p.m., the middle of Orion’s belt is four fists above due south. And talk about belt tightening! Alnilam, the middle star in the belt, is losing mass at a rate of about 100 thousand trillion tons a day. That’s a 1 followed by 17 zeros tons per day.

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