Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/28/15

Saturday: “The crow rises in the southeast,” said spy number one. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize that code,” replied spy number two. Spy one exclaimed, “That’s because it’s not a code, you idiot. I’m talking about the constellation Corvus the crow.” This very bad spy movie dialogue is to remind you that Corvus had a very bad life. According to one myth, Corvus brought the god Apollo the news that his girlfriend was seeing someone else. In a classic case of punishing the messenger, Apollo turned the formerly beautifully colored crow black. The box-shaped Corvus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: Tonight is a great night to look for the Big Dipper. Tomorrow will be a great night to look for the Big Dipper. In fact, every night for many centuries will be great nights to look for the Big Dipper. But the Big Dipper’s shape slowly changes over many, many, many, many centuries. (Have I reached my word count yet?) Tens of thousands of years ago, it didn’t look like a dipper and tens of thousands of years from now, it will no longer look like a dipper. For a short video simulation of the changing Big Dipper, go to For a look at the current Dipper, face northeast at 8 p.m. The lowest star, Alkaid, is two and a half fists above the horizon.

Monday: Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is two and a half fists above due south at exactly 8:09 p.m.

Tuesday: Venus is one and a half fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m.

Wednesday: If you ask an astrobiologist for the three most likely places to find evidence of life in the Solar System, other than Earth, they’d probably say Mars, Europa (“Didn’t they sing “The Final Countdown”?”), and Enceladus. Mars makes sense because you know scientists have sent a lot of probes there. Astronomers first discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, first piqued astrobiologists’ interest a few years ago then NASA’s Cassini probe discovered jets of water containing organic materials shooting out. Last year, the German space agency started a project called Enceladus Explorer, EnEx for short, to collect sample from deep within Enceladus. For more information on the Enceladus mission, go to Mars is one fist above the west horizon at 7 p.m., just below the much brighter Venus. Jupiter and Europa are three and a half fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m. You have to stay up really late or get up early to see Saturn. Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m. By the way, the Swedish group Europe sang “The Final Countdown”. And they were “heading for Venus” in the song, not to the worlds of the outer Solar System.

Thursday: In this busy world, it is important to know what time it is. We have many devises that give us the time. A phone. A computer. A watch. But who has time to build a phone, computer or even a watch. Not you. But everyone has enough time to build a simple Sun Clock. All you need is a pencil, a compass and a print out of the clock template. Go to for more information.

Friday: Today, the Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Over the next 16 months, Dawn will gather information the former planet, now considered a dwarf planet. That’s right. After Ceres was first discovered on the first day of the 19th century, 1/1/1801, astronomers called it a planet. However, as more objects were discovered in this region of the solar system, they were all called asteroids for their star-like appearance. “Aster” is Greek for star. For more information, including numerous images, 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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/21/15

Saturday: Venus and Mars are very close together, one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon. How close together, you ask. You could not fit the largest full moon in between them. The full moon subtends an angle of about 0.5 degrees and the two planets are 0.4 degrees apart tonight.

Sunday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much hotter starlet”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Saturn is two fists above due south at 6 a.m. The star(let) Antares is about a fist to the lower left of Saturn.

Monday: Headline from the tabloids: Earth sends robot to Mars in order to take a selfie. In January 2014, the Mars Curiosity rover took a picture of its night sky that included the Earth and moon. Both would easily be visible to the naked eye for a human standing on Mars. Since you can’t go to Mars, go to look at the picture.

Tuesday: Mercury will be as far away from the Sun in the sky as it will get this orbital cycle. This "farthest away" point is known as the planet's greatest elongation. Since Mercury is in morning sky, it is west of the Sun and this occurrence is called the greatest western elongation. This morning will be the best morning to observe Mercury for the next few weeks. Mercury is about a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at 6:15 a.m. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. By mid April, it will be visible in the evening sky.

Wednesday: Did you know you can see stars in the daytime? Of course every smart elementary school child would answer, “the Sun is a star so, of course you can see stars in the daytime.” You, in your aged wisdom would retort, “I said stars, plural, and the Sun is only one star.” Then her even more learned middle school aged sister would note, “You can even see some of the brighter so-called night time stars during the day if you know where to look.” Today is one of those days, if you have binoculars. First, locate the moon high in the southeast sky at 5 p.m. Next, find it with your binoculars. If the moon is on the left hand side of the field of view, the star Aldebaran will be near the center. You may be able to find Aldebaran earlier but 5 p.m. is the best time because the star is high in the sky while the Sun is low in the sky.

Thursday: Avast ye matey. Swab the poop deck. Pirates love astronomy. In fact, the term “poop” in poop deck comes from the French word for stern (poupe) which comes for the Latin word Puppis. Puppis is a constellation that represents the raised stern deck of Argo Navis, the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. Argo Nevis was an ancient constellation that is now divided between the constellations Puppis, Vela and Carina. The top of Puppis is about a fist and a half to the left of the bright star Sirius in the south-southwest sky at 10 p.m. Zeta Puppis, the hottest, and thus the bluest, naked eye star in the sky at 40,000 degrees Celsius is near the uppermost point in Puppis.

Friday: I hope you got your sweetie something red for Valentine’s Day two weeks ago. If not, I suggest a nice picture of the Red Valley on Mars. This January, the Mars Express probe took the first high-resolution stereo color image of Tinto Vallis, or Red Valley, the mouth of an ancient water flow on Mars. For more information and many photos of Tinto Vallis, go to Mars is one fist above the east-southeast horizon 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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/14/15

Saturday: 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. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came the great warrior Perseus, fresh off his defeat of the evil Gorgon, Medusa. The only similarity between Andromeda and Medusa was that Andromeda caused people to stand still and stare at her beauty while Medusa turned people to stone because of her ugliness. (And, you thought you looked bad in the morning.) 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 monsters neck and killed it. In a little known addendum to the story, Perseus carved “Percy (heart symbol) Andi” in the rock, thus originating the use of the heart symbol as a substitute for the word “love”.
You can find these lovers in the sky this Valentine’s Day. Just remember it is rude to stare – and you never know when you might turn to stone. First, find the Great Square of Pegasus at 7 p.m. between one and a half and three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. The lowest star in Andromeda is the top star in the square. This represents Andromeda’s head. Perseus is at her feet, nearly straight overhead. Mirphak, the brightest star in Perseus, is about eight fists above the west horizon. Perseus’ body is represented by the line of stars to the left and right of Mirphak.

Sunday: Venus and Mars are neighbors near the western horizon this week. At 6:30 this evening, Venus is a little more than a fist above the west-southwest horizon. Mars is less than a half a fist to its upper left. As the days go by, Venus will slowly move up from the horizon and Mars will move down to the horizon. By early next week, they will nearly bump into each other in the sky. Of course, they will really be millions of miles apart.

Monday: The first human-made probe to visit a dwarf planet will reach its destination early next month. But it has already started sending back pictures. The Dawn mission will arrive at Ceres on March 6. Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It was actually classified as a planet for a few years after it was discovered in 1801. As with any good science mission, Dawn has answered a few questions and raised many more. Since you can’t see Ceres in the night sky – it is now out during the daytime – do to for a two second movie of Ceres rotation.

Tuesday: Jupiter is five and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, at that time classified as the ninth planet. However, as astronomers started discovering a lot of similar objects in that part of the solar system, they realized that had a classification crisis on their hands. Should everything in this region of the solar system be named a planet? Eventually the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto and all future Pluto-like objects as dwarf planets. According to his wife, if Mr. Tombaugh were alive today, he maybe disappointed at the reclassification but he’d accept it because, as a scientist, he’d recognize the implications the new naming scheme would have on future discoveries. Besides, noted astronomer Hal Levison, while Tombaugh didn’t discover the ninth planet, he discovered the Kuiper Belt and that’s a whole lot more interesting. The New Horizons probe will reach Pluto July 14, 2015. See for more information.

Thursday: Saturn is two and a half fists above due south at 6:15 a.m.

Friday: Along with Pluto, Tombaugh discovered numerous asteroids, variable stars, and star clusters. Up until recently, the responsibility of naming all of these objects would have belonged to the International Astronomical Union. But in 2013, the IAU revised their naming rules to let individuals suggest names for certain celestial objects. They are running a contest to name certain objects. For more information, 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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/7/15

Saturday: Jupiter is at opposition tonight. No, that doesn’t mean that Jupiter refuses to eat his vegetables. (Please eat your vegetables, children.) Opposition means that Jupiter is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun. An object is in opposition when it is due south 12 hours after the Sun. When an object is in opposition, it is at its highest point in the sky during the darkest time of the night. A planet in opposition shines brighter and appears larger in a telescope than any other night. And since Jupiter is also the largest planet, it reflects a lot of sunlight. Jupiter is about five fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Sunday: The universe contains everything from gigantic galaxy clusters to tiny parts of atoms so it is difficult to visualize all of it on the same scale. Cary and Michael Huang have created an interactive scale model of the universe which allows you to “slide” from a vantage point outside the known universe down to the smallest things ever theorized. To take this trip, go to

Monday: You think wintertime weather is bad in Ellensburg. Astronomers have discovered storms and earth-sized clouds on a brown dwarf. These are cool, small stars that are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen atoms and fuse hydrogen. In fact, they are more similar to gas giant planets such as Jupiter that to the Sun. In this context, the discovery of storms similar to the giant Red Spot on Jupiter makes sense. For more information, go to

Tuesday: Winter is a good time to see the thick band of the Milky Way galaxy. It arches high in the high in the early evening starting in the southeast by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Climbing from Sirius through the "horns" of Taurus high overhead, it drops down toward M-shaped Cassiopeia in the north and the tail of Cygnus, the swan, in the northwest.

Wednesday: Saturn is about two and a half fists above the south horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Thursday: It is often said that Earth is a water world because about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. What would it look like if all that water on the surface were gathered up into a ball? That “ball” would be about 700 km in diameter, less than half the diameter of the Moon. The Astronomy Picture of the day shows us right here

Friday: This President’s Day weekend, let’s remember Abraham Lincoln: 16th president, country lawyer, man on the penny, vampire hunter, and astronomer. Vampire hunter? No. Astronomer? Well, maybe not an astronomer, but someone who used observational evidence from the sky to solve a problem. In 1858, Lincoln defended Duff Armstrong, a family friend who was accused of murder. The prosecution thought they had a strong case because their primary witnesses claimed to have observed the killing by the light of the nearly full moon. Let’s listen in on the trial courtesy of the 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: How’d you see so well?
Witness: I told you it was Moon bright, Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: Moon bright.
Witness: Yes.
(Dramatic pause as Lincoln reaches for something)
Lincoln: Look at this. Go on, look at it. It’s the Farmer’s Almanack (sic). You see what it says about the Moon. That the Moon… set at 10:21, 40 minutes before the killing took place. So you see it couldn’t have been Moon bright, could it?
Lincoln used the known information about Moon rising and setting times for August 29, 1858 as evidence in a trial. This is one of the earliest uses of forensic astronomy. You may confirm Lincoln’s findings on the Moon set time by going to, the US Naval Observatory website, and filling out Form A. For more information about Lincoln’s “almanac trial”, 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