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.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/29/17

Saturday: As the rock group Journey once thought of singing, “Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’. Know where the Dipper’ll be tomorrow.” Every night, the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia make a wheel in the sky that turns around the North Star in a counter clockwise direction. Every year on May 3 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 4 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 5 at 10 p.m., the Big Dipper is straight overhead and W-shaped Cassiopeia is low on the northern horizon. Every year on May 6 at 10 p.m., well, you get the idea. Of course, there are subtle charges in the position from night to night. Each northern constellation moves about one degree counter clockwise from one night to the next. But this is not going to change their position in the sky drastically over a few days. So if you know where the Big Dipper is tonight, you DO know where it’ll be tomorrow. If you are really struggling to understand this concept, Don’t Stop Believin’ in yourself. Just keep studying Faithfully.

Sunday: Mars is a little more than one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Monday: Jupiter is nearly three fists above due south at 11:30 p.m.

Tuesday: You know Metis and Thebe and Adrastea and Amalthea. Io and Ganymede and Callisto and Europa. But do you recall? There are 67 Jovian moons in all. (As of July 2013.) Just 60 years ago, Jupiter was thought to have only 12 moons. But, astronomers are red-nosed with delight that the advent of supersensitive electronic cameras has caused the number of discovered moons to rapidly increase. Jupiter’s 67 moons range in size from Ganymede, with a diameter of 5,262 kilometers, to S/2002 J12 and S/2003 J9, with a diameter of only one kilometer. Our moon has a diameter of 3,475 kilometers. (One kilometer is 0.62 miles.) Saturn is second place in the moon race with 62. Uranus is next with 27. Then comes Neptune with 14, Mars with 2, and Earth with 1. Even dwarf planets have moons. Pluto has 5, Eris has 1, and Haumea has 2. Eris is an outer solar system object that was discovered in 2005 and named in September of 2006. Because astronomers thought it was larger than Pluto, people called it the tenth planet for a while. (More recent measurements show Eris to be a little smaller than Pluto.) Haumea, the newest dwarf planet with a moon, was discovered in 2004 and officially named a dwarf planet on September 17, 2008. Go to http://goo.gl/Xkoeq for more information about Solar System moons.

Wednesday: At 5 a.m., Saturn is two fists above the south horizon and the very bright Venus is about a half a fist above the eastern horizon.

Thursday: Mother’s Day is a little over a week away. What are you going to get her? Get her a Gem(ma). The star Gemma, also known as Alphekka, is the brightest star in the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Gemma, Latin for jewel is the central gemstone for the crown. It is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due east at 10 p.m.

Friday: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning. But since this meteor shower has a fairly broad peak range, there will be many more meteors than in the typical pre-dawn sky throughout the month of May. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. The meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius near the star Eta. This point is about one fist above the east horizon at 4 a.m. The Moon is new tonight so it won’t be lighting the sky and obscuring the dimmer meteors. So you could be rewarded with many bright, fast meteors. The Eta Aquarid meteors slam into the Earth at about 40 miles per second. They often leave a long trail. The Eta Aquarid meteors are small rocks that have broken off Halley’s Comet. For more information about the Eta Aquarids, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=3954.


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, April 19, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/22/17

Saturday: If you don’t want to stay up late looking at the stars, do something during the day that will help you and other night sky enthusiasts: make sure your outdoor light fixtures are shielded or at least facing down. This will cut down on light pollution, stray light that obscures the stars, and give you a head start in celebrating International Dark Sky week, which starts today. Go to http://goo.gl/w6Hi7 for more information on how to do an outdoor lighting audit and get more information about International Dark Sky week. You won’t need to have dark skies to see Mars about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwest horizon at 9 p.m.

Sunday: The bright planet Venus is less than a fist to the upper left of the waning crescent Moon, low in the eastern sky at 5:30 a.m. And I do mean bright. Venus is at the brightest part of its orbit this week.

Monday: The nighttime stars take little more than an instant to rise. The Moon takers about two minutes to rise. That’s absolutely speedy compared to the constellation Virgo, which takes four hours to rise. The first star in Virgo rises at 4:30 in the afternoon. Spica, the brightest star in the constellation, rises at 7:30. By 9 p.m., Spica is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon. The much brighter planet Jupiter is one fist above Spica.

Tuesday: Ah, the signs of spring. Trees budding. Flowers blooming. Young lovers frolicking. The Spring Triangle rising. In order of brightness, Arcturus, Spica, and Regulus form a triangle that rises as the Sun is setting. By 9 a.m., Regulus is five fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south, Spica is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon, and Arcturus is three fists above the east horizon. For the next few months, Jupiter joins the triangle, five fists above the south-southeast sky.

Wednesday: Do people think you have a magnetic personality? The star Cor Caroli understands how you feel. Cor Caroli has one of the strongest magnetic fields among main sequence stars similar to our Sun. This strong magnetic field is thought to produce large sunspots that cause the brightness of Cor Caroli to vary. Cor Caroli is nearly straight overhead at midnight.

Thursday: Winter must be over because the winter constellations are becoming less visible. Orion is setting in the west starting at about 9 p.m. At this time, Orion’s belt is one fist above the west-southwest horizon and Betelgeuse is nearly two fists above the west horizon. By mid-May, Orion will be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Friday: Global Astronomy Month concludes at noon Pacific Daylight Time with the Cosmic Concert performed by Italian pianist and composer Giovanni Renzo. For more information, including information on audience participation, go to https://goo.gl/rC0qbz.


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, April 12, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/15/17

Saturday: The first day of spring was March 20. The most recent full moon was April 11. That means tomorrow is Easter. The standard way to determine the date of Easter for Western Christian churches is that it is the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, also known as the first day of spring. Of course, the other standard way is to look for the date of church services celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. There is no Bible story of an “Easter star”. If there were, Spica would be a pretty good choice. The name Spica comes from the Latin “spica virginis” which means “Virgo’s ear of grain”. Spica represents life-giving sustenance rising after a long winter just like the risen Jesus represents life-giving redemption to Christians. Spica is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon at 9 p.m., just to the lower right of the Moon. For more information on how to determine the exact date of Easter for any year, go to https://www.assa.org.au/edm.

Sunday: Saturn is about a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon at 5:30 a.m. Its showpiece spacecraft, Cassini, is running out of battery power. So NASA scientists plan to start a sweeping orbital pattern next week that will send it through Saturn’s rings and eventually crash it into Saturn in September. “Why crash a working spacecraft?” you ask. NASA does not want to risk infecting Saturn’s moons Titan or Enceladus with Earth microbes because there is a chance these worlds might have their own microbes. For more information about the last days of Cassini, go to https://goo.gl/AeOcsB.

Monday: If you got up at 5:30 yesterday, you’ll probably be up at that time today, as well. Look for the bright planet Venus a half a fist above the east horizon.

Tuesday: At 9 p.m., Mars is one and a half fists above the west horizon. Jupiter is on the other side of the sky, two fists above the southeast horizon.

Wednesday: This evening, asteroid 2014 J025 will pass by the Earth at a distance that is only about four times greater than the Earth-Moon distance. That’s known as a close call. It won’t be bright enough to see with the naked eye. But it will be bright enough to see with a 4-inch telescope. At 10 p.m., it will be in the constellation Coma Berenices, about six fists above the east-southeast horizon. For more information about this asteroid, including detailed finder charts, go to https://goo.gl/0RLj8N.

Thursday: 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 5 a.m. You’ll see three stars that make a bent handle and four stars that make a cup.

Friday: Remember the old saying: April showers bring… meteors. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight through tomorrow morning. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight and close to straight overhead near dawn. The best time to look is just before dawn since that is when the radiant, or point from which the meteors appear to come, is high in the sky. This year, the Moon is in the waning crescent phase to it will not be providing much light to obscure the meteors. Typically, this is one of the least interesting major meteor showers of the year. However, it is also one of the most unpredictable. As recently as 1982, there were 90 meteors visible during a single hour. In addition, the Lyrid meteor shower has historical interest because it was one of the first ones observed. Chinese records say “stars fell like rain” in the shower of 687 B.C. 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. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/j87bVB. http://earthsky.org/?p=158735

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, April 6, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 4/8/17

Saturday: Mercury is a half a fist held upright and at arms length above the west-northwest horizon at 8:30 tonight. Mars is a little bit higher, two fists above the west horizon.

Sunday: You probably didn’t know this but several British New Wave bands were really into astronomy. Take the band “Dead or Alive” (please). The original lyrics to their song “You Spin me Round (Like a Record) were actually: “ You spin me right round, baby, right round, like the Whirlpool Galaxy, right round, round, round.” (Well, that’s what I thought they were.) The Whirlpool Galaxy was the first galaxy observed to have a spiral shape. Since then, astronomers have discovered many galaxies, including our own Milky Way Galaxy, have a spiral shape. Go to http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic0506a/ for more information about the Whirlpool Galaxy. Go to your small telescope to find the Whirlpool Galaxy in the night sky. It is in the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. At 10 p.m., find Alkaid, the end star of the Big Dipper handle, six fists above the north-northeast horizon. The Whirlpool Galaxy is two fingers to the upper right of Alkaid.

Monday: Poor Jupiter. Objects from space just keep bombarding it. On March 17 last year, two amateur astronomers, unbeknownst to each other, had their cameras aimed at Jupiter when a brief flash of light appeared on the limb. This is the fifth time such an impact has been observed in the past ten years. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/6eV7ql.  Tonight, nothing large is probably hitting Jupiter in the Solar System. But the Full Moon seems to come close to hitting Jupiter in the night sky. At 9 p.m., Jupiter is a half a fist to the upper right of the Moon.

Tuesday: The Lyrid meteor shower peaks next week. But there will be increased meteor activity for the next two weeks in the vicinity of the constellation Lyre. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at midnight and close to straight overhead near dawn.

Wednesday: It you didn’t run the Yakima River Canyon Marathon nearly two weeks ago, satisfy that marathon craving by attending a virtual Messier Marathon. Charles Messier (pronounced messy a) was an 18th century French astronomer best known for his catalog of 110 nebulae and star clusters. Amateur astronomers love to find as many of these as they can in one night. During the online Messier Marathon, you’ll see the images broadcast on the Internet. The fun starts this morning at 11:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (when astronomers on the nighttime side of Earth point their telescopes towards interesting celestial objects). For more information, go to https://goo.gl/FNm3NZ.

Thursday: Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.

Friday: Antares is one fist below the Moon tomorrow morning at 6 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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/25/17

Saturday: Has there ever been life on Mars? Astronomers don’t know. But the Mars Curiosity Rover has been digging up some strong evidence that Mars was hospitable to life in the past. At the end of 2012, the first drilling assignment for Curiosity found clay-like minerals that form in the presence of water. In December 2013, scientists announced the strongest evidence yet for an ancient fresh-water lake in Gale Crater. Planetary geologist John Grotzinger said that Earth microbes could have thrived in this lake if they were placed there. Last year, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile found evidence that Mars was once had an ocean that held more water than the Arctic Ocean and covered a greater percentage of Mars’ surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth. In brief, they came to this conclusion after analyzing the chemical signature of light that passes through the Martian atmosphere. For more information about this ancient ocean and the method of discovery, go to http://goo.gl/bOqD4U. Mars is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above southwest at 8:30 p.m.
By the way, the name of the observatory in Chile really is Very Large Telescope. See for yourself at http://www.eso.org/paranal.

Sunday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Monday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much hotter starlet”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Saturn is two fists above the south horizon at 6 a.m.. The star(let) Antares is about a two fists to the lower right of Saturn.

Tuesday: Orion still has a prominent spot in the nighttime sky. The belt is three fists above due southwest at 9 p.m.

Wednesday: Mercury is about one fist above the west horizon at 8 p.m. The nearly New Moon is between Mercury and the west horizon.

Thursday:  April is Global Astronomy Month (GAM). While many astronomy experiences come from looking up, you can also experience astronomy looking down… at pen and paper. GAM has numerous arts initiatives and is looking for contributors. Even if you’ve never written a poem before, this is your opportunity to express your love for astronomy in a unique way and possibly share it with others. Go to http://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2017-programs/astroarts.html for more information about the AstroPoetry and AstroArt contests.

Friday: You need to get up early tomorrow to cheer on your favorite runners at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon starting at 8 a.m. on Canyon Road just south of Berry Road. So why not get a little viewing in? To symbolize the long trail of a marathon, follow the long trail of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It seems to rise up from the ground due south. It its highest, it is five fists above due east. It sinks back to the ground due north. The thickest part of the Milky Way is in the southern sky because that is the direction of the center of the galaxy.



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.

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/18/17

Saturday: The elusive Mercury is a half a fist held upright and at arms length above due west at 7:40 p.m. The much brighter Venus is about one fist to the upper right of Mercury.

Sunday: Mars is two fists above due southwest at 8:30 p.m.

Monday: Look up in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. No, it’s the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox!? Spring starts at 3:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The first day of spring is often called the vernal equinox. This label for the day is misleading. The vernal equinox is actually the point in the sky where the Sun’s apparent path with respect to the background stars (called the ecliptic) crosses the line that divides the stars into north and south (called the celestial equator). This point is in the constellation Pisces the fishes. At the vernal equinox, the Sun is moving from the southern region of background stars to the northern region. Since the Sun crosses the vernal equinox at night, tomorrow will actually be the first full day of spring.
Because the Earth slowly wobbles like a spinning top, the vernal equinox is slowly moving into the constellation Aquarius. By the year 2597, the vernal equinox will reach the constellation Aquarius and the “Age of Aquarius” will begin. Until then, we’ll be in “the age of Pisces”.

Tuesday: The Milky Way is pretty easy to spot on the early spring sky. Just look up. Everything you see in the sky, including that bird that just startled you, is in the Milky Way. But, even the path of densely packed stars in the plane of our galaxy that look like a river of milk is easy to find. Look due south at 9 p.m. Follow the fuzzy path just to the left of the bright star Sirius two fists above the horizon, to the right of the bright star Procyon four and a half fists above the south horizon, through Capella six fists above the west horizon, through W-shaped Cassiopeia three fists above the northwest horizon, and down to due north where the bright star Deneb sits just above the horizon.

Wednesday: Astronomers are often fascinated with large objects. Planets that could fit 1000 Earths (Jupiter). Stars that would fill up the entire inner Solar System (Betelgeuse). Galaxies with 400 billion stars (Milky Way). But what about the smallest objects? One of the smallest stars is Proxima Centauri, the closest known star other than our Sun. It is about 12% of the mass of the Sun. Last year, astronomers even announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting Proxima Centauri indicating that even very small starts can have planets. The smallest theoretically possible star would be about 7.5% of the mass of the Sun. Any smaller and it could not support fusion reactions. For more on small stars, go to http://goo.gl/EHBdOX.

Thursday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Friday: 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. At 9:32 p.m., it will be as close as it gets to the horizon, about two degrees above due north. Watch it reach this due north position about 4 minutes earlier each night.


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, March 10, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/11/17

Saturday: Don't forget to set you clocks ahead one hour tonight for the annual ritual called daylight savings. Daylight savings originated in the United States during World War I to save energy for the war effort. But a recent study by two economists shows that switching to daylight savings time may actually lead to higher utility bills. When the economists compared the previous few years of energy bills in the section of Indiana that just started observing daylight savings, they discovered that switching to daylight savings cost Indiana utility customers $8.6 million in electricity. In an even more important consequence of daylight savings, Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia discovered a 7% jump in traffic accidents on the Monday after we "spring ahead". Blame it on the lost hour of sleep. And, sky watchers will lose even more sleep because the sky stays light for an additional hour.

Sunday: This morning’s full moon is in the constellation Leo the lion. While we may refer to the moon tonight by the boring title, “a full moon in March”, Native Americans in the eastern United States called this moon the Full Worm Moon. By March, the temperature has increased enough so the ground starts to thaw and earthworms make their first appearance. Earthworms attract birds. Northern tribes thought of the bird connection when they referred to the March full moon as the Full Crow Moon. Tribes in parts of the country with maple trees call this full moon the Full Sap Moon. For more full moon names, go to http://www.almanac.com/content/full-moon-names.

Monday: “The crow rises in the southeast,” said spy number one. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize that code,” replied spy number two. Spy one exclaimed, “That’s because it’s not a code, you idiot. I’m talking about the constellation Corvus the crow.” This very bad spy movie dialogue is to remind you that Corvus had a very bad life. According to one myth, Corvus brought the god Apollo the news that his girlfriend was seeing someone else. In a classic case of punishing the messenger, Apollo turned the formerly beautifully colored crow black. The box-shaped Corvus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 10 p.m.

Tuesday: 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. Five 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 http://goo.gl/VPxzs. At 8 p.m., Mars is two and a half fists above the west horizon. By 11 p.m., Jupiter and Europa are about one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon. By 6 a.m., Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south-southeast horizon. 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 one fist above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

Wednesday: Many artists have sung the song “Blue Moon”. But few have sung the song “New Moons”. It goes, in part “New Moons, you saw me standing with 27 others. Rolling around like a barrel. Without close sisters or bothers.” It’s about the planet Uranus, which orbits the Sun in a rolling motion. Astronomers recently reviewed old Voyager 2 images and think they may have discovered two more moons. Standing with the 27 that are already there. Uranus is one fist above due west at 8:15 p.m., easily visible with binoculars, half way between Venus and Mars.

Thursday: The group AC/DC sings that “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t noise pollution, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die.” Unfortunately, because of excess and improper outdoor lighting in cities, even those as small as Ellensburg, our view of the night sky is gonna die. As plain old ordinary AC (Astronomy club) would sing: “Bad street lights are light pollution, our night sky IS gonna die.” Lights that are aimed upward illuminate the atmosphere and obscure dim objects. To watch an informative and entertaining video about the effects of light pollution, go to https://goo.gl/UgJK33. To watch ACV/DC sing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, go to http://goo.gl/dZJ8my.

Friday: Ask someone which day in March has the same duration day and night. Go ahead, ask someone. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. If that person said the first day of spring, they are wrong. Today, three days before the first day of spring, is the date in which day and night are closest in duration. There are two main reasons for this. First, the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is actually below the horizon. This makes the Sun appear to rise before it actually rises and appear to set after is actually sets. Second, spring starts when the center of the Sun passes through the point called the vernal equinox. But, the Sun is not a point. The upper edge of the Sun rises about a minute before the center of the Sun and the lower edge sets a minute after the center of the Sun. Thus, even if we didn’t have an atmosphere that bends the sunlight, daytime on the first day of spring would still be longer than 12 hours.


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, March 1, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/4/17


Saturday: Do you want to impress your friends by making a star disappear? On Saturday night at 6:30 p.m., the bright star Aldebaran is right above the first quarter Moon.  The Moon will move closer and closer to Aldebaran until, about 7:20 when it passes in front of Aldebaran. Because the dark part of the Moon first block, or occults, Aldebaran, it looks like the star just vanishes. By about 7:55 p.m., Aldebaran will pop out from the upper portion of the light side of the Moon. This motion with respect to the background stars is evidence that the Moon is orbiting the Earth.

Sunday: It’s getting dark. The last remnant of twilight has disappeared. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the western sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the west horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists above the horizon. It is 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. Look for the ghostly patch after twilight for the next few weeks.

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 https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120515.html.

Tuesday: Two weeks ago, astronomers announced the discovery of six or seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the red dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1.  Three of these planets are in the so-called habitable zone of the star, the region where liquid water can exist. In addition, all seven are thought to be rocky. Before you get all excited about these being new Earths, realize that astronomers orbiting a distant star would say our Solar System has three Earth-like planets: Venus, Earth, and Mars. So “Earth-like” from a distance is not the same as “Earth-like” up close. Also, these planets are 39 light years way meaning a trip there would take thousands of years given today’s technology. But, it doesn’t hurt to go to https://goo.gl/uFyUat to learn more information.

Wednesday: At 7 p.m., Venus is nearly one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon and Mars is two and a half fists above the west-southwest horizon.

Thursday: 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 https://goo.gl/UCrMPE for more information.

Friday: Jupiter is nearly one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon at 10 a.m. By 5:30 a.m., Jupiter is all of the way over into the southwest sky and Saturn is two fists above the south-southeast 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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/25/17

Saturday: Under ideal sky conditions, the planet Uranus is just on the edge of being a naked eye planet. For the next few nights, its proximity to Mars in the night sky makes it an inviting binocular target. At 7 p.m., Mars is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west horizon. Get Mars in the center of your binocular field of view. Uranus is the brightest object to the upper left of Mars. Over the next few nights, look for Mars to pass by Uranus in the sky. This is evidence that Mars is much closer to Earth than Uranus is. Venus is the bright point of light to the lower right of Mars.

Sunday: 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 http://goo.gl/df1yV. 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.

Monday: 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.

Tuesday: On Saturday you found Mars in the sky. Tonight go learn about Mars. The CWU Astronomy Club will be giving a presentation about Mars  at 8:00 p.m. in the new planetarium. The planetarium is in Science Phase II, room 101, found at H-10 on the campus map: http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map.

Wednesday: 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 https://www.exploratorium.edu/science_explorer/sunclock.html for more information.

Thursday: Jupiter is one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Friday: Saturn is two fists above the south-southeast horizon at 6 a.m. If you are not a night owl and missed Jupiter in the late night sky, you can now find it at two fists above the southwest 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.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/18/17

Saturday: “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.

Sunday: Clyde Tombaugh discovered the first planet 9. Will you discover the new Planet 9? You and thousands of others will have the opportunity to comb through images of the sky from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). You’ll view short “flipbook” movies of the same patch of sky on different nights. Any point of light that moves could be Planet 9 or another undiscovered Solar System object. Read about how you can join the search for Planet 9 at https://goo.gl/D4PkCD.

Monday: Orion stands tall in the southern sky. At 7:30 p.m., the middle of Orion’s belt is four fists held upright and at arm’s length 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.

Tuesday: Venus is two fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m. It is the brightest point of light in the sky.

Wednesday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. By 6 a.m., Jupiter has moved into the southwest sky and Saturn is one and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon.

Thursday: The Stargate movies and TV shows have access to a portal to other planets. Harry Potter has access to a portal to the Chamber of Secrets. You have access to a Portal to the Universe. This portal is not in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom but is on the web at http://www.portaltotheuniverse.org/. It is a repository of up-to-date astronomy news, blogs, and podcasts. A recent story highlights how planet hunters like you and Clyde Tombaugh study the early Earth to learn more about the possibilities for life on other planets. The Earth’s atmosphere of the Archean Eon, which lasted from 2.5 to 4 billion years ago, was a hazy mix of methane, ammonia and other organic materials. This haze had the doubly positive effect of seeding the Earth-with the building blocks of life and protecting the Earth from the harmful effects of DNA-damaging ultraviolet light. Astronomers can look for signs of this haze in the atmospheres of Earth-sized planets orbiting Sun-like stars. For more information about this, go to https://goo.gl/n3GCGl. 

Friday: Under ideal sky conditions, the planet Uranus is just on the edge of being a naked eye planet. For the next few nights, its proximity to Mars in the night sky makes it an inviting binocular target. At 7 p.m., Mars is two and a half fists above the west horizon. Get Mars in the center of your binocular field of view. Uranus is the brightest object to the upper left of Mars. Over the next few nights, look for Mars to move towards and then pass by Uranus in the sky. This is evidence that Mars is much closer to Earth than Uranus is.


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, February 8, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/11/17


Saturday: “Oooo, they’re little runaways. Orion’s stars moved fast. Tried to make a getaway. Ooo-oo, they’re little runaways,” sang Bon Jovi in his astronomical hit “Runaway.  At least that’s what I hear when I listen to the song. After all, it fits the recently calculated trajectory of AE Aurigae, Mu Columbae, and 53 Arietis. Extrapolating the actual motion of these three stars back in time, they were all in the location of the star-forming region called the Orion Nebula a few million years ago. What kicked these stars out? Not paying rent? Excessive partying? No, it was simply gravitation interactions with near-by stars. Find out more about the eviction at http://goo.gl/UeLwKQ. Orion is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 8 p.m.

Sunday: Venus is about two fists above the west-southwest horizon at 7 p.m. Mars is less than a fist to the upper left of Venus.

Monday: 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.

Tuesday: 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.

Wednesday: Jupiter is less than one fist above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. The gibbious Moon has just crept up from the horizon to spy on it.

Thursday: 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 http://goo.gl/jQS3k.

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 http://goo.gl/PsCmff, the US Naval Observatory website, and filling out Form A. For more information about Lincoln’s “almanac trial”, go to http://goo.gl/r83q4X.

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.