Monday, December 28, 2015

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/2/16

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

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 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

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 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

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