Thursday, May 26, 2016
Saturday: In 1979, the group Foreigner recorded the song “Head Games”. They could have been singing about the constellations Hercules and Ophiuchus when they said “head games, it’s just you and me baby, head games, I can’t take it anymore” because the heads of these two constellations have been right next to each other in the nighttime sky for all of human history. And just to make it easy for you, a star that bears an Arabic name that means “the head” represents each head. In Hercules, it's Ras Algethi (head of the kneeler); in Ophiuchus, Ras Alhague (head of the serpent charmer). At 11 p.m., Ras Alhague, the brighter of the two, is a little more than four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon. Ras Algethi is about a half a fist to the upper right of Ras Alhague.
Sunday: About one month ago, astronomers announced the discovery of three Earth-sized planets orbiting a small, ultra cool dwarf star. Until recently, astronomers didn’t think these stars, which are only about 10% the mass of the Sun, would be good candidates as hosts for habitable planets. But this type of star is so abundant; there are numerous examples close by. The recent discovery is only 40 light years away, nearly our neighbor down the block. For more information about this discovery, go to http://goo.gl/BiV8yx.
Monday: Cygnus the swan flies tonight. Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation, whose name means “tail” in Arabic, is two fists above the northeast horizon at 10 p.m. Cygnus’ wings make a vertical line one half a fist to the right of Deneb. Its head, marked by the star Albireo, is two fists to the right of Deneb. While Deneb is at the tail of Cygnus, it is at the head of the line of bright stars. It is 160,000 times more luminous than the Sun making it one of the brightest stars in the galaxy. It does not dominate our night sky because it is 2,600 light years away, one of the farthest naked eye stars. If Deneb were 25 light years away, it would shine as bright as a crescent moon. Compare that to Vega, which is 25 light years away. Vega is three and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon at this time.
Tuesday: Jupiter is nearly four fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.
Wednesday: The month of June is named after Juno, the queen of the Roman gods and the mythological protector of the Roman state. In ancient Rome, the month began when the crescent moon was first seen in the evening sky from Capitoline Hill in Rome. If we still started months this way, June wouldn’t start for a few days, right after the moon was last new. Celebrate the first sunset in June by actually watching it… and then turning your head to the southeast horizon until it is dark enough to see Mars, Saturn, and the star Antares making a little triangle. At 9:30 p.m., Mars is a little more than a fist above the southwest horizon, Antares is a half a fist above due southeast, and Saturn is a fist and a half to the lower left of Mars.
Thursday: Last year, astronomers using a radio telescope in Australia discovered the source of fleeting radio signal bursts that had been a mystery for 17 years. And they didn’t have to probe the depths of deep space. They only had to probe the depths of… the observatory kitchen. It turns out the signal came from opening the microwave door prematurely. Read more about The Microwave Emission here: http://goo.gl/Ftb04C. Sheldon Cooper used similar methods of science when he discovered a can opener instead of magnetic monopoles in the season three premiere of The Big Bang Theory http://goo.gl/kAEoOD.
Friday: Get up early to try spot Mercury low on the east-northeast horizon, just above the thin waning crescent moon.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Saturday: Late spring and early summer is a good time to look for star clusters. Last week, you learned about M3, the third object cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier over 200 years ago. One of the best clusters is the globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, also called M13. (. Guess what number that object is in Messier’s catalog.) Globular clusters are compact groupings of a few hundred thousand stars in a spherical shape 100 light years across. (For comparison, a 100 light year diameter sphere near out Sun would contain a few hundred stars.) The globular cluster in Hercules is six fists held upright and at arm's length above the east horizon at 11 p.m. First find Vega, the bright bluish star about four fists above the east-northeast horizon. Two fists to the upper right of Vega is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the two stars that form the uppermost point of the keystone. The globular cluster is one third of the way south of the uppermost star on the way to the rightmost star of the keystone. It looks like a fuzzy patch on the obtuse angle of a small obtuse triangle. If you don’t know what an obtuse angle is, you should not have told your teacher, “I’ll never need to know this stuff”.
Sunday: Mars is at opposition tonight. No, that doesn’t mean that Mars refuses to eat his vegetables. (Please eat your vegetables, children.) Opposition means that Mars 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 Mars is also relatively close, it is very bright tonight. Mars is about two fists above due south at 1 a.m. Saturn is one fist to the left of Mars, right next to a bright object called the Moon.
Monday: The constellation Aquila the eagle is starting its migration across the summer evening sky this month. Aquila, marked by its bright star Altair, rises to one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m. Not all animal migrations are fully understood by scientists. We might be inclined to attribute bird migrations to instinct. This answer certainly did not satisfy the theologian C. S. Lewis. In his short work “Men Without Chests”, he wrote, “to say that migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way”. In science (and theology), Lewis is telling us to look for real causes and not simply labels such as instinct. The cause for Aquila’s migration is the Earth orbiting the Sun. As the Earth moves around the Sun, certain constellations move into the evening sky as others get lost in the glare of the setting Sun.
Tuesday: Jupiter is four fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.
Wednesday: Good night little doggie. Procyon, the brightest star in Minor, the little dog, is less than one fist above the west horizon at 10 p.m. Over the next couple of weeks, it will be too close to the setting Sun in the sky to be visible.
Thursday: The bright star Capella is one and a half fists above the northwest horizon at 9:30 p.m.
Friday: While the NASA probe Dawn is off exploring the largest main-belt asteroid Ceres, you can explore the second largest asteroid Vesta. NASA has released Vesta Trek, a free web-based application that allows you to zoom in, “fly” over the surface, measure craters sizes, and see what Vesta looks like in different wavelengths of light. Go to http://goo.gl/97NxgF for more information about Vesta Trek and the Dawn mission.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
Saturday: The New Horizons probe is still sending data from its Pluto pass-by back to Earth. There’s so much information, you need an expert to help you sort it all out. Fortunately, Pluto expert Marc Buie will be talking about New Horizons, Pluto, and beyond at Central Washington University, 4:00 pm today in Lind Hall 215. Lind Hall is on the corner of Chestnut Street and East University Way, D-13 on the CWU campus map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map. For more information about the lecture, go to http://goo.gl/TRrXEI.
Sunday: The questions who, what, where, and when can only be asked with a “W”. At 11 p.m., the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia is about two fists held upright and at arm’s length above due north. The middle star in the W was used as a navigation reference point during the early space missions. The American astronaut Gus Grissom nicknamed the star Navi, his middle name Ivan spelled backwards. After he died in the Apollo 1 fire, the star name was kept as a memorial.
Monday: In an old Saturday Night Live spoof advertisement for a turkey you can pump (http://goo.gl/OioQAr), Chris Rock sang, “The first turkey dinner was 1620. The pilgrims had it in the land of plenty.” But he could have just as easily say, “The light left Rasalgethi in 1620. The light now reaches us in the land of plenty.” Rasalgethi is a double star in the constellation Hercules that is almost 400 light years away. Its name is based on the Arabic words meaning, “Head of the kneeler” because some views of Hercules depict him as a warrior kneeling down, perhaps resting after his twelve labors. You’ll find Rasalgethi three and a half fists above due east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.
Tuesday: Jupiter is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.
Wednesday: Give me an “M”. Give me a “3”. What does that spell? “M3.” “Big deal,” you say. It was a big deal to French comet hunter Charles Messier (pronounced Messy A). M3 was the 3rd comet look-alike that Messier catalogued in the late 1700s. M3 is a globular cluster, a cluster of over 100,000 stars that is 32,000 light years away. It is too dim to be seen with the naked eye but is fairly easy find with binoculars. First find Arcturus six fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Move your binoculars up a little so two stars of nearly identical brightness are in your field of view. When the top star is in the lower left part of your field of view, there should be a fuzzy patch near the center of your field of view. This is M3.
Thursday: At 11 p.m., Mars, Saturn, and the bright star Antares make a small right triangle. Mars, the brightest of the three, is one and a half fist above the southeast horizon. Antares is a little less than a fist below Mars and Saturn is about a fist to the lower left of Mars.
Friday: Earlier this month, astronomers announced that the Kepler Mission verified 1,284 new exoplanets; planets orbiting a star other than our Sun. Read the press release about this discovery at http://goo.gl/6nln47. Only nine of the newly discovered planets are in the habitable zone of their host star. This means they orbit their host star at a distance such that there is a good chance for liquid water to exist on their surface. But being in the habitable zone doesn’t mean a planet is habitable. The temperature of the planet depends greatly on its atmosphere. A thick atmosphere would mean a very hot planet like Venus in our own Solar System. Just last year, astronomers discovered the first near-Earth-size planet orbiting a Sun-like star. For more information about this planet, called Kepler-452b, go to http://goo.gl/3aTxqN.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Saturday: Are you thirsty. I’ll wait while you get some water. I will NOT wait while Corvus the crow gets you some water. The Greco-Roman god Apollo made this mistake. He sent Corvus the crow to get some water in the cup known as Crater. Some figs distracted Corvus and he waited for them to ripen so he could eat them. When Corvus got back late, Apollo put Corvus and Crater in the sky with the gently tipping cup just out of the reach of the perpetually thirsty crow. Corvus is a trapezoid-shaped constellation about two fists above due south at 10 p.m. Crater is just to the right of Corvus.
Sunday: So you think your mother has problems on Mother’s Day because she had you as you as a child? Her mother issues can’t be as bad as Cassiopeia’s issues. First, she was chained to a chair for boasting about her beauty. Second, she has to revolve around the North Star night after night. Third, her daughter Andromeda was nearly killed by a sea monster. Look for poor Cassiopeia about one and a half fists above the north horizon at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.
Monday: To paraphrase a song by The Police: “There’s a little black spot on the Sun today. It’s a different thing than yesterday.” Mercury, the innermost planet, passes directly between the Earth and Sun today. This passing, called a transit, shows up as a small, black dot on the Sun. The transit starts at before sunrise on the west coast of the United States and ends at 11:40 a.m. As with any solar observation, practice safe Sun watching by using a good solar filter or projecting the telescope or binocular image on to a piece of paper. For more information about the transit, go to http://goo.gl/OLMRy5. NEVER look directly at the Sun! If you miss this Mercury transit, the next one is November 11, 2019.
Tuesday: Jupiter is five fists above the south horizon at 9 p.m.
Wednesday: At 11 p.m., Mars, Saturn, and the bright star Antares make a small right triangle. Mars, the brightest of the three, is one fist above the southeast horizon. Antares is a little over a half a fist below Mars and Saturn is about a fist to the lower left of Mars.
Thursday: This is a good time of the year to find the Big Dipper. It is nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. The cup is to the west and the handle is to the east. You can always use the Big Dipper to find some other bright stars. First, follow the curve, or arc, of the Big Dipper down three fists into the southern sky. This is the bright star, Arcturus, the second brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg. Next, continue on a straight line, or spike, another three fists down toward the south horizon to the star Spica. Spica is the tenth brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg. It is known as the Horn Mansion, one of 28 mansions, or constellations, in the Chinese sky. You now know how to use the Big Dipper handle to “arc” to Arcturus and “spike” to Spica.
Friday: Today’s moon is in the first quarter phase. But what if it is cloudy of you are study inside all day and night? Easy, check out the Moon online. One of the best live Moon maps is found at http://goo.gl/wRXQqa. See the most up to date lunar images at fantastic resolution, down to about two meters. You could easily tell the difference between a car and a minivan on the moon.