Friday, December 11, 2015
The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 12/12/15
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.
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.