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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/docs/ObserveMoon.pdf, 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 http://www.amsmeteors.org/ 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.

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