Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/31/15

Saturday: This is the weekend to spend time with the 12s. At 11 pm, look four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon to Leo, the 12th largest constellation. Just to the right of the backwards question mark that represents Leo’s head is Jupiter. Jupiter is the largest planet but Callisto, the 12th largest object in our Solar System, orbits it. Callisto, along with Jupiter’s three other large moons, is visible with a small telescope. At 11:00 tonight, Callisto is to the upper right of Jupiter, about one Jupiter-diameter away. The 12th largest star is PZ Cassiopeiae, a red supergiant with a radius about 1,500 times that of the Suns, is always visible with binoculars. It is circumpolar which means it never sets. It is about three fists above the northwest horizon at 11 p.m. constellation Cassiopeia. You’ll have to wait until morning to see the 12th brightest star. Altair is two fists above the east horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Sunday: Are you going to watch the super bowl tonight? Is the bowl really that super? After all, half the night the bowl is tipped upside down, spilling out all of its contents. But don’t just focus on the functionality of the bowl. Think about how it inspires people all across the world to sit on the green grass and look into the dark blue early evening sky. In Mongolia, participants in the super bowl are known as gods. An Arabian story says the super bowl is a coffin, one that can even hold dying patriots. I encourage you go outside tonight at about 8 p.m., after whatever unimportant thing you have been doing since 3:30 p.m. Look low in the north-northwest sky and watch the super bowl, also known as the Big Dipper, balancing on the end of its handle, proudly displaying its large bowl.

Monday: Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. If Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow this morning, he is telling us that he follows the Chinese calendar and that spring starts early. On the Chinese calendar, equinoxes and solstices occur in the middle of their respective seasons. In order for the vernal equinox to occur in the middle of spring, spring must start on February 3 or 4, depending on the year. Thus, if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, legend is that spring will start on February 3 or 4 as on the Chinese calendar. If Phil sees his shadow, he is telling us he agrees with the western calendar and that there will be six more weeks of winter meaning spring will start near March 20.

Tuesday: The very bright planet Venus is one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 6 p.m. Mars is about 100 times less bright and located one fist to the upper left of Venus.

Wednesday: Winter is the best season for finding bright stars. And if you only want to set aside a few minutes, 10 p.m. tonight just might be the best time because the winter hexagon is due south. Starting at the bottom, find Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, two and a half fists above the south horizon. Going clockwise, Procyon (6th brightest star visible from Washington state) is about two and a half fists to the upper left of Sirius. Pollux (12th brightest) is about two and a half fists above Procyon. Capella (4th brightest) is about two and a half fists to the upper right of Procyon and close to straight overhead. Going back to Sirius at the bottom, Rigel (5th brightest) about two and a half fists to the upper right of Sirius. Aldebaran (9th brightest) is about three fists above Rigel. Betelgeuse (7th brightest) is in the center of the hexagon. Adhara (16th brightest) is a little more than a fist below Sirius and Castor (17th brightest) is right above Pollux. That’s nine of the 17 brightest stars visible in the northern United States in one part of the sky.

Thursday: Saturn is a little more than two fists above the south horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Friday: The good news is the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter. The better news is the farther north you go in the United States, the longer the days get. Here in Ellensburg, there is one and a half more hours of daylight than on the first day of winter. In the southern part of the US, there is only 35 more minutes of sunlight. On the North Pole, the day length has gone from zero hours to zero hours in the past month and a half. If you’d like to have your own fun with day lengths and other time questions, go to

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

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