Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/1/14

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

Tuesday: Mars is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Wednesday: 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 first discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, first piqued astrobiologists’ interest 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 six and a half fists above the south horizon at 8 p.m. Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south-southwest horizon at 6 a.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.

Thursday: You thought I forgot, didn’t you? Venus is a fist above the southeast horizon at 6 a.m. It probably jumps out at you as the brightest point of light in the morning sky.

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. For up to date information about the night sky, go to

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/22/14

Saturday: Oh la la, the Ellensburg High School production of “Annie Get Your Gun” opens tonight at 7 pm at McConnell Auditorium. Hear classic show tunes such as There’s No Business Like Show Business, Anything You Can Do, and I got the Sun in the morning and the zodiacal light at night. Well, that last song might only be in the extended, astronomical version of the play. In that version, Annie explains that the zodiacal 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 in the evening 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 in the west after twilight for the next few weeks. They Say It’s Wonderful. The musical will be wonderful too. For more information about the musical, go to

Sunday: 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. Saturn is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 6 a.m. Mars is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at this time.

Monday: Jupiter is six fists above due southeast at 7 p.m.

Tuesday: For the next two mornings, Venus does a little dance with the moon. At 6 a.m., Venus is about a fist to the lower left of the moon in the southeast sky. Tomorrow, Venus will be about a half a fist to the upper right of the moon.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: I hope you got your sweetie something red for Valentine’s Day two weeks ago. 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 is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Friday: Arcturus is two and a half fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 2/15/14

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: Headline from the tabloids: Earth sends robot to Mars in order to take a selfie. In January, the Mars Curiosity rover took a picture of its night sky that included the Earth and moon. Both would easily be visible to the naked eye for a human standing on Mars. Since you can’t go to Mars, go to look at the picture.

Monday: Jupiter is six and a half fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.

Tuesday: “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, at that time classified as the ninth planet. However, as astronomers started discovering a lot of similar objects in that part of the solar system, they realized that had a classification crisis on their hands. Should everything in this region of the solar system be named a planet? Eventually the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto and all future Pluto-like objects as dwarf planets. According to his wife, if Mr. Tombaugh were alive today, he maybe disappointed at the reclassification but he’d accept it because, as a scientist, he’d recognize the implications the new naming scheme would have on future discoveries. Besides, noted astronomer Hal Levison, while Tombaugh didn’t discover the ninth planet, he discovered the Kuiper Belt and that’s a whole lot more interesting.

Wednesday: Spica is less than a finger width to the left of the moon in the southwest sky at 6 a.m. Mars eyes them warily from above.

Thursday: Along with Pluto, Tombaugh discovered numerous asteroids, variable stars, and star clusters. Up until recently, the responsibility of naming all of these objects would have belonged to the International Astronomical Union. But last summer, the IAU revised their naming rules to let individuals suggest names for certain celestial objects. For more information about this change, go to

Friday: After visiting Mars and Spica Wednesday morning, the moon has shifted eastward in the sky and is about a half a fist to the right of Saturn in the southern sky at 6 a.m.

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

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Ellenburg sky for the week of 2/8/14

Saturday: The universe contains everything from gigantic galaxy clusters to tiny parts of atoms so it is difficult to visualize all of it on the same scale. Cary and Michael Huang have created an interactive scale model of the universe which allows you to “slide” from a vantage point outside the known universe down to the smallest things ever theorized. To take this trip, go to

Sunday: Saturn is three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Monday: At 10 p.m., Jupiter is about a half a fist above the moon, high in the southern sky. A little later, Mars makes its way into the evening sky, showing up just above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: This morning, Venus at its brightest for the current viewing cycle. It is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m. Even though this is just a few minutes before sunrise, Venus is bright enough to see in the highly illuminated sky.

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: 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 doing planetarium shows on the stage of the Hertz Hall auditorium on the CWU campus tonight starting at 6 p.m. For more information, visit the club’s Facebook page at

Friday: 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.

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