Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/29/14

Saturday: The Milky Way is pretty easy to spot on the early spring sky. Just look up. Everything you see in the sky, including that bird that just startled you, is in the Milky Way. But, even the path of densely packed stars in the plane of our galaxy that look like a river of milk is easy to find. Look due south at 9 p.m. Follow the fuzzy path just to the left of the bright star Sirius two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the horizon, to the right of Jupiter six fists above the southwest horizon, through Capella six fists above the west horizon, through W-shaped Cassiopeia, and down to due north.

Sunday: After a long journey through space, there is nothing will quench your thirst better than a few drops of refreshing Mars water. Wait! Is this an April Fool’s Day joke? No. In 2010, after analyzing photos taken by the Mars Phoenix Lander, a group of astronomers discovered what they interpreted as drops of very salty liquid water on one of the Lander’s legs. But we are not going to travel 18 months to Mars just to lick a few drops of water off a metal leg. We want waterfront property if we are going all that way.  The high-resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken images of dark rivulets that form, grow, and fade in the Martian southern hemisphere. Even though Mars is very cold, this liquid could contain enough salt to lower its freezing point by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Mars is one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m. Read all about the water at

Monday: Orion is getting lower and lower in the nighttime sky. Its second brightest star, Betelgeuse, is only two fists above the west-southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: On Saturday, about 500 people will be in town to run a marathon. As JJ from Good Times would say, “That’s Dy-no-mite!” If you have not trained, you’re not ready. Instead, satisfy that marathon craving by attending a virtual Messier Marathon. Charles Messier (pronounced messy a) was an 18th century French astronomer best known for his catalog of 110 nebulae and star clusters. Amateur astronomers love to find as many of these as they can in one night. During the online Messier Marathon, you’ll see the images broadcast on the Internet. The fun starts this morning at 11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (when astronomers on the nighttime side of Earth point their telescopes towards interesting celestial objects. For more information, go to

Wednesday: Saturn is barely creeping into the pre-midnight sky. It is a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11:30 p.m.

Thursday: The bright star Arcturus is three fists above the east horizon at 10 p.m.

Friday: You need to get up early tomorrow to cheer on your favorite runners at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon tomorrow at 8 a.m. on Canyon Road just south of Berry Road. So why not get a little viewing in? There is a trio of bright planets visible at 6 a.m. Venus is one fist above the east-southeast horizon. Saturn is two fists above the southwest horizon. Mars is one fist above the west-southwest horizon.

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, March 20, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/22/14

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Great successor to Sagan
Watch the new Cosmos

Saturday: You’ve seen all of the top 100 lists: top 100 ways to please your mate, top 100 restaurants in the local region, etc. Now get excited for the lunar 100 at This list describes 100 interesting landmarks on the moon that are visible from Earth. They are listed from easiest to see, starting with the entire moon itself at number 1, to most difficult (Mare Marginis swirls, anyone?). Either stay up late or go out early tomorrow morning to observe the third quarter moon and check a couple of items off of the Lunar 100

Sunday: Hit the road Venus. And don’t you come back no more, no more. For the past few months, Venus has been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the sky. This morning, Venus is as far away from the Sun as it will get this cycle. This is known as its greatest western elongation. Venus is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 6:30 this morning. Over the next few months, Venus will move toward the Sun in the sky. After it passes behind the Sun, it will appear in the evening sky by the summer.
Venus isn’t the only planet visible in the morning sky. But the other two will be very challenging to find. Are you up for a challenge? Are you? If you are, go to an open window and yell, “oooh yeah baby!” Then go find your binoculars. At 6:40 a.m., Mercury is just above the horizon midway between east and southeast. Neptune is right above it, invisible to the naked eye and barely visible with binoculars.

Monday: Jupiter is six and a half fists above the south horizon at 8 p.m.

Tuesday: Mars about one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: So far this week, I have written about Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune. Do you like these planets or does another planet really catch your fancy? If you’d like to know what most people’s favorite planet is, go to and click on “Launch Interactive”. The public TV special called “The Pluto Files” has set up a website in which astronomers give a 30-second pitch for why a certain planet is their favorite. After listening to the pitch, you may vote for your favorite planet. Of course, you may also do what most people do for political elections: vote for the candidate with the best name or the one with the most interesting campaign slogan. So whether you carefully consider each planet or simply “Swoon for Neptune”, “Jump for Jupiter”, or “Pick Uranus”, go to “The Pluto Files” and vote. Saturn will be holding a campaign rally tonight at midnight, about a half a fist above the southeast horizon.

Thursday: Two weeks ago, I asked you to watch the bright star Deneb to observe how its time at due north changes from night to night. It reached due north at 10:18 p.m. two Thursdays ago. Tonight, it reaches due north at 9:23 p.m., 55 minutes earlier. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, it also rotates on its axis. (Wow Bruce, really? We learn so much from you!) Because it does both motions counterclockwise as viewed from above the Earth’s North Pole, any given spot on Earth faces the distant stars a little bit earlier each day than that spot faces the Sun. Based on the specific rotational and revolutional speed, it amounts to three minutes and 56 seconds earlier each day. That’s 27.5 minutes earlier each week and… wait for it… wait for it… 55 minutes earlier every two weeks. Depending on where you live, those due north times may be off by a few minutes. But the two-week difference will be the same no matter where you live. (I apologize for my smart aleck statement earlier. You DO teach us a lot.)

Friday: April is Global Astronomy Month (GAM). While many astronomy experiences come from looking up, you can also experience astronomy looking down… at pen and paper. GAM has launched an Astropoetry blog and is looking for contributors, hopefully ones that are better than mine above. Even if you’ve never written a poem before, this is your opportunity to express your love for astronomy in a unique way and possibly share it with others. Go to for more poetry.

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, March 13, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/15/14

Saturday: Has there ever been life on Mars? Astronomers don’t know. But the Mars Curiosity Rover has been digging up some strong evidence that Mars was hospitable to life in the past. At the end of 2012, the first drilling assignment for Curiosity found clay-like minerals that form in the presence of water. This past December, scientists announced the strongest evidence yet for an ancient fresh-water lake in Gale Crater. Planetary geologist John Grotzinger said that Earth microbes could have thrived in this lake if they were placed there. For more information, go to Mars is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. The bright star Spica is just to the right of Mars.

Sunday: While we may refer to the moon tonight by the boring title, “a full moon in March”, Native Americans in the eastern United States called this moon the Full Worm Moon. By March, the temperature has increased enough so the ground starts to thaw and earthworms make their first appearance. Earthworms attract birds. Northern tribes thought of the bird connection when they referred to the March full moon as the Full Crow Moon. Tribes in parts of the country with maple trees call this full moon the Full Sap Moon. For more full moon names, go to

Monday: Ask someone which day in March has the same duration day and night. Go ahead, ask someone. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. If that person said the first day of spring, they are wrong. Today, three days before the first day of spring, is the date in which day and night are closest in duration. There are two main reasons for this. First, the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is actually below the horizon. This makes the Sun appear to rise before it actually rises and appear to set after is actually sets. Second, spring starts when the center of the Sun passes through the point called the vernal equinox. But, the Sun is not a point. The upper edge of the Sun rises about a minute before the center of the Sun and the lower edge sets a minute after the center of the Sun. Thus, even if we didn’t have an atmosphere that bends the sunlight, daytime on the first day of spring would still be longer than 12 hours.

Tuesday: Venus is one fist above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Wednesday: Jupiter is six and a half fists above due south at 8 p.m.

Thursday: Look up in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. No, it’s the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox!? Spring starts at 9:57 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The first day of spring is often called the vernal equinox. This label for the day is misleading. The vernal equinox is actually the point in the sky where the Sun’s apparent path with respect to the background stars (called the ecliptic) crosses the line that divides the stars into north and south (called the celestial equator). This point is in the constellation Pisces the fishes. At the vernal equinox, the Sun is moving from the southern region of background stars to the northern region. Since the Sun crosses the vernal equinox at night, tomorrow will actually be the first full day of spring.
Because the Earth slowly wobbles like a spinning top, the vernal equinox is slowly moving into the constellation Aquarius. By the year 2597, the vernal equinox will reach the constellation Aquarius and the “Age of Aquarius” will begin. Until then, we’ll be in “the age of Pisces”.

Friday: The moon is near Saturn late last night into early morning. By the time both have risen at 1 a.m., Saturn is less than half a fist above the moon. By 6 a.m., they have moved to the southern sky and are a little bit farther apart.

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, March 6, 2014

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 3/8/14

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 previous few 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 stays light for an additional hour.

Sunday: Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, is two and a half fists above the south horizon at 8:30 p.m.

Monday: Mars is about one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. 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: 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: Don’t wake up to a hot cup of coffee. Wake up to three planets. At 6:30 a.m., Venus is one fist above the southeast horizon, Saturn is two fists above the south-southwest horizon, and Mars is two fists above the southwest horizon. The bright star Spica is about a half a fist below Mars.

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 10:18 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: The Space Shuttles have been retired. But NASA is still planning 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, six and a half fists above the south horizon at 9 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