Friday, August 11, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/12/17

Saturday: The Perseid meteor shower hits its peak late tonight/early tomorrow morning. The meteors appear to come from a point just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon. If you fall asleep or forget to set your alarm, you will be able to observe this shower from about 11 p.m. to dawn for the next few nights in about the same location in the sky. The Perseid shower is one of the longest lasting showers. The waning gibbous moon will obscure most of the dimmer meteors. For tips about optimizing your viewing this year, go to http://goo.gl/Ylk9jA. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. These meteors are sand to pea-sized bits of rock that fell off of Comet Swift-Tuttle. They are traveling about 40 miles per second as they collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Sunday: At 9 p.m., Jupiter is one fist above the west-southwest horizon and Saturn is two fists above due south.

Monday: The total solar eclipse is a week from today. If you are lucky enough to find a spot in the path of totality, you know to bring your eclipse glasses. After all, the “total” part of the eclipse lasts two minutes while the partial part lasts two hours. Sky & Telescope magazine has put together a list of things you might not think about needing. Find it at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/2017-total-solar-eclipse/10-things-might-need-eclipse-day/.

Tuesday: Altair, at one corner of the Summer Triangle, is four fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m. Altair is one of the closest bright stars, so close that fictional astronauts visited a planet orbiting Altair in the 1956 movie “Forbidden Planet”.

Wednesday: Do you get all of your astronomy news from this column? If so, it is time to up your game. CWU astronomer Cassie Fallscheer is giving a presentation tonight from 6:30 to 7:30 at Hal Holmes Center. Go to https://goo.gl/oEM5vN for more information.

Thursday: Need a caffeine pick-me-up? Make it a double. Need an astronomy pick-me-up? Make it a double double. Find Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, nearly straight overhead at 10:00 tonight. Less than half a fist to the east (or left if you are facing south) of the bright bluish star Vega is the “star” Epsilon Lyra. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through binoculars, it looks like two stars. If you look at Epsilon Lyra through a large enough telescope, you will notice that each star in the pair is itself a pair of stars.  Each star in the double is double. Hence, Epsilon Lyra is known as the double double. The stars in each pair orbit a point approximately in the center of each respective pair. The pairs themselves orbit a point between the two pairs.

Friday: Let’s all sing the galactic black hole monster song: “D is for dusty, that’s good enough for me. D is for dusty that’s good enough for me. D is for dusty that’s good enough for me. Oh dusty, dusty, dusty starts with D.” Astronomers know that spiral galaxies such as our own have super massive black holes in the center, black holes that are billions of times the mass of the Sun. They thought they got to be this massive by mergers where two galaxies collide and the gas, dust and black holes at the center of each colliding galaxy form a larger central black hole. But many distant galaxies show no signs of galactic mergers. Astronomers think the black holes at the center of these galaxies grew simply by snacking on the gas and dust that comes from supernova explosions and normal star formation. Just like the Cookie Monster gains weight by snacking on individual cookies rather than eating a cookie factory. Cookie crumbs, I mean dust, block your view of the center of our galaxy.  It is about one fist above due south at 10 p.m., between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/L9ppJf.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/5/17

Saturday: The Perseid meteor shower hits its peak late for the next few nights with Friday and Saturday being the peak of the peak. The meteors appear to come from a point just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon. If you fall asleep or forget to set your alarm, you will be able to observe this shower from about 11 p.m. to dawn for the next few nights in about the same location in the sky. The Perseid shower is one of the longest lasting showers. The waning gibbous moon will obscure most of the dimmer meteors. For tips about optimizing your viewing this year, go to http://goo.gl/Ylk9jA. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. These meteors are sand to pea-sized bits of rock that fell off of Comet Swift-Tuttle. They are traveling about 40 miles per second as they collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Sunday: Seventeenth century astronomers documented the appearance of a new star, or “nova”, in 1670. However as modern astronomers studied the records of the star, called Nova Vulpeculae 1670, they realized it didn’t have the characteristics of a typical nova because it didn’t repeatedly brighten and dim. It brightened twice and disappeared for good. Turning their telescopes to the region, they discovered the chemical signature to be characteristic of a very rare collision of two stars. For more information about this discovery, go to http://goo.gl/rJnC2G. Nova Vulpeculae 1670 is right below the binary star system Alberio, the head of Cygnus the swan. Alberio is seven fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Monday: Saturn is two fists above due south and Jupiter is one and a half fists above the west-southwest horizon at 9:17 p.m.

Tuesday: If you want to show your loved ones a celestial sign that they should hang up their clothes, show them Brocchi's Cluster, commonly known as the Coat Hanger cluster because of its resemblance to an upside down coat hanger. The cluster is six fists above the southeast horizon at 10:30 p.m., midway between Altair and Vega, the two brightest stars in the Summer Triangle. You'll need binoculars to make out the shape. First find Altair four fists above the southeast horizon. Slowly move your binoculars up toward Vega. You will run into the coat hanger along the way. And while you are at it, put away your shoes.

Wednesday: Venus is two fists above the east horizon at 5 a.m.

Thursday: Many big city dwellers never see the milky white, nearly continuous band of stars known as the Milky Way. As cities grow and add more lights, it has become harder to see the bulk of the Milky Way galaxy, our home in the universe. But, there are two easy ways to see the Milky Way. The first way is to look in the mirror. You are part of the Milky Way. The second way is to look from due north through the point straight overhead (called the zenith) to due south from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. for the next two weeks. This is the time of year when the Milky Way is highest in the sky and away from the city lights on the horizon.

Friday: It’s not too early to start planning for the solar eclipse coming August 21. Sky & Telescope magazine has an article about what to look for if you are in the path of totality: confused animals, the corona, and the diamond rings. Confused? Just read the article at https://goo.gl/BjFGYE. To learn more about the eclipse conditions in your area, go to www.greatamericaneclipse.com.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/29/17

Saturday: Hit the road Mercury. And don’t you come back no more, no more. For a few weeks, Mercury has been hitting the road and moving away from the Sun in the sky. Today, Mercury is as far away from the Sun as it will get on the evening half of this cycle. This is known as its greatest eastern elongation. Yet, this distance does not translate into good viewing because Mercury will be very low in the sky. Mercury is less than a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 9:10 p.m. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. After it passes in front of the Sun, it will appear in the morning sky by early September.

Sunday: At 9:50 p.m., Jupiter is one fist above the west-southwest horizon and Saturn is two fists above due south.

Monday: Do you want an easy way to find due north? A compass points to magnetic north, which is a few degrees off of true geographic north. Well, tonight’s your night. Capella, the brightest star in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, is due north at exactly 9:39 p.m. It looks like a bright light on a pole on the north ridge because is only about three degrees above the horizon.

Tuesday: In Scotland, August 1 was known as Lammas, the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year. You can remember this by looking at Spica, named after the Latin word for “ear of wheat”, one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. August 1 is known as a cross-quarter day, a day approximately half way between an equinox and a solstice.

Wednesday: It’s a moonless August morning. The first remnant of dawn has not appeared yet. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the east sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the east horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the horizon about two hours before sunrise. Don’t be scared. It’s not really a ghost. It is an effect called the zodiacal light. This light comes from sunlight reflecting off dust grains in our solar system. The effect is the most visible when the band of constellations called the zodiac makes a steep angle with the horizon. You need a clear dark sky with no haze or light pollution to see the zodiacal light. At its brightest, the zodiacal light rivals the light of the central Milky Way. This is one of the best times of year to see the zodiacal light in the morning.
This is also one of the best times of the year to see meteors. The Perseid meteor shower peaks in a week and a half. But you should see increased meteor activity for the next three weeks just below the W of the constellation Cassiopeia. This point is about two and a half fists above the northeast horizon at 11 p.m. By dawn, this point is about seven fists above the northeast horizon.

Thursday: NASA just developed a faster and more cost-effective way to send a probe to a large solid metal asteroid. Psyche! Oh…. Did you think I was using the word “Psych” for its urban dictionary meaning of negating the statement before it? As in, “The writer of this column is a really smart guy. Psych.” No, NASA did just develop way to put a probe in orbit around the solid metal asteroid called Psyche four years earlier than originally planned. Thanks to a new five-panel x-shaped design for its solar array, NASA’s Discovery will gather more energy from the Sun and avoid the need for an Earth gravity assist. For more information about the Discovery mission to Psyche, go to https://goo.gl/rG6Qh7.

Friday: Venus is two fists above the east horizon at 5 a.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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/22/17

Two new Harry Potter History of Magic books are coming out on October 20. Can’t wait until then? You better brush up on some of the character names.

Saturday: At 9:15 p.m., the bright star Regulus is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. But, who is this Regulus? He has many potential identities. The most interesting from a pop culture standpoint is Regulus Black, the brother of Sirius Black who is Harry Potter’s godfather. Regulus Black was a former follower of Voldemort, the bad guy of the Harry Potter series. However, Regulus tried to dissociate himself from Voldemort and was killed. He would be in the pile of forgotten Harry Potter characters except that he is so interesting. Also, in the sixth book, Harry found an important note written by someone known only by the initials R.A.B. Hmmm. R.A.B. Regulus A. Black perhaps? Mercury and Jupiter are near Regulus in the sky. Mercury is to the lower right of Regulus. You probably noticed it before noticing Regulus. Jupiter is much more noticeable at two fists above the southwest horizon.

Sunday: But what does the “A” stand for? Anthony? Abercrombie? Alfonzo? Not astronomical enough. It stands for Arcturus, the second brightest star visible in the nighttime sky in Washington and at Hogwarts. Arcturus is four and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. The bright star Spica is below Arcturus, one third of the way up from the southwest horizon.

Monday: Bellatrix Lestrange is Sirius Black’s cousin. But, far from being kissing cousins. They are killing cousins. Bellatrix kills Sirius in a fight at the Ministry of Magic. Bellatrix the star is the third brightest star in the constellation Orion the hunter. It is one fist above the east horizon at 4:45 a.m.

Tuesday: Of course, Bellatrix is in cahoots with “he who must not be named”. Now, that’s a poorly written sentence, using an obscure synonym for “conspiring” and a vague reference. I must be under the curse “writicus dreadfulium”. Clearly this is the work of Tom Riddle, whose mother is named Merope Gaunt. Merope is a star in the Pleiades, an open star cluster nearly four fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Wednesday: Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter’s young nemesis, is related to Sirius Black. Draco’s mother, Narcissa Black (Sirius’ cousin), helped develop a plan to trap Harry at the Ministry of Magic in the fifth book. Draco’s namesake, the constellation Draco the dragon, is one of the largest constellations in the sky, winding around the North Star. Draco’s head is a four-sided figure nearly straight overhead at 11 p.m.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m., near the constellation Scorpius. Draco Malfoy was so impressed with this constellation name that he used it for the first name of his son.

Friday: Not every woman in the Black family is evil. Let’s focus on the good. Andromeda Black, Bellatrix’s sister, is a good witch and the mother of Tonks, a young witch from the last few Harry Potter books. (If these Harry Potter references are confusing, you better start reading the books.) Andromeda the constellation is an interesting one. It contains the Andromeda galaxy, the most distant object visible with the naked eye from a dark site. To locate the Andromeda Galaxy, first find the Great Square of Pegasus. At 11 p.m., the left hand corner of the square is about two and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon. Less than two fists to the left and down a little bit is another star the same brightness as the star at the corner of the square. From that star, hop about a half a fist up to a star that is about one fourth as bright. Less than another half fist in the same direction is a fuzzy oval patch of light known as the Andromeda Galaxy. The galaxy is impressive to see in binoculars. It consists of about 400 billion stars and is 2.2 million light years away.


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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/15/17

Saturday: Jupiter is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon ay 10 p.m. With binoculars or a small backyard telescope, you can see up to four if its moons. With a large backyard telescope you can see its Great Red Spot, a storm larger than the Earth. With the URL to this Sky and Telescope article: https://goo.gl/y8B7qx, you can really see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The NASA Juno probe recently sent back the first close-up images of the Spot. Over the past few decades, it has been getting smaller and less red. Soon it will be called the “So-so rust-colored spot”. Jupiter and the future So-so rust-colored spot are two fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m.

Sunday: The Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks for the next few weeks into mid-August. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Aquarius near the star Delta Aquarii, also known as Skat. This point is about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 1 am tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain a fist above Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that section of the sky. The best time to view the shower is just before morning twilight. For more information about this year’s shower, go to http://goo.gl/Uoxvda. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Monday: Say "Cheese". 167 years ago today, Vega, in the constellation Lyra the lyre, became the first star ever photographed. The photograph was taken at the Harvard Observatory using the daguerreotype process. Vega is the third brightest nighttime star we can see in Ellensburg, behind Sirius and Arcturus. Vega is nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight. 

Tuesday: Last week marked the two-year anniversary of NASA’s New Horizons probe passing by Pluto. If the band Nirvana was still together, they’d probably rewrite one of their hit songs to be called Heart-Shaped Spot, after one of Pluto’s most distinctive features. “She eyes me like a dwarf planet when I am weak. I’ve been imaging your heart-shaped spot for weeks.” Astronomers think this heart-shaped spot is a large plain of nitrogen ice that consists of convective cells 10-30 miles across. Solid nitrogen is warmed in the interior of Pluto, becomes buoyant, and bubbles up to the surface like a lava lamp. You will find great pictures and information about what New Horizons found this past year at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/. Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint. People should be more interested in astronomy.

Wednesday: Saturn is two fists above due south at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday: Take a two and a half hour walk. Too long, you say? Forty-eight years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first ever walk by humans on another world. They spend two and a half hours setting up scientific instruments and collecting rocks for study back on Earth. Michael Collins orbited the Moon in the spacecraft the astronauts would use to return to Earth.

Friday: One month from today, the Moon will pass between the Earth and Sun as seen from a large swath across the United States. This total solar eclipse will be the first one visible in the lower 48 states since 1979. If you want to travel to the path of totality, plan ahead. Scientists estimate that this might be the most viewed total solar eclipse in history. Leave early. Make sure you have a full tank of gas. Bring extra food and water. Don’t forget safe solar eclipse glasses and the proper filters for your binoculars or telescope. For more information about the eclipse, go to the Great American Eclipse website at https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/8/17

Saturday: Being in a coma is a bad thing. Looking at the Coma Star Cluster is a good thing. The Coma Star Cluster is an open cluster of about 50 stars that takes up more space in the sky than 10 full Moons. It looks like a fuzzy patch with the naked eye. Binoculars reveal dozens of sparkling stars. A telescope actually diminishes from the spectacle because the cluster is so big and the telescope’s field of view is so small. The Coma Star Cluster is in the faint constellation Coma Berenices (ba-ron-ice’-ez) or Queen Berenice’s hair. Queen Berenice of Egypt cut off her beautiful hair as a sacrifice to the gods for the safe return of her husband Ptolemy III from battle. The Coma Star Cluster is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon at 11:00 p.m. 

Sunday: Look straight up at midnight. The head of Draco the dragon will be looking straight down on you. The brightest star in the head is called Eltanin. If you chose to wait a VERY long time, Eltanin will be the brightest star in the night sky. Currently 154 light years away, it is moving towards Earth and will be only 28 light years away in about 1.3 million years, claiming the title as brightest star.

Monday: The elusive Mercury is a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. At this same time, Jupiter is two and a half fists above due southwest.

Tuesday: Last week, I wrote about Mizar. This week, I need to warn you not to confuse Mizar with its rhyming brother Izar in the constellation Bootes. Izar is also a binary star with about the same apparent brightness. And both were featured in different episodes of Star Trek. Izar was featured in the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” from the original series. It is the base of Fleet Captain Garth, a former big shot in the federation and one of Kirk’s heroes before he went insane. Garth kidnaps Kirk and Spock before eventually being out smarted. Mizar doesn’t play as big a role in its episode. It is the star of the home world of one of the alien species in The Next Generation episode “Allegiance”. Izar is one fist above the bright star Arcturus and seven fists above the south horizon at 10 p.m. Mizar is seven fists above the northwest horizon at this time.

Wednesday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 11 a.m.

Thursday: What you see with the naked eye isn’t all that can be seen. While astronomers can learn a lot from observing the sky in the visible wavelengths, many celestial objects radiate more light, and more information, in wavelengths such as radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray. In 2012, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to study objects that radiate in the infrared range such as asteroids, cool dim stars, and luminous galaxies. For an interesting comparison of how different wavelengths show different aspects of celestial objects, go to http://goo.gl/nvuax. For example, if it weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies. 

Friday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m. The bright star Aldebaran is about a half a fist to the lower right of Venus.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/1/17

Saturday: Jupiter, the Moon, and Spica make a small triangle in the southwest sky at 10 p.m. Jupiter is the bright point of light one fist to the lower right of the Moon. Spica is dimmer than Jupiter and closer to the Moon in the sky at about a half a fist below the Moon.

Sunday: When it is sitting low in the western sky, many people mistake the star Capella for a planet. It is bright. It has a slight yellow color. But, Capella is compelling on its own, even though it is “just” a star. It is the fourth brightest star we can see in Ellensburg. It is the most northerly bright star. It is a binary star consisting of two yellow giant stars that orbit each other every 100 days. At 10 p.m., Capella is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the north-northwest horizon. If you miss it tonight, don’t worry. Capella is the brightest circumpolar star meaning it is the brightest star that never goes below the horizon from our point of view in Ellensburg.

Monday: Hot enough for you? Don’t blame the Earth-Sun distance. Surprisingly, the overall temperature of the Earth is slightly higher in July, when the Earth is farthest from the Sun, than in January, when it is closest. That’s because in July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. (This is the real cause of the seasons.) The Northern Hemisphere has more land than the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, in July, the large amount of Northern Hemisphere land heats up the entire Earth about two degrees Celsius warmer than in January. In January, the watery Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun. But, water does not heat up as fast as land so the Earth is a few degrees cooler. The distance between the Earth and Sun is its greatest today, 152.1 million kilometers. This is called aphelion from the Greek prefix “apo” meaning “apart” and Helios, the Greek god of the Sun.

Tuesday: Tonight, while you are taking a break from looking at an explosion of fireworks, the NASA Kepler spacecraft is taking a break after finding an “explosion” of exoplanets. Last month, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope released a catalog of 219 new planet candidates. Ten of those are near-Earth size and orbiting in the habitable zone of their host star. And there are probably more to come. The Kepler spacecraft is monitoring the brightness of over 156,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus the swan and Lyra the lyre. This region is midway between the bright stars Deneb and Vega. It is about the size of your hand held at arm’s length and is about six fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m. For more information about this find, go to https://goo.gl/9ksqva.

Wednesday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Thursday: Saturn is less than a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon at 10 p.m.

Friday: Mizar is a well-known binary star in the constellation Ursa Major. You can find it at the bend in the Big Dipper handle, nearly straight overhead at 10 p.m. tonight. Its name is Arabic for waistband. Mizar has an optical double called Alcor, which is less than a pinky width away and can easily be seen with the naked eye. Optical doubles are stars that are close together in the sky but do not orbit a common center of mass as true binary stars. Not wanting to deceive sky gazers who call Mizar a binary star, two stars that DO orbit a common center of mass, Mizar actually is a binary. It was the first binary star system discovered by telescope. Mizar A and Mizar B are about 400 astronomical units apart from each other and about 80 light years from Earth. 400 astronomical units is about 10 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/24/17

Saturday: “Mom, I can’t sleep. It is too light out!” A poor excuse you say? Good astronomy skills, I say. The latest sunset of the year happens this week. Surprisingly, the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset do not both happen on the longest day of the year, the day of the summer solstice. The earliest sunrise occurs just before the longest day and the latest sunset occurs just after the longest day. This phenomenon relates to the angle of the Sun’s path near rising and setting. In Ellensburg, that angle is about 66 degrees near the first day of summer. Because of the Earth’s orbit, which causes the Sun’s apparent motion, the angles are not symmetric. The asymmetries in orbital angles leads to the asymmetry in rise and set times. By the way, picking a specific night to give you the “can’t sleep because it is too light out” line may just be an excuse because the sunset times change by only a few seconds each day in June. This year, the sun sets between 9:01 and 9:02 p.m. between June 22 and June 29.

Sunday: The New Moon was yesterday which means that the month of Ramadan has ended. During the month of Ramadan, healthy adult Muslims are expected to fast between sunrise and sunset. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with prayer, charity, belief in the Muslim faith, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. The festival of breaking the fast, known as Eid al-Fitr, starts tonight.

Monday: Jupiter is three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 9:30 p.m. At this same time, Saturn is one fist above the southeast horizon.

Tuesday: Don’t wait until a week from today to go to those wimpy firecracker shows. Find the hypergiant star Rho Cassiopeiae. Astronomers think that Rho Cassiopeiae will likely go supernova (explode) in the near future. Of course, for stars, near future might mean today. It might mean 20,000 years from now. Rho Cassiopeiae is in the constellation Cassiopeia the queen. At 11:00 tonight, Cassiopeia looks like the letter “W” about three fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northeast horizon. Rho Cassiopeiae is about a finger’s width to the right of the rightmost star in the “W”. Once you find it you’ll be thinking, “Big deal, I can hardly see it.” Although it is barely visible to the naked eye, it is actually very bright. It is the 20th most luminous star in the sky, a whopping 550,000 times more luminous than the Sun.

Wednesday: Star light. Star bright. The first star you see tonight might be Arcturus, six fists above the south horizon right after sunset. You’ll be able to see Jupiter earlier but it won’t facilitate your wish coming true.

Thursday: Venus is one and a half fists above the east horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Friday: Happy Asteroid Day (http://www.asteroidday.org/), the day we celebrate avoiding the destruction of the Earth by an undiscovered asteroid. There are a million asteroids in the Solar System with the potential to strike Earth and destroy a city. Astronomers have discovered only 1% of them. Asteroid Day is an effort to educate the public and encourage policy makers to fund this important effort. King Tut may have celebrated an ancient Asteroid Day by asking his assistants to make a dagger out of a broken-off asteroid that landed on Earth. Astronomers discovered that the blade of the knife contained much more nickel than is found in terrestrial iron, an amount consistent with iron meteorites, especially with one found 16 years ago in northern Egypt. For more information about the dagger, go to http://goo.gl/BHBivd.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/17/17

Saturday: Tomorrow is Father’s Day, the day to celebrate the person who made you a father. No, not her. You celebrated her last month. (You didn’t forget, did you?!) Celebrate your child by getting her/him the book “Woman in Science” by Rachel Ignotofsky (http://www.readwomeninscience.com/). This creatively drawn book highlights the contributions of 50 pioneers of science from Hypatia to Katherine Johnson, the main character in the recent movie “Hidden Figures”.

Sunday: Two years ago 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.

Monday: Jupiter is three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southwest horizon at 9:15 p.m. That’s right after sunset so it will be a challenge. But if you know where to look, it is bright enough to be visible. A bigger challenge is the star Spica, a fist and a half to the lower left of Jupiter.

Tuesday: Venus is a little more than a half a fist to the left of the waning crescent Moon in the eastern sky at 5 a.m.

Wednesday: Tonight, the summer solstice occurs. This is when the Sun reaches its highest declination (the official name for sky latitude) of 23.5 degrees above the celestial equator. The celestial equator is the line that divides the northern sky from the southern sky. In Ellensburg, the Sun is about seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 1:00 p.m. (noon standard time). Contrary to popular belief, the Sun is never straight overhead in Ellensburg or anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states. The northernmost portion of the world where the Sun can be directly overhead is 23.5 degrees north latitude. In ancient times, the Sun was in the constellation Cancer the crab on the first day of summer. Hence, 23.5 degrees north latitude has the nickname "Tropic of Cancer". Because the Earth wobbles like a spinning top, the Sun's apparent path through the sky changes slightly over time. Now, the Sun is in the constellation Taurus the bull on the first day of summer. However, citing the high cost of revising all of the science books, geographers are not changing the name of 23.5 degrees north latitude to "Tropic of Taurus". The first day of summer is often called the summer solstice. However, astronomers refer to the summer solstice as the point in the sky in which the Sun is at its highest point above the celestial equator. Thus, summer starts when the Sun is at the summer solstice point. This year, that happens at 9:24 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Tomorrow is the first full day of summer.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at midnight.

Friday: Nearly 400 years ago, Galileo viewed the Pleiades star cluster through his telescope and saw that the seven or so stars in the region visible to the naked eye became many more. There are two main types of star clusters. Open star clusters are groups of a few dozen to a few thousand stars that formed from the same cloud of gas and dust within our galaxy. Stars in open star clusters are young as far as stars go. Globular clusters are groups of up to a few million stars that orbit the core of spiral galaxies such as our own Milky Way. One of the most well known star clusters is the globular cluster in Hercules, an object that is fairly easy to find with binoculars. First find Vega, the bright bluish star five fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m. Two fists above Vega is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the upper left hand star of the keystone. The globular cluster is one third of 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”.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/10/17

Have you bought your favorite CWU graduate a graduation gift yet? Why not get her or him a star? I don’t mean from one of those organizations that offers to “register the name of YOUR star with the U.S. Patent Office”. No company owns the right to name stars after people. Besides, the stars those companies “name” are so dim you can’t find them. In this column, I’ll pick a constellation and representative star for each of the four colleges at CWU. Then, I’ll briefly tell the story of the constellation and relate that story to the aspect of public service CWU graduates from that college are uniquely qualified to engage in based on my version of sky interpretation. If different couples can have “their” song, then your favorite college graduate can have her or his star

Saturday: College of Arts and Humanities: You are the people who interpret the world in unique ways. Then, you share those ways with others. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus charmed everyone he met when he played the lyre or harp. After his wife died tragically, he journeyed to the underworld to charm its inhabitants in an effort to win his wife back to the living world. Your service reminder: use your talent to bring joy to others. The constellation Lyra and its bright star Vega should remind you of the power of the arts. Vega is five and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

Sunday: Jupiter is three fists above due southwest at 11 p.m. If you have a small telescope, you can see Jupiter’s four largest moons: Europa, Io, and Callisto (from farthest to closest at this time) on one side and Ganymede on the other. You won’t see Jupiter’s two newly discovered moons: S/2016 J 1 and S/2017 J 1. They are each about one or two kilometers across. Read more about these at https://goo.gl/3Rn544.

Monday: College of Business. You are the future movers and shakers. The future CEOs. The future big donors to Central. Auriga represented a king of Athens who happened to be mobility impaired. Instead of sitting around waiting for others to transport him, he took the initiative to invent the four-wheeled chariot. He solved a problem for a special need. Your service reminder: address the problems of those in the most need. To remind you of that, look to the constellation Auriga. Its bright star Capella is about a half a fist above the north-northwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Tuesday: College of Education and Professional Studies. You are the teachers. The craftspeople. The facilitators of learning in a diverse world. Bootes, the herdsman, was such a person. Bootes’ job was to guide the northern constellations to the feeding place and the watering hole. He and his dogs were especially in charge of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the greater and lesser bears. Your service reminder: guide others to a better place in life. Look to the constellation Bootes and its bright star Arcturus to remind you of this. Arcturus is five and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m.

Wednesday: Saturn is in opposition tonight. That doesn’t mean that Saturn is a teenager. Opposition means that Saturn is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun. When an object is in opposition, it is at its highest point in the sky during the darkest time of the day. Thus, opposition is typically the best time to observe a planet. Saturn is about two fists above due south at 1 a.m. It is about one fist above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Thursday: College of the Sciences. You are the people who will systematically study how the world works. Agriculture is an important scientific application. Each year, farmers must use the findings of science to be successful. Who better to represent the College of the Sciences than Virgo, the goddess of the harvest? Virgo looms large in the sky holding an ear of wheat in her hand. Your service reminder: study the practical aspects of the scientific world. The ear of wheat, and your service reminder, is represented by the bright star Spica. Spica is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m. Tonight; you’ve got a warrior’s spirit, as well, because the planet Mars, which represents the Roman god of war, is one fist to the right of Spica.

Friday: Venus is a fist and a half above the east horizon at 4:30 am.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/3/17

Saturday: 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.

Sunday: Venus is about a half a fist above the east horizon at 4 a.m. You can use it to find Uranus this morning. Get Venus in the bottom of your binocular filed of view. Uranus will be in the middle part of your field of view.

Monday: Jupiter is three and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: As the weather warms up, people start thinking about swimming in a nice cool body of water. Recently, astronomers have discovered evidence an ocean about 20 miles beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceledas. NASA’s Cassini probes measured variations in how the moon’s gravity pulled on the orbiting spacecraft. These variations can be explained by a large amount of liquid water under one section of the ice because liquid water is denser than an equal volume of ice. While you need a very large telescope to see Enceledas, Saturn is one fist above the southeast horizon at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday: Tonight’s full Moon is in the constellation Ophiuchus. At 10:30 p.m., the Moon and Saturn are more than one fist apart in the sky. By 4:30 a.m., they are less than three quarters of a fist apart. That’s because the Moon is close enough to us such that its actual motion affects its position in the sky. For the distant stars and outer planets, heir only noticeable motion throughout the night is due to the Earth’s rotation.

Friday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because the days are very long. Because the temperature is rising. Because kids are getting out of school. Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 11 p.m. Vega, the third brightest star visible from Ellensburg, is about five fists above the east horizon. Deneb, at the tail of Cygnus the swan is about three and a half fists above the northeast horizon. The third star in the triangle, Altair, in Aquila the eagle is two fists above the east horizon.
If you want to put somebody off, tell her or him to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/27/17

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 three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon. Ras Algethi is about a half a fist to the upper right of Ras Alhague.

Sunday: Are you thirsty when you get up in the morning? If so, that’s okay because the Big Dipper is positioned to hold water in the morning sky. Look three fists above the northwest horizon at 4:30 a.m. You’ll see three stars that make a bent handle and four stars that make a cup.

Monday: Venus is one fist above due east at 4:30 a.m.

Tuesday: At 11 p.m., the bright star Regulus is less than a fist from the upper left of the Moon. But what if it is cloudy or 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.

Wednesday: The questions who, what, where, and when can only be asked with a “W”. At 10:30 p.m., the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia is about one and a half fists 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.

Thursday: 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 would start on a different day each year. Celebrate the first sunset in June by actually watching it… and then looking for the visible planets. At 9:30 p.m., Mars is about a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon and Jupiter is nearly four fists above the south horizon. If you wait an hour and a half – just 90 minutes, you can see Saturn nearly one fist above the southeast horizon.

Friday: The bright star Capella is one and a half fists above the northwest horizon at 9:30 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/13/17

Saturday: Saturn is a half a fist to the right of the Moon at midnight.

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 held upright and at arm’s length above the north horizon at 10 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.

Monday: The Space Shuttles have been retired. But NASA is still making plans about the future of space flight. Here is a presentation about the past and future of American space flight https://goo.gl/hApbaf. It is interesting to compare the sizes of these real spaceships to the dozens of fictional spacecraft summarized on a poster found at http://goo.gl/F95aEL.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Mercury is as far as it is going to get from the Sun this month in the morning sky. Often that means good viewing. But not this month. Mercury is less than a half a fist above the east horizon at 5 a.m. Venus will be much easier to see at one fist above the east horizon. By early July, Mercury will be visible low in the western evening sky.

Thursday: This is a good time of the year to find the Big Dipper. It is nearly straight overhead at 9:30 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: Jupiter is four fists above due south at 10:11 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 5/6/17

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 held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10 p.m. Crater is just to the right of Corvus.

Sunday: Jupiter is about a half a fist to the right of the Moon at 10 p.m.

Monday: Makemake has a moon (E-I-E-I-O). Last week you read the Solar System moon summary in this column. Or, you used the Solar System moon summary to protect the bottom of a very small birdcage. Never the less, that summary recentlu became out of date. Last year, astronomers announced the discovery of a moon around the distant icy Kuiper Belt object known as Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay-MAH-kay). Makemake joins Haumea, Eris, and an obscure object called Pluto as the only dwark planets known to have a moon. There are a few other objects in theSolar System also known to have moon.s Makemake is too dim for you to see in the night sky. But you can see it in the video found at https://youtu.be/er1sBpyih0s.

Tuesday: Mars’ two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, are not visible in typical backyard telescopes. But they are an interesting study. The prevailing view among most astronomers is that they are captured asteroids. That makes sense given Mars’ proximity to the asteroid belt. But resent findings by European astronomers indicate that Phobos is very porous and made of material similar to the surface of Mars. This implies that Phobos may consist of chunks of Martian debris that was blasted off by numerous impacts and gravitationally bound together. Unfortunately, the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe launched late 2011 to collect material from Phobos crashed to Earth after malfunctioning. For more information about this recent model of Phobos’ formation, go to http://goo.gl/8sw3rM. For more information about Mars, look one fist above the west-northwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Wednesday: You’ve seen all of the top 100 lists: top 100 ways to make a birdhouse, top 100 sushi restaurants in Ellensburg, etc. Now get excited for tonight’s full Moon by reading about and finding some of the lunar 100 at http://goo.gl/ldGvH6 This list describes 100 interesting landmarks on the Moon that are visible from Earth. They are listed from easiest to see, starting with the entire moon itself at number 1, to most difficult (Mare Marginis swirls, anyone?). Stay up all night to binge watch the moon or just make a few observations a month. It’s your decision. It’s our moon.

Thursday: Saturn is about a half a fist above the southeast horizon at midnight.

Friday: This weekend, celebrate Mother’s Day with the big mom of the sky, Virgo. Ancient Greeks and Romans associated this portion of the sky with their own goddess of the harvest, either Demeter (Greeks) or Ceres (Roman). Demeter was the mother of Persephone and Ceres was the mother of Proserpina. According to myth, each of these daughters was abducted causing their mothers great grief. The first star in Virgo rises in the afternoon. Spica, the bright bluish star in the constellation rises at 6:30 and is three fists above the south-southeast horizon at 10 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.