Monday, December 28, 2015
Saturday: If the Sun looks big today, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. The Earth is at perihelion at about 3 p.m., Pacific Standard Time. If you dig out your Greek language textbook, you’ll see that peri- means “in close proximity” and helios means “Sun”. So, perihelion is when an object is closest to the Sun in its orbit, about 1.5 million miles closer than its average distance of 93 million miles. Since it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere now, the seasonal temperature changes must not be caused by the Earth getting farther from and closer to the Sun. Otherwise, we’d have summer when the Earth is closest to the Sun. The seasons are caused by the angle of the sunlight hitting the Earth. In the winter, sunlight hits the Earth at a very low angle, an angle far from perpendicular or straight up and down. This means that a given “bundle” of sunlight is spread out over a large area and does not warm the surface as much as the same bundle in the summer. For the Northern Hemisphere, that very low angle occurs in December, January and February.
Sunday: Late tonight and early morning’s weather forecast: showers. Meteor showers, that is. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks late tonight and early tomorrow morning between midnight and dawn. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. That makes this shower mysterious because there isn’t any constellation with this name now. The shower was named after Quadrans Muralis, an obsolete constellation found in some early 19th century star atlases. These meteors appear to come from a point in the modern constellation Draco the dragon. This point is about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 1 a.m. This year, the waning crescent moon will not obscure the dimmer meteors. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Most meteors are associated with the path of a comet. This shower consists of the debris from an asteroid discovered in 2003. Keeping with the comet-origin paradigm, astronomers think the asteroid is actually an “extinct” comet, a comet that lost all of its ice as it passed by the Sun during its many orbits. For more information about the Quadrantid meteor shower, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=4287.
Monday: Jupiter is a half a fist above due east at 11 p.m.
Tuesday: On these cold mornings, it is difficult to get going. You just want to plop into a chair and sit still. But, are you really sitting still? You’re moving at about 700 miles per hour due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis and 66,000 miles per hour due to the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. If that’s not enough, the entire solar system is orbiting the center of the galaxy at a whopping 480,000 miles per hour! So while you may be sitting still with respect to your living room (and all of the over achievers in your house), you are NOT sitting still with respect to the center of the galaxy. For more information about this concept, go to http://goo.gl/lPVPS. Before you barf from all of that motion, go outside at 7 a.m. and observe five Solar System objects. Bright Venus is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon. Saturn is about a half a fist to the lower left of Venus. Mars is three fists above due south. Jupiter is three and a half fists above the southwest horizon. And, of course, I bet you spotted the moon while you were finding the other objects. Speaking of motion, because of Saturn’s rapid rotation, only 10.5 hours, it appears visible flattened.
Wednesday: Has it been tough to wake up this past week? It should have been because the sunrise has been getting a little later since summer started. I know. I know. December 21 was the shortest day of the year. But, because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is elliptical and not circular, the Earth does not travel at a constant speed. It moves faster when it is closer to the Sun and slower when it is farther away. This leads to the latest sunrise occurring around the first of January and the earliest sunset occurring in early December, not on the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year. On the first day of winter, however, the interval between sunrise and sunset is the shortest. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/SJC5r.
Thursday: A new year leads us to contemplate our future. Let’s take some time to contemplate the Sun’s future. The Sun has spent a few billion years as a stable star fusing hydrogen into helium. Once that easily fusible hydrogen is gone, the Sun’s outer layer will puff up like a hot air balloon, getting larger, cooler, and redder. The star Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus looks like what our Sun will look like in a few billion years. Read more about Aldebaran and the Sun’s future at https://stardate.org/radio/program/moon-and-aldebaran-25. At 9:30 p.m., Aldebaran is almost exactly 60 degrees, or six fists, above due south.
Friday: Have you ever looked down on the ground and spotted a penny? In Yakima? While you were standing in Ellensburg? If you have, then you may be able to see the star Hamal as more than just a point of light. It has an angular diameter that can be directly measured from Earth. Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation Aries the ram, has the same angular diameter as a penny 37 miles away. (For comparison, the moon is about half the diameter of a penny held at arm’s length.) Hamal is three and a half fists above due west 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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Saturday: When the Moon is full or close to full, it is difficult to see dim objects in the sky because of the sky glow. But why struggle to find dim objects when there is so much to see on the big, bright object in front of you? The lunar crater called Tycho is best seen during a full Moon. Tycho was formed about 109 million years ago when an asteroid struck the Moon, leaving a crater over 50 miles in diameter and ejected dust trails that radiate out hundreds of miles in all directions. For more lunar highlights, go to http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/docs/ObserveMoon.pdf, a resource of the Night Sky Network.
Sunday: You’ve heard the term “a pinch to grow an inch.” Well, Jupiter’s extremely strong gravitational field “pinches” Jupiter so much that it causes Jupiter to shrink by about an inch a year. Look for the svelte Jupiter one fist held upright and at arm’s length above due east at midnight.
Monday: You’ve heard the term “a pinch to grow an inch.” Come on. Now I know you have. While there is no pinching involved, the distance between the Earth and moon increases by about an inch a year. Does it look farther tonight than when you looked at it on Saturday? It’s 2/365ths of an inch farther from the Earth.
Tuesday: Hit the road Mercury. And don’t you come back no more, no more. For a few weeks, Mercury has been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the sky. Today, Mercury is as far away from the Sun as it will get on the evening half of this cycle. This is known as its greatest eastern elongation. Yet, this distance does not translate into good viewing because Mercury will be very low in the sky. Mercury is about a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 5 p.m. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. After it passes in front of the Sun, it will appear in the morning sky by the end of January.
Wednesday: At 7:30 a.m., Saturn is one fist above due southwest. The much brighter Venus is a fist to the upper right of Saturn. The reddish planet Mars is about three fists above the south horizon.
Thursday: Forget about that big bright ball in Times Square. You can mark the start of the new year with one of the sky’s own big bright balls. That perennial favorite New Year’s Day marker, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, rises to its highest point in the sky a little after midnight on January 1. Thus, when Sirius starts to “fall”, the new year has begun. Look for Sirius about two and a half fists above due south at midnight.
And while you are up, grab those binoculars and look for Comet Catalina right next to the bright star Arcturus throughout the night. Arcturus and Catalina rise in the east-northeast sky just after midnight. By 3 a.m., they are three fists above due east. By 6 a.m., they are two and a half fists above the southeast horizon.
Friday: Today is the day we celebrate the anniversary of something new – a new classification of celestial objects. Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres [pronounced sear’-ease], the first of what are now called “asteroids”, on January 1, 1801. Ceres is the largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. At first, Piazzi thought it was a star that didn’t show up on his charts. But, he noted its position changed with respect to the background stars from night to night. This indicated to him that it had to be orbiting the Sun. The International Astronomical Union promoted Ceres to the status of “dwarf planet” in August of 2006.
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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.
Friday, December 11, 2015
Saturday: Today: I know you’re staying up late to train yourself to wait up for Santa. So look out a south-facing window at 1 a.m. and see Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, as high as it ever gets in the sky. It is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south.
Sunday: Two of the best, and certainly the most available, “tools” for viewing the night sky are your eyes. Your eyes let you see the entire sky in just a few seconds. Your eyes can read star charts, decipher astronomy apps, and spot meteors while your friend is still setting up her tripod. Your naked eyes are not as effective as gathering light. They work well when the light source is comparatively bright and the detailed features are fairly large. It’s best to practice on a special Solar System body known scientifically as the Magnificent Optical Object of Nearness. Artists such as Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci produced the first realistic naked eye depictions of the Magnificent Optical Object of Nearness. This week you can use your own eyes to observe evidence of violent collisions and ancient lava flows. For more information to observe the Magnificent Optical Object of Nearness, better known as the Moon, go to http://goo.gl/JLhraO.
Monday: At 8:48 p.m., the Sun reaches its lowest point in the sky with respect to the background stars. This point is called the Winter Solstice. During the day that the Sun reaches this point, your noontime shadow is longer than any other day of the year. Also, the Sun spends less time in the sky on the day of the Winter Solstice than any other day making this the shortest day of the year. Even though it is the shortest day of the year, it is not the day with the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset. The latest sunrise is during the first week in January and the earliest sunset is during the second week in December. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the Sun rise and set time depends on more than its apparent vertical motion. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma. But, it is on the first part of the analemma to go below the horizon. During the first week in January, it is on the last part of the analemma to rise above the horizon. For more information on this, go to http://goo.gl/KpbkTf.
Tuesday: At 7 a.m., bright Venus is two fists above the southeast horizon, Mars is three and a half fists above the south horizon, and Jupiter is more than four fists above the south-southwest horizon.
Wednesday: What would that special someone want to see on the back of Santa’s sleigh when she gets up early Christmas morning to eat one of Santa’s cookies? A fruit cake? No. A barbell? Maybe to work off the fruitcake. A subscription to The Daily Record? Of course. But what she really wants is a ring. And if she looks out a south-facing window, she’ll see her ring. Saturn the ringed planet, that is. Saturn is about a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m.
Thursday: Tonight’s late night full moon is in the constellation Orion. Tonight’s other Moon is…. Wait a minute. The Earth has only one Moon. True. And it has always had only one Moon. Not necessarily true. According to the best existing model, about four billion years ago, a Mars-sized object collided with the young Earth. The resulting debris coalesced to form the Moon. However, this model left a mystery: why is the Moon so asymmetric? Hardened-lava lowlands dominate the near side while the far side is dominated by mountainous highlands. According to a recent revision of the prevailing model, the early collision formed a large Moon and a small Moon. Over the years, the small Moon caught up to and collided with the large Moon. The highlands are the material from the collided small Moon. For more information about this theory, go to http://goo.gl/O801zk.
Friday: Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw Jupiter being eclipsed by the Moon in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2, Bruce Palmquist version, informed by Michael Molnar). There are many theories as to the physical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem, the celestial object that guided the wise men to the location of Jesus. Some people think it was a recurring nova, a star that explodes. Some think it was a close alignment of bright planets. Some think it was a miracle that requires no physical explanation. In 1991, astronomer Michael Molnar bought an ancient Roman Empire coin that depicted a ram looking back at a star. Aries the ram was a symbol for Judea, the birthplace of Jesus. The Magi, or “wise men”, who visited the baby Jesus practiced astrology and would have been looking in that region of the sky for the king prophesied in the Old Testament. Molnar, a modern day wise person, used sky simulation software to model the positions of planets and the Moon in the region of Aries. According to his model, Jupiter was eclipsed, or blocked, by the Moon on the morning of April 17, 6 BC. A book written by the astrologer of Constantine the Great in 334 AD supports Molnar’s theory. The book describes an eclipse of Jupiter in Aries and notes a man of divine nature born during this time. See http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/ for more information.
The moon, Aries, and Jupiter make an appearance in the Christmas sky tonight. The moon rises a little after 5 pm. At 8 p.m., the dim constellation Aries is six and a half fists above due south. Jupiter is about one above the east horizon just before midnight.
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 http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.
Saturday: Columbia the dove, representing the bird Noah sent out to look for dry land as the floodwaters receded, is perched just above the ridge south of Ellensburg. Its brightest star Phact is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at midnight.
Sunday: The Geminid meteor shower peaks for the next two nights. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Gemini the twins. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain near the bright star Castor, the right hand star of the “twin” stars Pollux and Castor. This shower is typically one of the best ones of the year producing bright, medium speed meteors with up to 80 meteors per hour near the peak. This year, the waxing crescent moon will set before the peak viewing time.
Most meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the orbital trail of a comet. The broken off comet fragments collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Astronomers had searched for a comet source for this shower since 1862 when the shower was first observed. Finally, in 1983, astronomers discovered the object that created the fragments that cause the meteor shower. To their surprise, it was a dark, rock that looked like an asteroid, not a shiny icy comet. Astronomers named this object Asteroid 3200 Phaethon. But, they still don’t know if it an asteroid or if it is a comet with all of its ice sublimated away by many close passes by the Sun. For more information about the Geminid shower, go to http://earthsky.org/space/everything-you-need-to-know-geminid-meteor-shower. Now that’s a self-explanatory URL!
Monday: Just before Christmas, you look for junk to clean out of your closets so you can re-gift it. I mean, so you can throw it out or recycle it. NASA’s Meter Class Autonomous Telescope on Ascension Island is a key tool in a program tracking about 22,000 pieces space junk. Some of this junk is dangerous. The International Space Station occasionally performs debris avoidance maneuvers to keep is panels and sensitive instrument safe. For more information about the project, go to http://goo.gl/Kxgihd.
Tuesday: At 7 a.m., bright Venus is two fists above the southeast horizon, Mars is three and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon, and Jupiter is four and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon.
Wednesday: “Lately, I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep. Dreaming about the things that we could be. But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard, said no more counting dollars. We’ll be counting 9,096 stars, yeah we’ll be counting 9,096 stars.” Luckily, artistic judgment prevailed over scientific precision in the OneRepublic hit “Counting Stars”. According to the Yale Bright Star Catalog, there are 9,096 stars visible to the naked eye across the entire sky if you are observing from a very dark site. In the northern United States, where a part of the sky is never visible, that number drops to about 6,500. In the middle of a small city at mid-latitudes, like Ellensburg, that number drops to a few hundred. No wonder someone has been losing sleep. Learn more about the star count at http://goo.gl/nt8d80.
Thursday: Today is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of their god Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The holiday featured a break from work and school, a public banquet, and private gift giving. Some of these customs influenced the secular aspects of Christmas celebrations. Celebrate Saturnalia at 7 a.m. by viewing the planet Saturn, a half a fist above the southeast horizon. Seeing the real Saturn on the morning of December 17? As Leonard said on The Big Bang Theory, “It’s a Saturnalia miracle.”
Friday: This is a great time of the year to go around and observe the holiday lights… from SPACE. A NASA satellite has been tracking the spread of Christmas lighting for the past three years. In that time, lights around major US cities shine 20 to 50 percent brighter from Thanksgiving to New Years Day than they do the rest of the year. That makes power companies very happy. Some of the NASA images are available at http://goo.gl/X8Vvuz.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Saturday: The earliest sunset of the year occurs throughout the next week: 4:13 p.m. This seems odd because the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, isn’t for about two more weeks. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the sunrise and sunset times depend on more than its apparent southward motion in the sky. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma. But, it is on the leading edge of the analemma, the first section to go below the horizon. For a slightly different explanation about this, go to http://goo.gl/kjnHP. Or just go watch the sunset. But don’t stare at the Sun.
Sunday: The Oort cloud object called Comet Catalina has made its way into the morning sky for northern observers. Early estimations called for it to be visible with the naked eye comet but recent measurements rate it as a 6th magnitude object. This makes binoculars a necessity. For this morning and the next few mornings, look for Comet Catalina about a half a fist to the left of Venus. First find Venus, the brightest point of light in the sky, two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon. Aim your binoculars so Venus is in the right hand portion of your binocular field of view. Comet Catalina will be on the left hand side of the field of view. For more information about viewing Comet Catalina, go to http://goo.gl/9b4F23.
Monday: Yesterday I suggested you use binoculars to find Comet Catalina. You may have scoffed, thinking only the purity of the naked eye or the glory of a telescope are the ideal routes to astronomy enjoyment. Oh no. Binoculars are a great tool observing the sky. They are small, relatively inexpensive, and easy to use. After looking for Comet Catalina this morning, move your binoculars westward to look at the Moon. You’ll see a few craters on the lit side and a few long shadows along the light-dark border called the terminator. For more information about using binoculars, go to http://goo.gl/xWwYkb.
Tuesday: Do you look into a nursery and say, “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”? Not me. I say, “It’s a star”. Of course, I like looking into a stellar nursery – a star-forming region such as the Orion Nebula in the middle of Orion’s sword holder. The Orion Nebula looks like a fuzzy patch to the naked eye. Binoculars reveal a nebula, or region of gas and dust, that is 30 light years across. The center of the nebula contains four hot “baby” stars called the Trapezium. These hot stars emit the ultraviolet radiation that causes the Nebula’s gas to glow. The Orion Nebula is three fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.
Wednesday: Warrant, the American glam metal band (as labeled by Wikipedia) was singing about carbon stars in its 1991 hit “I Saw Red”. The lyrics for the astronomy version are “Then I saw red, when I looked up in the sky, I saw red, Orion’s bright star it was by.” R Leporis, also known as Hind’s Crimson Star, is one of the reddest stars in the sky. It is a star near the end of its life that has burned its helium nuclei into carbon. Convective currents, like those in a pot of boiling water, bring this carbon to the surface. There it forms a layer of soot that scatters away the light from the blue end of the visible spectrum leaving the light from the red end of the spectrum to reach our eyes. For more information about Hind’s Crimson Star and a list of other deep red stars, go to http://goo.gl/EnhRe4. Hind’s Crimson star is one fist to the lower right of Rigel, the brightest star in Orion. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see it Hind’s Crimson star. But you can easily spot Rigel three fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.
Thursday: You can see red again this morning, the red planet. Mars is three fists above the southeast horizon at 6 a.m. Jupiter and its Great Red Spot is four and a half fists above the south horizon at this time.
Friday: Fomalhaut, the southernmost bright star visible from Ellensburg, is a little less than one and a half fists above due south at precisely 5:38 p.m. Set your watch by it. (“Mommy, what is a watch?”)
Thursday, November 26, 2015
Saturday: “Hey baby! What’s your sign?”
“Ophiuchus, of course”
The Sun is in the same part of the sky as the stars of Ophiuchus from about November 29 to December 17. This is what astrologers mean when they say the Sun is “in” a constellation. Thus, if you were born between these dates, you should be an Ophiuchus. The fact that the horoscopes never list Ophiuchus is a major flaw of astrology. Astrology says that some of our characteristics are based on the location of the Sun at our birth. How can astrologers leave out three weeks from their system? That is like a scientist saying she can explain the results of her experiment every month of the year except early December. Ophiuchus was a mythical healer who was a forerunner to Hippocrates. According to myth, he could raise people from the dead. Maybe that is why he is ignored by astrology. Raising people from the dead is much less impressive than giving spot-on advice such as “Today is a good day to watch your finances.”
The bright stars of Ophiuchus rise just before the Sun. Rasalhague (pronounced Ras’-al-hay’-gwee), the brightest star, is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.
Sunday: There is a line-up of planets in the morning sky. Venus is two and a half fists above the southeast horizon. The bright star Spica is a half a fist to the lower right of Venus. Mars is a fist and a half to the upper right of Venus. Jupiter is three fists to the upper right of Venus.
Monday: Have you been shopping all weekend? Do you need an evening sky break? You deserve a big reward so make it a double. A Double Cluster, that is. The Double Cluster, also known as h and Chi Persei, consists of two young open star clusters in the constellation Perseus. Of course, young is a relative term as these clusters are about 13 million years old. Each cluster is spread out over an area about the same size as the full moon. To the naked eye, the Double Cluster shines with a steady, fuzzy glow. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars in the clusters. The Double Cluster is six fists above the northeast horizon at 6 p.m., about a fist below the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia and three fists above the bright star Capella.
Tuesday: Have you even seen a Black Hole? Neither have scientists. But they have seen the effects of a Black Hole. Black holes have a strong gravitational influence on anything that passes close to them, including light. Cygnus X-1, the first Black Hole candidate ever discovered, is six fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m., in the middle of the neck of Cygnus the swan. NASA launched the Chandra X-ray observatory in 1999 to study black hole candidates and other high-energy events.
Wednesday: I am guessing that some of you don’t like the line of reasoning from Tuesday: that seeing the effects of a Black Hole is good enough to claim there are Black Holes. You have never seen the wind. But, you have seen the effects of the wind. And no Ellensburg resident doubts the existence of the wind.
Thursday: Comet Catalina should now be visible with binoculars in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. First find Venus, the brightest point of light in the sky two and a half fists above the southeast horizon. Move Venus to the upper right hand portion of your binocular field of view. Then move your binoculars to the lower left to the brightest star in that portion of the sky, called Kappa Virginis. This star will be a lot dimmer than Venus. Comet Catalina will be to the left of this star. For more information and a finder chart for Comet Catalina, go to http://goo.gl/LxdeAw.
Friday: Is your favorite astronomy-loving relative of yours asking for a telescope this Christmas? Before reaching for your credit card, read this guide to choosing your first telescope, available at http://goo.gl/5oXmGj. If cost is an issue, look no further than this Sky and Telescope article about low cost telescopes http://goo.gl/40zd6. The authors review and recommend three telescopes that now cost less than $130 each. If you want to give a gag astronomy gift to someone who really bugs you, give them a copy this column. After such a dud “gift”, you’ll never hear from them again. And that may be the best gift of all.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Saturday: Do you want to learn more about what goes on at night in the natural world? You can at a free event called Nature of Night on the CWU campus, today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Go to the Science Building, I-8 on the map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map. The Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education gets help from various community organizations to put on this event.
Sunday: Are you disappointed because you are not going anywhere for Thanksgiving? Why not take a (virtual) trip to outer space using Google’s new visualization tool called 100,000 Stars. It shows the stars in our neighborhood in a very good simulation of 3-D. The Sun is initially at the center. If you zoom in, you can click on neighboring stars and learn more about them. For more information and a link to the tool, go to http://goo.gl/hg6Oc.
Monday: Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon Starfleet officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, might say “Today is a good day to die.” But Deneb, the bright supergiant star in Cygnus the Swan would say “two million years from now is a good day to die.” This may seem like a long time. But, compared to most stars, two million years from now is as close as today. For example, the Sun will last about five billion years. Small stars known as red dwarfs may last trillions of years. Prepare your astronomically short good byes to Deneb tonight at 7 o’clock when it is six and half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon.
Tuesday: Are you thankful that you live in a solar system with multiple planets? You should be. A giant planet like Jupiter cleans up planetary debris that could have collided with Earth and hindered the formation of complex life. Any inhabitants of the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae are thankful for this, as well. Upsilon Andromedae, a star in the constellation Andromeda, was the first Sun-like star discovered to have multiple planets orbiting it. So far, all of its planets are giant planets like Jupiter. But, the system is likely to also contain smaller planets. The dim star, but certainly not its planets, is barely visible straight overhead at 9 p.m. Jupiter is much easier to see, but you have to wait until tomorrow morning to see it. It is four and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.
Wednesday: Venus, the brightest point of light in the sky, is three fists above due southeast at 6:30 a.m. Mar’s is a little more than a fist to the upper right of Venus. The bright star Spica is a little less than a fist below Venus.
Thursday: Some of us have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. But, probably not as much as Andromeda had to be thankful for. 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. Her mother Queen Cassiopeia and her father King Cepheus didn’t know what to do. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came Andromeda’s boyfriend, the great warrior Perseus. 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 monster’s neck and killed it. This was the first time in recorded history that a set of parents actually welcomed an uninvited Thanksgiving visit from the boyfriend. Perseus is about five fists above the east-northeast horizon and Andromeda is about seven fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m.
Friday: Tonight is a good night to calibrate your fists. The general rule is that a fist held out at arm’s length subtends an angle of 10 degrees. At 6:00 p.m., the bright star Altair, in Aquila the eagle, is exactly 40 degrees above due southwest. Thus, it should be exactly four fists above the horizon. In 2006, Altair became the first main sequence star, aside from the Sun, to have its surface imaged directly. The main sequence is a range of temperatures and luminosities where stars spend most of their lives.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Saturday: Most constellations don’t look like the object their name refers to. That’s because most constellations don’t have such a simple to object to emulate as Triangulum does. Triangulum is shaped like a… wait for it…. Wait for it…. A thin isosceles triangle. Mothallah is the only named star in the constellation. In Latin this star is called Caput Trianguli, the head of the triangle. Triangulum is six fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 8 p.m. It is pointing down and to the right with Mothallah being the southernmost star at this time of night. The Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with binoculars about a half a fist to the right of Mothallah.
Sunday: It’s getting too cold to see frogs in the wild. But this is a great time to see frogs in the sky. Ancient Arabs referred to the stars that we now call Fomalhaut and Diphda as ad-difdi al-awwal and ad-difda at-tani. This means the first frog and the second frog, respectively. Both frogs are low in the southern sky at 8 p.m. Fomalhaut is one fist above the horizon and one fist to the east of due south. The slightly dimmer Diphda a little more than two fists above the horizon and one fist to the west of due south.
Monday: If you are a fan of science fiction, you may have heard of Tau Ceti. It’s a real Sun-like star with many fake civilizations. In 2012, astronomers discovered strong evidence of five real planets orbiting Tau Ceti. But before you go looking for Barbarella, read the latest research reports. Astronomers think these planets are made from different materials than Earth and would be regularly bombarded with comets and asteroids, destroying any life and space babes that arise. Tau Ceti is two and a half fists above due south at 10 p.m., one and a half fists to the left of Diphda.
Tuesday: The Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. These meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Leo the lion. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night and into the morning, as it will remain about one fist above the bright star Regulus. The first quarter moon will be doing its part to stay out of the way meaning even the dimmer meteors will be visible. The Leonid meteors are particles from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, a comet discovered by Ernst Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle in 1866. These are exceptionally fast moving meteors – over 150,000 miles per hour! Go to http://goo.gl/GkLiw7 to read everything you need to know about the Leonid meteor shower. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment.
Wednesday: When you think of space, the first image that comes to mind is a few large, massive bodies surrounded by a lot of empty space. After all, it is called “outer space”, not “outer stuff”. But that so-called empty space is filled with powerful radiation and high-speed sub-microscopic particles. Much of this is dangerous to life. However, many planets, including Earth, have a shield against radiation and particles called a magnetic field. Jupiter’s magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets. Find Jupiter four and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m. At this same time, Venus is three fists above due southeast and Mars is a fist to the upper right of Venus.
Thursday: The brightest star in the nighttime sky is making its way into the evening sky. Sirius is a little more than a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.
Friday: The Nature of Night event takes place tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Science Building on the CWU campus. There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Saturday: Imagine Opie and Andy Taylor walking down the dirt path at night to that fishing hole in the sky. They’d probably be looking to catch Pisces, the two fish already conveniently tied together with two ropes. The ropes are connected at the star Alrescha, Arabic for “the cord”. Alrescha is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10:30 p.m. The fish are attached to lines of stars that branch out at one o’clock and three o’clock from Alrescha. By the way, “The Fishing Hole”, The Andy Griffith Show’s theme song, was rated the 20th best TV theme song of all time by ign.com. That’s too low of a rating in my opinion.
Sunday: Did you look up Hypatia and Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi based on last week’s Halloween costume suggestion? Hypatia was a Greek astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher born about 370 CE. Very little was written about her while she was alive. Also, no work definitely thought to be hers, alone, has survived. Later writers and historians believe she wrote “The Astronomical Canon” and designed an improved version of the astrolabe, a tool for studying the night sky. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a Persian astronomer, mathematician, and geographer born around 780 CE. He is best known as the person who invented algebra. He also write an extensive book of astronomical tables which Islamic scientists used to predict the movements of the Sun, Moon, and five known (at the time) planets.
Monday: While Stonehenge is an ancient burial ground visited by religious people for thousands of years, MIThenge is an 825-foot long hallway on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited by the Sun’s rays twice a year. Every year in November and January, the setting Sun lines up with a narrow window at the end of the long hall and the light shines down to the opposite end. This season’s alignment is from November 10-13. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/0hwFQf or visit MIT. In addition, challenge yourself to find a similar alignment
Tuesday: Say “good bye” to Saturn. At 5 p.m., it is less than a half a fist above the southwest horizon. It will be lost in the glare of the setting Sun by the end of the week.
Wednesday: We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. And a happy Wednesday. Martinmas is a holiday in many parts of the world commemorating Saint Martin of Tours. He was buried on November 11, 397. What does this have to astronomy? Not much except that the celebration on November 11 often doubles as a cross-quarter day celebration, a day that is halfway between an equinox and a solstice. Also, according to an agricultural calendar, November 11 marks the practical beginning of winter.
Thursday: The Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks tonight. These are slow moving meteors that result in the occasional fireball. The Moon is near new so there won’t be much celestial light obscuring your view. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull, near the open star cluster called the Pleiades. This point is about three fists above the east horizon at 8 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist above the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.
Friday: At 6 a.m., Jupiter is four fists above the southeast horizon and Venus is a little less than three fists above the southeast horizon. Mars is about a half a fist to the upper right of Venus.
Friday, October 30, 2015
Saturday: Halloween. The pumpkins. The candy. The children going door-to-door dressed up as their favorite astronomers Hypatia and Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. At least they should because Halloween is, in part, an astronomical holiday. Halloween is a “cross-quarter date”, a day approximately midway between an equinox and a solstice. Historically, the Celts of the British Isles used cross-quarter dates as the beginnings of seasons. For the Celts, winter began with Halloween. So when all those little Hypatias and al-Khwarizmis come to your door tonight night, honor the Celts and give them a wintry treat. If they ask you for a trick, point out Saturn, a half fist above the southwest horizon at 6:30 p.m.
When you are done eating your candy, don’t forget to “fall back”. Before you fall back on to your bed, set your clock back one hour to the real time. Daylight savings ends early Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This means one more hour of sky watching at night because the Sun will set one hour earlier. Ben Franklin proposed the idea of “saving daylight” by adjusting our clocks way back in 1784. Daylight savings time was first utilized during World War I as a way to save electricity. After the war, it was abandoned. It was reintroduced during World War II on a year-round basis. From 1945 to 1966, some areas implemented daylight savings and some did not. Also, it was not implemented with any uniformity as to when it should start and stop. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 codified the daylight savings rules.
Sunday: Happy Celtic New Year! Many historians think that November 1, known for the festival of Samhain, was the ancient Celtic New Year’s Day. Samhain, Old Irish for “summer’s end”, was a harvest festival that may have contributed to some of the customs of our current “holiday” of Halloween.
Monday: After spending time in the sky in close proximity to Jupiter, Mars is spending some quality time with Venus. At 6 a.m., Mars and Venus are about three fists above the southeast horizon with Mars being about a pinky width to the left of Venus. Jupiter is about a half a fist above the pair.
Tuesday: Looking for an early Christmas gift for that special someone? Get them a calendar. No, not a beach volleyball calendar. Everyone wants that and I said this was for someone special. I’m talking about the Spitzer calendar. This calendar features the twelve most notable discoveries and memorable images of NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. Images include the Orion Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, and the Zeta Ophiuchi Bow Shock. Go to http://goo.gl/FTzM8a to read more about the calendar and download your free copy.
Wednesday: Lacerta, the faint lizard constellation, is straight overhead at 8 p.m. It was named by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687 to fill the space between the much brighter and well-defined constellations Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus going clockwise from the constellation just south of Lacerta. Chinese know this group of stars as a flying serpent or dragon.
Thursday: What do Justin Bieber and Betelgeuse have in common? Both are superstars. One will shine brightly for about a few hundred thousand more years. The other will only seem to be around for that long. Baby, baby, baby, ohh, you need to learn more about Betelgeuse, the real super giant star that is big enough to hold about one million Suns. For more information about Betelgeuse, go to http://goo.gl/0MyfHT. You’ll find it one fist above due east at 11 p.m.
Friday: The open star cluster called the Pleiades is three fists above due east at 8 p.m.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Saturday: Dead October flowers lead to November meteor showers. While the Leonid meteor shower is the big name event, the few bright and surprisingly colorful fireballs per hour you can see during the typical Southern and Northern Taurids meteor showers may make it worth your while to stay up late for a while. These two showers overlap from about October 19 to November 19. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull. This point is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist to the right of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.
Sunday: Venus and Jupiter are less than a pinky width apart in the east-southeast sky this morning. Venus is the brighter of the two. Mars is about a half a fist to the lower left of the other two planets at 7 a.m. Mercury is about a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon.
Monday: Rho Cassiopeiae is the most distant star that can be seen with the naked eye by most people. It is about 8,200 light years away. That means that the light that reaches your eyes from that star left over 8,000 years ago, before the beginning of time according to the Byzantine calendar. Rho Cassiopeiae is six fists above the northeast horizon at 8 p.m., just above the zigzag line that marks the constellation Cassiopeia.
Tuesday: The harvest is over. Animals that have filled themselves up with the excess bounty are wondering around through forests that have lost their leaves. It is a hunter’s paradise. The only thing missing is nighttime lighting. Enter the hunter’s moon. Tonight’s full moon, called the hunter’s moon, is in the constellation Pisces the fish.
Wednesday: Saturn is about a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 6:30 p.m.
Thursday: If the Dawn spacecraft didn’t know any better, it may have played “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “It’s like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”. That’s because most movies show an asteroid belt as millions of large rocks close together, moving through space and difficult to navigate. A “jungle” of asteroids. In reality, the objects in the asteroid belt are far apart from each other and easy for Dawn to move through without danger. Follow the trail of the dawn spacecraft using images found at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/live_shots.asp.
Friday: Deneb, one of the three bright stars in the Summer Triangle, is nearly straight overhead at 7 p.m.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Saturday: The Milky Way makes a faint white trail from due northeast through straight overhead to due southwest at 9 p.m. Starting in the northeast, the Milky Way “passes through” the prominent constellations Auriga the charioteer, Cassiopeia the queen, and Cygnus the swan with its brightest star, Deneb, nearly straight overhead. After Cygnus, you’ll see Aquila the eagle with its brightest star Altair about four and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon.
Sunday: Four planets are crowded near the east-southeast horizon at 6:30 this morning. Venus, the brightest planet, is three fists above the east-southeast horizon. Jupiter is about a half a fist to the lower left of Venus. Mars is visible in the same small telescope field of view as Jupiter, less than a pinky thickness to the lower left of the gas giant. Mercury is a more challenging target, a half a fist above the east horizon.
Monday: Halloween is next week so make sure you load up on peanut clusters, almond clusters, and open star clusters. That last one will be easy (and cheap… actually free) because two of the most prominent open star clusters in the sky are easily visible in the autumn sky. The sideways V-shaped Hyades Cluster is two fists above due east at 10 p.m. Containing over 300 stars; the Hyades cluster is about 150 light years away and 625 million years old. The Pleiades Cluster, a little more than three fists above due east, is larger at over 1000 stars and younger. Compared to our 5 billion year old Sun, the 100 million year age of the Pleiades is infant-like. The moon will help you find these clusters. This morning at 6:30 a.m., the Pleiades cluster is less than one fist to the upper right of the moon and the Hyades cluster is about one fist to the upper left of the moon. Tomorrow morning, the moon sits in the “V” of the Hyades cluster.
Tuesday: Saturn is about a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m.
Wednesday: The Orionid meteor shower consists of the Earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail. This shower peaks tonight after midnight. This is not a meteor shower that typically results in a meteor storm. There will be about 15-20 meteors per hour, many more meteors than are visible on a typical night but not the storm that some showers bring. Luckily, the moon is new so it won’t be obscuring many meteors. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about one fist above due east at midnight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. If you fall asleep tonight, you can catch the tail end of the shower every night until early November. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/8f8J50.
Thursday: The weather forecast calls for blue skies… on Pluto. Recent images just sent back from the New Horizons spacecraft show Pluto’s atmospheric haze backlit by the Sun. Astronomers were surprised to see that the atmospheric haze was a rich blue color, similar to that of the Earth’s atmosphere. The reason for the blue color is similar, as well. Particles in Pluto’s thin atmosphere scatter the blue component of sunlight just like the nitrogen particles in the Earth’s atmosphere scatter the blue component of sunlight and make the sky appear blue. Pluto’s atmosphere is too thin to look blue from its surface. But obviously thick enough to look blue while backlit by the Sun. For more information about Pluto’s blue sky, go to http://goo.gl/meIzTj.
Friday: “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” Constellations can be considered neighborhoods in the nighttime sky. But, the stars in those constellations are not necessarily neighbors in real life. For example, the bright stars in the constellation Cassiopeia range from 19 to over 10,000 light years away from Earth. One constellation that consists of real neighbors is Ursa Major. Or, more specifically, the Big Dipper. Five stars in the Big Dipper are all moving in the same direction in space, are about the same age and are all about 80 light years from Earth. “Please won’t you be my neighbor?” Skat, the third brightest star in the constellation Aquarius is a neighbor to these five Big Dipper stars, all of which are about 30 light years from each other. They are thought to have originated in the same nebula about 500 million years ago. Just like human children do, these child stars are slowly moving away from home. Skat is about three fists above due south at 10 p.m. The much brighter Fomalhaut is a fist and a half below Skat. And, it’s not fun being below Skat.