Friday, May 16, 2014
The Ellensburg sky for the week of 5/17/14
Saturday: Four planets are visible at 9:30 p.m. Mercury is less than a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon. Jupiter is nearly three fists above the west horizon. Mars is four fists above the south horizon. Finally, Saturn is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon.
Sunday: The questions who, what, where, and when can only be asked with a “W”. At 11 p.m., the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia is about two fists above due north. The middle star in the W was used as a navigation reference point during the early space missions. The American astronaut Gus Grissom nicknamed the star Navi, his middle name Ivan spelled backwards. After he died in the Apollo 1 fire, the star name was kept as a memorial.
Monday: Give me an “M”. Give me a “3”. What does that spell? “M3.” “Big deal,” you say. It was a big deal to French comet hunter Charles Messier (pronounced Messy A). M3 was the 3rd comet look-alike that Messier catalogued in the late 1700s. M3 is a globular cluster, a cluster of over 100,000 stars that is 32,000 light years away. It is too dim to be seen with the naked eye but is fairly easy find with binoculars. First find Arcturus six fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Move your binoculars up a little so two stars of nearly identical brightness are in your field of view. When the top star is in the lower left part of your field of view, there should be a fuzzy patch near the center of your field of view. This is M3.
Tuesday: In an old Saturday Night Live spoof advertisement for a turkey you can pump (http://vimeo.com/12389925), Chris Rock sang, “The first turkey dinner was 1620. The pilgrims had it in the land of plenty.” But he could have just as easily say, “The light left Rasalgethi in 1620. The light now reaches us in the land of plenty.” Rasalgethi is a double star in the constellation Hercules that is almost 400 light years away. Its name is based on the Arabic words meaning “Head of the kneeler” because some views of Hercules depict him as a warrior kneeling down, perhaps resting after his twelve labors. You’ll find Rasalgethi exactly two fists above due east at 9:40 p.m.
Wednesday: The bright planet Venus doesn’t join its fellow planets in the night sky. Instead, you’ll find it a half a fist above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m. You DO get up at 4:30 a.m., don’t you?
Thursday: By 11:30 p.m., Antares is about a fist above the southeast horizon.
Friday: You may have heard of the Persied meteor shower in August or the Leonid meteor shower in November. These have been known to be annual occurrences for centuries so it is easy to forget that they had to be new sometime. Tonight and early tomorrow morning, you may see the birth of a new meteor shower. The Earth will be passing through the path of debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered on 2004. Astronomers are unclear how much debris there will be. If there is a lot of debris, there could be 200 meteors per hour. If there is not much debris, there would be only a few meteors per hour. The best time to start looking is after 11 pm in the direction of the dim constellation Camelopardalis, also known as the giraffe. This is about three fists above north-northwest at 11 p.m. and will move clockwise around the North Star throughout the night. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/V0VEkh.
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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.