Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/2/13

Saturday: “The crow rises in the southeast,” said spy number one. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize that code,” replied spy number two. Spy one exclaimed, “That’s because it’s not a code, you idiot. I’m talking about the constellation Corvus the crow.” This very bad spy movie dialogue is to remind you that Corvus had a very bad life. According to one myth, Corvus brought the god Apollo the news that his girlfriend was seeing someone else. In a classic case of punishing the messenger, Apollo turned the formerly beautifully colored crow black. The box-shaped Corvus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: Tonight is a great night to look for the Big Dipper. Tomorrow will be a great night to look for the Big Dipper. In fact, every night for many centuries will be great nights to look for the Big Dipper. But the Big Dipper’s shape slowly changes over many, many, many, many centuries. (Have I reached my word count yet?) Tens of thousands of years ago, it didn’t look like a dipper and tens of thousands of years from now, it will no longer look like a dipper. For a short video simulation of the changing Big Dipper, go to For a look at the current Dipper, face northeast at 8 p.m. The lowest star, Alkaid, is two and a half fists above the horizon.

Monday: Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius the scorpion, is less that a fist below the moon at 6 a.m. this morning.

Tuesday: The group AC/DC sings that “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t noise pollution, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die.” Unfortunately, because of excess and improper outdoor lighting in cities, even those as small as Ellensburg, our view of the night sky is gonna die. Lights that are aimed upward illuminate the atmosphere and obscure dim objects. To watch an informative and entertaining video about the effects of light pollution, go to To watch ACV/DC sing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, go to

Wednesday: Vega is about a fist above the northeast horizon just before midnight.

Thursday: If you ask an astrobiologist for the three most likely places to find evidence of life in the Solar System, other than Earth, they’d probably say Mars, Europa (“Didn’t they sing “The Final Countdown”?”), and Enceladus. Mars makes sense because you know scientists have sent a lot of probes there. Astronomers discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, piqued astrobiologists’ interested a few years ago then NASA’s Cassini probe discovered jets of water containing organic materials shooting out. Last year, the German space agency started a project called Enceladus Explorer, EnEx for short, to collect sample from deep within Enceladus. For more information on the Enceladus mission, go to Jupiter and Europa are three fists above due west horizon at 10 p.m. Saturn and Enceladus are one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11:30 p.m. By the way, the Swedish group Europe sang “The Final Countdown”. And they were “heading for Venus” in the song, not to the worlds of the outer Solar System.

Friday: In this busy world, it is important to know what time it is. We have many devises that give us the time. A phone. A computer. A watch. But who has time to build a phone, computer or even a watch. Not you. But everyone has enough time to build a simple Sun Clock. All you need is a pencil, a compass and a print out of the clock template. Go to for more information.

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/23/13

Saturday: An astronomy version of The Music Man might go something like this: “Oh, we got trouble, in the river constellation. With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “B”, and that stands for bright.” And bright does NOT describe the river constellation called Eridanus, at least as seen from the northern United States. Eridanus is a river of dim stars that winds beneath the feet of Orion and off to the lower right. Orion is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southwest horizon at 8 p.m.

Sunday: It’s getting dark. The last remnant of twilight has disappeared. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the western sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the west horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists above the horizon. It is not really a ghost. It is an effect called the zodiacal light. This light comes from sunlight reflecting off dust grains in our solar system. The effect is the most visible when the band of constellations called the zodiac makes a steep angle with the horizon. You need a clear dark sky with no haze or light pollution to see the zodiacal light. At its brightest, the zodiacal light rivals the light of the central Milky Way. Look for the ghostly patch after twilight for the next few weeks.

Monday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation Sextans the sextant. Sextans is a faint constellation below Leo the lion. Its most noticeable feature is a triangle just to the right of the moon at 10 p.m. Sextans is one of seven constellations proposed by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the 1600s. He used a sextant to measure star positions and decided to honor the tool with a constellation.

Tuesday: Avast ye matey. Swab the poop deck. Pirates love astronomy. In fact, the term “poop” in poop deck comes from the French word for stern (poupe) which comes for the Latin word Puppis. Puppis is a constellation that represents the raised stern deck of Argo Navis, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. Argo Nevis was an ancient constellation that is now divided between the constellations Puppis, Vela and Carina. The top of Puppis is about a fist and a half to the left of the bright star Sirius in the south-southwest sky at 10 p.m. Zeta Puppis, the hottest, and thus the bluest, naked eye star in the sky at 40,000 degrees Celsius is near the uppermost point in Puppis.

Wednesday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much thinner Mars”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Look one fist above the east-southeast horizon at midnight to see Saturn.

Thursday: By now you have probably heard or read about the meteor that exploded over Russia on February 15. If not, you no longer have to pour over dozens of articles. Just go to Wikipedia like thousands of students do every day:

Friday: The space shuttles have been retired. But that does not mean NASA is not thinking about the future of space flight. Here is a small NASA poster summarizing the future of American Human spaceflight: While NASA is not planning on sending people to Jupiter, you may visit it with your eyes, five and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 8 p.m.

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

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/16/13

Saturday: This President’s Day weekend, let’s remember Abraham Lincoln: 16th president, country lawyer, man on the penny, vampire hunter, and astronomer. Vampire hunter? No. Astronomer? Well, maybe not an astronomer, but someone who used observational evidence from the sky to solve a problem. In 1858, Lincoln defended Duff Armstrong, a family friend who was accused of murder. The prosecution thought they had a strong case because their primary witnesses claimed to have observed the killing by the light of the nearly full moon. Let’s listen in on the trial courtesy of the 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: How’d you see so well?
Witness: I told you it was Moon bright, Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: Moon bright.
Witness: Yes.
(Dramatic pause as Lincoln reaches for something)
Lincoln: Look at this. Go on, look at it. It’s the Farmer’s Almanack (sic). You see what it says about the Moon. That the Moon… set at 10:21, 40 minutes before the killing took place. So you see it couldn’t have been Moon bright, could it?
Lincoln used the known information about Moon rising and setting times for August 29, 1858 as evidence in a trial. This is one of the earliest uses of forensic astronomy. You may confirm Lincoln’s findings on the Moon set time by going to, the US Naval Observatory website, and filling out Form A. For more information about Lincoln’s “almanac trial”, go to

Sunday: Throughout the night, Jupiter will be near the first quarter moon in the night sky. At 8 p.m., they are five and a half fists above the southwest horizon, with Jupiter being about a half a fist to the upper left of the moon. As the night goes on, the moon moves closer to Jupiter. When the moon sets a little after 1 a.m., there are barely two finger widths between the two.

Monday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the solar system object formerly known as a planet.

Tuesday: Along with Pluto, Tombaugh discovered numerous asteroids, variable stars, and star clusters. But he never discovered a moon. Of course, neither have you. But you do have the opportunity to help name two of Pluto’s moons. Go to to cast your ballot. (I apologize to you Galileo, if you are reading this from you time machine, because you actually did discover four moons.)

Wednesday: Regulus, the bright star in the constellation Leo the lion, is nearly two fists above due east at 7 p.m.

Thursday: I hope you got your sweetie something red for Valentine’s Day last week. If not, I suggest a nice picture of the Red Valley on Mars. This January, the Mars Express probe took the first high-resolution stereo color image of Tinto Vallis, or Red Valley, the mouth of an ancient water flow on Mars. For more information and many photos of Tinto Vallis, go to Mars, itself, is too close to the Sun to be visible in the night sky.

Friday: Saturn is a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at midnight.

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/9/13

Saturday: The two smallest planets team up in the sky tonight. Elusive Mercury and perennial favorite Mars will be close together, a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon at 6 p.m. They have a lot in common. They both start with the letter “M”. They both have frozen water on their surface, and they have both sent debris to the Earth. Over 100 meteorites are known to have come from Mars, most famously ALH 84001 which was discovered in Antarctica in 1984. ALH84001 was though to contain evidence of nanobacteria fossils that originated on Mars. Since Mercury is so close to the Sun, very few rocks escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and Mercury to make it to Earth. (The Ford Motor Company tried to make up for this deficiency when it sold the Mercury Meteor from 1961-1963.) Astronomers think they may have found the first Mercury meteorite in Morocco. It bright green color due to a silicate material called diopside helps it stand out from other meteorites. Astronomers need to study it a lot more before that can confirm the Mercury origin. For more information, go to

Sunday: At 8 p.m., Jupiter is six fists above the south horizon.

Monday: Naked eye comets are rare occurrences. But in mid- to late March, the comet Pan-STARRS may be as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper. This is a new comet from the Oort Cloud, making its first appearance in the inner Solar System. So astronomers aren’t sure if it will break up and not be seen or be very active and have a large tail. For more information, go to

Tuesday: At 6 a.m., Saturn is nearly three fists above the south horizon.

Wednesday: Do you have a date for Valentine’s Day? Of course you do. You’ve been planning for weeks. But have you been planning for the equally important Valentine’s Day Eve? I didn’t think so. Well, the Central Washington University Astronomy Club has got you covered. They are giving planetarium shows in the SURC ballroom on the CWU campus tonight starting at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the club’s Facebook page at

Thursday: 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. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came the great warrior Perseus, fresh off his defeat of the evil Gorgon, Medusa. The only similarity between Andromeda and Medusa was that Andromeda caused people to stand still and stare at her beauty while Medusa turned people to stone because of her ugliness. (And, you thought you looked bad in the morning.) 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 monsters neck and killed it. In a little known addendum to the story, Perseus carved “Percy (heart symbol) Andi” in the rock, thus originating the use of the heart symbol as a substitute for the word “love”.
You can find these lovers in the sky this Valentine’s Day. Just remember it is rude to stare – and you never know when you might turn to stone. First, find the Great Square of Pegasus at 7 p.m. between one and a half and three and a half fists above the west horizon. The lowest star in Andromeda is the top star in the square. This represents Andromeda’s head. Perseus is at her feet, nearly straight overhead. Mirphak, the brightest star in Perseus, is about eight fists above the west horizon. Perseus’ body is represented by the line of stars to the left and right of Mirphak.

Friday: Tonight, 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. It will be very difficult to find in backyard telescopes. But the Clay Center Observatory will have a real-time high-definition video feed from 3 p.m. PST to 1 a.m. tomorrow. Find it here

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