Friday, January 31, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/1/14

Saturday: Tomorrow 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: Are you going to watch the super bowl tonight? I know some of you don’t think the bowl is so super. After all, half the night the bowl is tipped upside down, spilling out all of its contents. But don’t just focus on the functionality of the bowl. Think about how it inspires people all across the world to sit on the green grass and look into the dark blue early evening sky. In Mongolia, participants in the super bowl are known as gods. An Arabian story says the super bowl is a coffin, one that can even hold once powerful broncos. I encourage you go outside tonight at about 8 p.m., after whatever unimportant thing you have been doing since 3:30 p.m. Look low in the north-northwest sky and watch the super bowl, also known as the Big Dipper, balancing on the end of its handle, proudly displaying its large bowl.

Monday: Mercury is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon at 6 p.m. Look for it soon because it is rapidly moving toward the glare of the setting Sun.

Tuesday: 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 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.

Wednesday: Jupiter is six and a half fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m., surrounded by the winter hexagon.

Thursday: The morning sky is filled with bright planets. At 6:30 a.m., Venus is one fist above the southeast horizon, Saturn is two and a half fists above the south horizon, and Mars is three fists above the southwest horizon.

Friday: 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 and a half more hours of daylight than on the first day of winter. In the southern part of the US, there is only 35 more minutes of sunlight. On the North Pole, the day length has gone from zero hours to zero hours in the past month and a half. If you’d like to have your own fun with day lengths and other time questions, go to

The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to

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