Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/27/16

Saturday: 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.

Sunday: 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. Two years ago, 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 At 6 a.m., Mars is two fists above the south horizon and one and a half fists to the left of the Moon. Jupiter and Europa are about one fist above the west horizon. Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south horizon and two fists to the left of Mars. 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. Venus is just above the east-southeast horizon.

Monday: 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

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Jupiter is one fist above due east at 7 p.m.

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 low in the southern sky at 9 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: Astronomers estimate that asteroid 2013 TX68 will pass “close to” Earth. How close? It could be as close as 11,000 miles – just about one Earth-diameter away. It could be 9 million miles – about one fifth the distance to Mars. The uncertainty is so large because we don’t know enough about its orbit. Thankfully, this close encounter will help astronomers pin it down so we know the chances of being struck by 2013 TX68 in the future. For more information about 2013 TX68 and other near Earth asteroids, 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 10, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/13/16

Saturday: Hopefully you’ve spent a few pre-dawn mornings over the last month looking at the five naked eye planets. That fun is not going to last because soon there will be just three visible planets. However, if you have binoculars, you should be able to find the asteroid Vesta in the post-dusk evening sky. Vesta is the brightest and second largest asteroid. In 2011, Vesta became the first asteroid orbited by a human-made satellite when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived.  Make Dawn the first asteroid observed by looking in the southwest sky at 7 p.m. First find the fairly bright star Deneb Kaitos less than one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon. Next, find the Great Square of Pegasus two and a half fists above the west horizon. Draw an imaginary line up from Deneb Kaitos and draw another imaginary line to the left from the left-most star in the Great Square. Aim your binoculars where those two lines cross. Your eyes might first be attracted to a bluish dot in the vicinity. That’s the planet Uranus. When you place Uranus in the right-hand side of your field of view, Vesta will be on the left-hand side. It will not stand out from the rest of the stars. The only way you’ll know it is Vesta is if you check again over the next few nights. All of the points of light in your field of view will remain in place except Vesta. It will move to the upper left of your field of view. Uranus will also move up but not nearly as much. For more information, go to

Sunday: Today: 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 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.

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: As mentioned earlier, the Naked Planet Morning Peep Show will be ending soon. (That sounded more innocent when I said it in my head.) This morning at 6:30, Jupiter is one and a half fists above the west horizon. Mars is two and a half fists above the south horizon. Saturn is to the left of Mars, two fists above the south horizon. Venus, the brightest planet, and Mercury are less that a half a fist above the southeast horizon, with Mercury being to the lower left of Venus.

Wednesday: The bright star Arcturus is nearly two fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

Thursday: “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.
All noteworthy birthdays need a party so the CWU Museum of Culture and Environment is hosting an 86th birthday party for Pluto at 5:30 pm. Members of the CWU physics department will talk about Pluto and recent Solar System discoveries. The museum is in Dean Hall, found at K-8 on the campus map: Parking is free after 4:30.

Friday: Jupiter is nearly two fists above the east horizon at 9 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 4, 2016

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/6/16

Saturday: Are you going to watch the super bowl tomorrow night? 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.

Sunday: Don’t waste time watching the big game. Effectively use time learning about your surroundings. 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: Are you a morning person? Good, because you’ll see quite a show in the morning sky for the next week or so. All five naked eye planes will be visible before sunrise. This morning at 6:45, Jupiter is two fists above the west-southwest horizon. Mars is two and a half fists above the south horizon. Saturn is two fists above the south-southeast horizon. The bright and reddish star called Antares is one fist to the lower right of Saturn. Venus, the brightest planet, is a little less than one fist above the southeast horizon. Mercury is a half a fist above the southeast horizon, to the lower left of Venus.

Tuesday: Orion stands tall in the southern sky. At 10:30 p.m., the middle of Orion’s belt is four fists above due south. And talk about belt tightening! Alnilam, the middle star in the belt, is losing mass at a rate of about 100 thousand trillion tons a day. That’s a 1 followed by 17 zeros tons per day.

Wednesday: 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.

Thursday: Do you sleep in and miss seeing all of the planets in the early morning sky? You don’t have to change your sleeping habits at all to see Jupiter. It is one fist above the eastern horizon at 9 p.m.

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