Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/9/13

Saturday: Don't forget to set you clocks ahead one hour tonight for the annual ritual called daylight savings. Daylight savings originated in the United States during World War I to save energy for the war effort. But a recent study by two economists shows that switching to daylight savings time may actually lead to higher utility bills. When the economists compared the last three years of energy bills in the section of Indiana that just started observing daylight savings, they discovered that switching to daylight savings cost Indiana utility customers $8.6 million in electricity. In an even more important consequence of daylight savings, Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia discovered a 7% jump in traffic accidents on the Monday after we "spring ahead". Blame it on the lost hour of sleep. And, sky watchers will lose even more sleep because the sky does not get dark for an additional hour.

Sunday: Comet watchers haven’t had much to cheer about recently. But this year is looking up (pun intended) because astronomers think there will be two comets visible to the naked eye. The first one is called Comet C/2011 L4 after the year and date of its discovery or Comet PanSTARRS, after the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System that discovered it. It reaches maximum brightness today but it will be too low in the sky for most observers in the northern United States. It will be just above the west horizon, a little north of due west, right after sunset. You’ll need binoculars to pick it out. For more information, go to

Monday: Mars is a half fist above the west horizon at 7:15 p.m., just after sunset. Its two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, are not visible in typical backyard telescopes. But they are an interesting study. The prevailing view among most astronomers is that they are captured asteroids. That makes sense given Mars’ proximity to the asteroid belt. But resent findings by European astronomers indicate that Phobos is very porous and made of material similar to the surface of Mars. This implies that Phobos may consist of chunks of Martian debris that was blasted off by numerous impacts and gravitationally bound together. Unfortunately, the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe launched late 2011 to collect material from Phobos crashed to Earth after malfunctioning. For more information about this new model of Phobos’ formation, go to

Tuesday: If you had trouble finding Comet PanSTARRS earlier in the week, you’ll have a great marker tonight. The comet will be less than half a fist to the left of the crescent moon just after sunset. Probably the best time to look will be about 7:30 p.m. The Sun will have set 30 minutes earlier but the moon and comet will still be a fist above the west horizon. The comet’s tail will still be pointing away from the sun, which is right under due west. Throughout the rest of the month, the comet will be getting higher in the sky but dimmer. Currently, the comet is about magnitude 2, similar to the brightness of the Big Dipper stars.

Wednesday: Jupiter is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Thursday: If you want to put somebody off, tell her or him to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon. At 10:13 tonight, it will be as close as it gets to the horizon, about two degrees above due north. Watch it reach this due north position about 4 minutes earlier each night.

Friday: Saturn is about a fist above the east-southeast horizon at midnight. If you are more of a morning person, you’ll see Saturn two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 6 a.m.

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

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