Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Saturday: Tonight’s late rising moon is in the last quarter phase. Don’t wait up for it if you are tired because it doesn’t rise until 1 a.m. However, if you chose to wait, look straight up at midnight. The head of Draco the dragon will be looking straight down on you. The brightest star in the head is called Eltanin. If you chose to wait a VERY long time, Eltanin will be the brightest star in the night sky. Currently 154 light years away, it is moving towards Earth and will be only 28 light years away in about 1.3 million years, claiming the title as brightest star.
Sunday: Mars is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon and Saturn is three fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m.
Monday: Venus is one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 4:30 a.m.
Tuesday: Last week, I wrote about Mizar. This week, I need to warn you not to confuse Mizar with its rhyming brother Izar in the constellation Bootes. Izar is also a binary star with about the same apparent brightness. And both were featured in different episodes of Star Trek. Izar was featured in the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” from the original series. It is the base of Fleet Captain Garth, a former big shot in the federation and one of Kirk’s heroes before he went insane. Garth kidnaps Kirk and Spock before eventually being out smarted. Mizar doesn’t play as big a role in its episode. It is the star of the home world of one of the alien species in The Next Generation episode “Allegiance”. Izar is one fist above the bright star Arcturus and seven fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m. Mizar is seven fists above the northwest horizon at this time.
Wednesday: Regulus is one fist above the west horizon at 10 p.m.
Thursday: Hot enough for you? Don’t blame the Earth-Sun distance. Surprisingly, the overall temperature of the Earth is slightly higher in July, when the Earth is farthest from the Sun, than in January, when it is closest. That’s because in July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. (This is the real cause of the seasons.) The Northern Hemisphere has more land than the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, in July, the large amount of Northern Hemisphere land heats up the entire Earth about two degrees Celsius warmer than in January. In January, the watery Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun. But, water does not heat up as fast as land so the Earth is a few degrees cooler. The distance between the Earth and Sun is its greatest today, 152.1 million kilometers. This is called aphelion from the Greek prefix “apo” meaning “apart” and Helios, the Greek god of the Sun.
Friday: Tonight, while you are looking at an explosion of fireworks, the NASA spacecraft Kepler may be looking at an “explosion” of exoplanets. So far, Kepler has found 974 planets whose presence has been confirmed by other means and evidence of 4,254 planet candidates. Something is called a planet candidate when the light from a star being observed by Kepler dims in a systematic way. Astronomers still need to compare the pattern of dimming with the potential pattern of star wobble caused by being tugged on by one or more planets before they can say for certain that they have actually found planets orbiting these stars. But if even half of these stars show the characteristic wobble, it will more than double the number of planets known to orbit other stars, also known as exoplanets. And this is only the beginning. The Kepler spacecraft is monitoring the brightness of over 156,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre. This region is midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. It is about the size of your hand held at arm’s length and is about six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 11 p.m. For more information about the Kepler mission, go to http://kepler.nasa.gov/.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Saturday: Today is the first day of summer, the day that the Sun reaches its highest declination (the official name for sky latitude) of 23.5 degrees above the celestial equator. The celestial equator is the line that divides the northern sky from the southern sky. In Ellensburg, the Sun is about seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 1:00 p.m. (noon standard time). Contrary to popular belief, the Sun is never straight overhead in Ellensburg or anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states. The northernmost portion of the world where the Sun can be directly overhead is 23.5 degrees north latitude. In ancient times, the Sun was in the constellation Cancer the crab on the first day of summer. Hence, 23.5 degrees north latitude has the nickname "Tropic of Cancer". Because the Earth wobbles like a spinning top, the Sun's apparent path through the sky changes slightly over time. Now, the Sun is in the constellation Taurus the bull on the first day of summer. However, citing the high cost of revising all of the science books, geographers are not changing the name of 23.5 degrees north latitude to "Tropic of Taurus". The first day of summer is often called the summer solstice. However, astronomers refer to the summer solstice as the point in the sky in which the Sun is at its highest point above the celestial equator. Thus, summer starts when the Sun is at the summer solstice point. This year, that happens at 3:50 a.m.
Sunday: Look for the planet parade in the evening sky tonight. At 9:30 p.m., Jupiter is a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon. Mars is three fists above the southwest horizon, and Saturn is three fists above the south horizon.
Monday: This morning, the seven sisters hang out with their gal pal Venus. At 4 a.m., the open star cluster called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, is about a half a fist to the upper left of the bright planet Venus low in the east-northeastern sky.
Tuesday: While you may have had trouble finding Venus’s partners in yesterday’s early morning sky, you have no excuse this morning. At 4 a.m. THIS morning, Venus is less than a half a fist to the upper left of the waning crescent moon.
Wednesday: “Mom, I can’t sleep. It is too light out!” A poor excuse you say? Good astronomy skills, I say. The latest sunset of the year happens late this week. Surprisingly, the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset do not both happen on the longest day of the year, the day of the summer solstice. The earliest sunrise occurs just before the longest day and the latest sunset occurs just after the longest day. (The earliest sunrise happens this weekend.) This phenomenon relates to the angle of the Sun’s path near rising and setting. In Ellensburg, that angle is about 66 degrees near the first day of summer. Because of the Earth’s orbit, which causes the Sun’s apparent motion, the angles are not symmetric. The asymmetries in orbital angles leads to the asymmetry in rise and set times. By the way, picking a specific night to give you the “can’t sleep because it is too light out” line may just be an excuse because the sunset times change by only a few seconds each day in June. This year, the sun sets between 9:01 and 9:02 p.m. between June 21 and July 3.
Thursday: Don’t wait until the 4th of July to go to those wimpy firecracker shows. Find the hypergiant star Rho Cassiopeiae. Astronomers think that Rho Cassiopeiae will likely go supernova (explode) in the near future. Of course, for stars, near future might mean today. It might mean 20,000 years from now. Rho Cassiopeiae is in the constellation Cassiopeia the queen. At 11:00 tonight, Cassiopeia looks like the letter “W” about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon. Rho Cassiopeiae is about a finger’s width to the right of the rightmost star in the “W”. Once you find it you’ll be thinking, “Big deal, I can hardly see it.” Although it is barely visible to the naked eye, it is actually very bright. It is the 20th most luminous star in the sky, a whopping 550,000 times more luminous than the Sun.
Friday: Mizar is a well-known binary star in the constellation Ursa Major. You can find it at the bend in the Big Dipper handle, nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. tonight. Its name is Arabic for waistband. Mizar has an optical double called Alcor, which is less than a pinky width away and can easily be seen with the naked eye. Optical doubles are stars that are close together in the sky but do not orbit a common center of mass as true binary stars. Not wanting to deceive sky gazers who call Mizar a binary star, two stars that DO orbit a common center of mass, Mizar actually is a binary. It was the first binary star system discovered by telescope. Mizar A and Mizar B are about 400 astronomical units apart from each other and about 80 light years from Earth. 400 astronomical units is about 10 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Have you bought your favorite college or high school graduate a graduation gift yet? Why not get her or him a star? I don’t mean from one of those organizations that offers to “register the name of YOUR star with the U.S. Patent Office”. No company owns the right to name stars after people. Besides, the stars those companies “name” are so dim you can’t find them. In this column, I’ll pick a constellation and representative star for each of the four colleges at a university. Then, I’ll briefly tell the story of the constellation and relate that story to the aspect of public service graduates from that college are uniquely qualified to engage in based on my version of sky interpretation. A couple can have “their” song so your favorite graduate can have her or his star.
Saturday: College of Arts and Humanities: You are the people who interpret the world in unique ways. Then, you share those ways with others. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus charmed everyone he met when he played the lyre or harp. After his wife died tragically, he journeyed to the underworld to charm its inhabitants in an effort to win his wife back to the living world. Your service reminder: use your talent to bring joy to others. The constellation Lyra and its bright star Vega should remind you of the power of the arts. Vega is five and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m.
Sunday: On this Father’s Day, do you have a dad so great that you wish you could write his name in galaxies? Now you can. UK astronomer Steven Bamford has developed a computer program that finds images of galaxies that resemble different letters. Just enter the words here http://mygalaxies.co.uk/ and the program spells it out in galaxies. Here’s the new Daily Record title page http://mygalaxies.co.uk/jh2m7m/.
Monday: Venus is one fist above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.
Tuesday: College of Business. You are the future movers and shakers. The future CEOs. The future big donors to Central. Auriga represented a king of Athens who happened to be mobility impaired. Instead of sitting around waiting for others to transport him, he took the initiative to invent the four-wheeled chariot. He solved a problem for a special need. Your service reminder: address the problems of those in the most need. To remind you of that, look to the constellation Auriga. Its bright star Capella is about a half a fist above the north-northwest horizon at 11 p.m.
Wednesday: College of Education and Professional Studies. You are the teachers. The craftspeople. The facilitators of learning in a diverse world. Bootes, the herdsman, was such a person. Bootes’ job was to guide the northern constellations to the feeding place and the watering hole. He and his dogs were especially in charge of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the greater and lesser bears. Your service reminder: guide others to a better place in life. Look to the constellation Bootes and its bright star Arcturus to remind you of this. Arcturus is five and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m.
Thursday: College of the Sciences. You are the people who will systematically study how the world works. Agriculture is an important scientific application. Each year, farmers must use the findings of science to be successful. Who better to represent the College of the Sciences than Virgo, the goddess of the harvest? Virgo looms large in the sky holding an ear of wheat in her hand. Your service reminder: study the practical aspects of the scientific world. The ear of wheat, and your service reminder, is represented by the bright star Spica. Spica is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m. Tonight, you’ve got a warrior’s spirit, as well, because the planet Mars, which represents the Roman god of war, is one fist to the right of Spica.
Friday: Jupiter is one fist above the west-northwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. Say “good bye” because by the beginning of July, Jupiter will be lost in the glare of the Sun.
Friday, June 6, 2014
Saturday: Many bands have summer tours, including a full summer schedule at the Gorge Amphitheatre. This week, the moon is having a sky tour of its own. Just like Bruno Mars is coming to the Gorge on August 9, “Moon Near Mars” is coming to your sky tonight. Mars is less than a half a fist held at arm’s length to the upper right of the moon at 10 p.m. tonight.
Sunday: Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, is one of the hottest stars in the sky at 47,000 degrees Fahrenheit. (The Sun is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.) These are much higher temperatures than a campfire, which is about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But none of these are culturally as hot as indie rock band Arcade Fire which plays at the Gorge August 8. While you are waiting to see Arcade Fire, see hotter-than-fire Spica less than a half a fist to the right of the moon at 10 p.m.
Monday: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are coming to the Gorge on August 15. If you are expecting a ring from someone and don’t get one, that can be a real heartbreaker of its own. So find your own ring in the sky: one of Saturn’s rings. Saturn is less than a fist to the left of the moon at 10 p.m.
Tuesday: When it is sitting low in the western sky, many people mistake the star Capella for a planet. It is bright. It has a slight yellow color. But, Capella is compelling on its own. It is the fourth brightest star we can see in Ellensburg. It is the most northerly bright star. It is a binary star consisting of two yellow giant stars that orbit each other every 100 days. At 10 p.m., Capella is two fists above the northwest horizon. If you miss it tonight, don’t worry. Capella is the brightest circumpolar star meaning it is the brightest star that never goes below the horizon from our point of view in Ellensburg.
Wednesday: Jupiter is one fist above the west-northwest horizon at 10 p.m.
Thursday: Tonight’s full moon is in the constellation Ophiuchus the serpent bearer. This month, Ophiuchus may be thinking of bearing some strawberries instead. Some Native American tribes call the June full moon the strawberry moon to honor (or remember) the short strawberry harvesting season. A more descriptive name is the Short Moon because the full moon is above the horizon for the least amount of time in June – only eight hours. Summer full moons are always above the horizon less than winter full moons. Since the full moon is on the complete opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, the full moon is going to be in the sky whenever the Sun is not in the sky, namely the entire night. During the summer, the nights are shorter so the full moons time above the horizon will also be shorter.
Friday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because kids are getting out of school. Because I read the fine astronomy column in the Daily Record. (How’s that for an odd self reference.) Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 10:30 p.m. Vega, the third brightest star visible from Ellensburg, is about five fists above the east horizon. Deneb, at the tail of Cygnus the swan is about three and a half fists above the northeast horizon. The third star in the triangle, Altair, in Aquila the eagle is two fists above the east horizon.
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.