Friday, December 8, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 12/16/17

Saturday: “Lately, I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep. Dreaming about the things that we could be. But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard, said no more counting dollars. We’ll be counting 9,096 stars, yeah we’ll be counting 9,096 stars.” Luckily, artistic judgment prevailed over scientific precision in the OneRepublic hit “Counting Stars”. According to the Yale Bright Star Catalog, there are 9,096 stars visible to the naked eye across the entire sky if you are observing from a very dark site. In the northern United States, where a part of the sky is never visible, that number drops to about 6,500. In the middle of a small city at mid-latitudes, like Ellensburg, that number drops to a few hundred. No wonder someone has been losing sleep. Learn more about the star count at http://goo.gl/nt8d80.

Sunday: Today is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of their god Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The holiday featured a break from work and school, a public banquet, and private gift giving. Some of these customs influenced the secular aspects of Christmas celebrations. After Sheldon hugged Penny on The Big Bang Theory, Leonard said, “It’s a Saturnalia miracle.” See the miracle on YouTube. It would be nearly a miracle if you saw the planet Saturn today. It sets just a few minutes after the Sun. It won’t be easily visible again until it shows up in the morning sky in mid-January.

Monday: Fomalhaut, the southernmost bright star for the northern latitudes, is one and a half fists above due south at 5 p.m.

Tuesday: Jupiter is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m. Less than a pinky-width below it is the bright star Zubenelgenubi. Even though it is the second brightest star in Libra, its name means Southern Claw in Arabic, an artifact of the time that it was considered part of Scorpius the scorpion. Zubenelgenubi is a visual binary, consisting of a white and yellow star that are about arc minutes apart from each other in the sky. This is about the same angular diameter of a medium sized dark spot, or mare, on the Moon and can be observed with the naked eye under good sky conditions. In actuality, they are at least 5,500 astronomical units apart from each other, about 130 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto.

Wednesday: Do you look into a nursery and say, “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”? Not me. I say, “It’s a star”. Of course, I like looking into a stellar nursery – a star-forming region such as the Orion Nebula in the middle of Orion’s sword holder. The Orion Nebula looks like a fuzzy patch to the naked eye. Binoculars reveal a nebula, or region of gas and dust, that is 30 light years across. The center of the nebula contains four hot “baby” stars called the Trapezium. These hot stars emit the ultraviolet radiation that causes the Nebula’s gas to glow. The Orion Nebula is two and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 9 p.m.

Thursday: At 8:28 a.m., the Sun reaches its lowest point in the sky with respect to the background stars. This point is called the Winter Solstice. During the day that the Sun reaches this point, your noontime shadow is longer than any other day of the year. Also, the Sun spends less time in the sky on the day of the Winter Solstice than any other day making this the shortest day of the year. Even though it is the shortest day of the year, it is not the day with the latest sunrise or the earliest sunset. The latest sunrise is during the first week in January and the earliest sunset is during the second week in December. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the Sun rise and set time depends on more than its apparent vertical motion. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma.  But, it is on the first part of the analemma to go below the horizon. During the first week in January, it is on the last part of the analemma to rise above the horizon. For more information on this, go to http://goo.gl/KpbkTf.

Friday: Headline from the tabloids: Earth sends robot to Mars in order to take a selfie. In January 2014, the Mars Curiosity rover took a picture of its night sky that included the Earth and moon. Both would easily be visible to the naked eye for a human standing on Mars. Since you can’t go to Mars, go to http://goo.gl/DqprKF look at the picture. Then go outside and look two and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon to see Mars. Mars and Jupiter are moving towards each other in the morning sky.


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 12/9/17

Saturday: Warrant, the American glam metal band (as labeled by Wikipedia) was singing about carbon stars in its 1991 hit “I Saw Red”. The lyrics for the astronomy version are “Then I saw red, when I looked up in the sky, I saw red, Orion’s bright star it was by.” R Leporis, also known as Hind’s Crimson Star, is one of the reddest stars in the sky. It is a star near the end of its life that has burned its helium nuclei into carbon. Convective currents, like those in a pot of boiling water, bring this carbon to the surface. There it forms a layer of soot that scatters away the light from the blue end of the visible spectrum leaving the light from the red end of the spectrum to reach our eyes. For more information about Hind’s Crimson Star and a list of other deep red stars, go to http://goo.gl/EnhRe4. Hind’s Crimson star is one fist to the lower right of Rigel, the brightest star in Orion. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to see it Hind’s Crimson star. But you can easily spot Rigel two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 9 p.m.

Sunday: Saturn will be obscured by the light of the Sun for a few weeks before peeking up in the morning sky in mid-January.

Monday: Just before Christmas, you look for junk to clean out of your closets so you can re-gift it. I mean, so you can throw it out or recycle it. NASA’s Meter Class Autonomous Telescope on Ascension Island is a key tool in a program tracking about 22,000 pieces space junk. Some of this junk is dangerous. The International Space Station occasionally performs debris avoidance maneuvers to keep is panels and sensitive instrument safe. For more information about the project, go to http://goo.gl/Kxgihd.

Tuesday: The bright star Capella is nearly straight overhead at midnight tonight.

Wednesday: The Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Gemini the twins. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at 9 p.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain near the bright star Castor, the right hand star of the “twin” stars Pollux and Castor. This shower is typically one of the best ones of the year producing bright, medium speed meteors with up to 120 meteors per hour under ideal conditions near the peak. This year IS near ideal because the Moon is close to new so it will be below the horizon for most of the night.
Most meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the orbital trail of a comet. The broken off comet fragments collide with the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Astronomers had searched for a comet source for this shower since 1862 when the shower was first observed. Finally, in 1983, astronomers discovered the object that created the fragments that cause the meteor shower. To their surprise, it was a dark, rock that looked like an asteroid, not a shiny icy comet. Astronomers named this object Asteroid 3200 Phaethon. As an added bonus this year, this asteroid is visible through a small telescope. If you are up for the challenge of finding 3200 Phaethon, go to http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/3200-phaethon/. For more information about the Geminid shower, go to http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/geminid-shower-2017/. Now that’s a self-explanatory URL!

Thursday: Jupiter is less than a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon in the southeastern sky at 7 a.m. Mars is a little more than a fist to the upper right of the Moon.

Friday: Columbia the dove, representing the bird Noah sent out to look for dry land as the floodwaters receded, is perched just above the ridge south of Ellensburg. Its brightest star Phact is about one fist above the south horizon at midnight.


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, December 1, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 12/2/17

Saturday: The earliest sunset of the year occurs throughout the next week: 4:13 p.m. This seems odd because the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, isn’t for about two more weeks. The Sun is at its southernmost point with respect to the background stars on the day of the winter solstice. This means the Sun spends the least amount of time above the horizon on that day. But, the sunrise and sunset times depend on more than its apparent southward motion in the sky. It also depends on where the Sun is on the analemma, that skinny figure-8 you see on globes and world maps. During the second week in December, the Sun is not quite to the bottom of the analemma. But, it is on the leading edge of the analemma, the first section to go below the horizon. For a slightly different explanation about this, go to http://goo.gl/kjnHP. Or just go watch the sunset. But don’t stare at the Sun.

Sunday: Many Native American Tribes call Tonight’s full Moon the Cold Moon or the Long Night Moon. Makes sense. You can find it in the constellation Taurus the bull, rising in the east-northeast sky at 5 p.m.

Monday: Saturn and Mercury are less than a half a fist above the southwest horizon at 4:45. Saturn is slightly brighter and to the upper right of Mercury.

Tuesday: Most constellations don’t look like the object their name refers to. That’s because most constellations don’t have such a simple to object to emulate as Triangulum does. Triangulum is shaped like a… wait for it…. Wait for it…. A thin isosceles triangle. Metallah is the only named star in the constellation. In Latin this star is called Caput Trianguli, the head of the triangle. Triangulum is seven fists above due south horizon at 9 p.m. It is pointing down and to the right with Metallah being the southernmost star at this time of night. The Triangulum Galaxy can be seen with binoculars about a half a fist to the right of Metallah.

Wednesday: Earlier this week, we learned that the early December evenings are getting darker earlier than any time of the year. While the sky is getting darker earlier, the nighttime sky is actually getting lighter due to the greater use of low energy LED bulbs. While these bulbs use much less energy that incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs, researchers think that people and communities are using more of the bulbs and leaving them on longer. This is increasing light pollution near cities. You can get more illumination on the subject at https://goo.gl/1CdqcH.

Thursday: It’s getting too cold to see frogs in the wild. Some rich politicians see them on their dinner plate. But this is a great time to see frogs in the sky. Ancient Arabs referred to the stars that we now call Fomalhaut and Diphda as Ad-difdi al-awwal and Ad-difda at-tani. This means the first frog and the second frog, respectively. Both frogs are low in the southern sky at 7 p.m. Fomalhaut is one fist above the horizon and one fist to the east of due south. The slightly dimmer Diphda a little more than two fists above the horizon and one fist to the west of due south.

Friday: At 7 a.m., dull red Mars is nearly three fists above the south-southeast horizon, about a half a fist to the left of the slightly brighter, blue-white star Spica. Jupiter is nearly two fists above the southeast horizon. Venus is just above the east-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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/25/17

Saturday: “Hey baby! What’s your sign?”
“Ophiuchus, of course”
The Sun is in the same part of the sky as the stars of Ophiuchus from about November 29 to December 17. This is what astrologers mean when they say the Sun is “in” a constellation. Thus, if you were born between these dates, you should be an Ophiuchus. The fact that the horoscopes never list Ophiuchus is a major flaw of astrology. Astrology says that some of our characteristics are based on the location of the Sun at our birth. How can astrologers leave out three weeks from their system? That is like a scientist saying she can explain the results of her experiment every month of the year except early December. Ophiuchus was a mythical healer who was a forerunner to Hippocrates. According to myth, he could raise people from the dead. Maybe that is why he is ignored by astrology. Raising people from the dead is much less impressive than giving spot-on advice such as “Today is a good day to watch your finances.”
The bright stars of Ophiuchus rise just before the Sun. Rasalhague (pronounced Ras’-al-hay’-gwee), the brightest star, is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.

Sunday: Tonight’s first quarter Moon is in the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer, in the southern sky at 5 p.m. Before the Moon distracts you, look a half a fist above the southwest horizon. This will be the last week you can observe Saturn in the evening sky before it gets obscured by the glare of the setting Sun. Even more challenging is the planet Mercury, between Saturn and the horizon.

Monday: Have you been shopping all weekend? Do you need an evening sky break? You deserve a big reward so make it a double. A Double Cluster, that is. The Double Cluster, also known as h and Chi Persei, consists of two young open star clusters in the constellation Perseus. Of course, young is a relative term as these clusters are about 13 million years old. Each cluster is spread out over an area about the same size as the full moon. To the naked eye, the Double Cluster shines with a steady, fuzzy glow. Binoculars resolve dozens of individual stars in the clusters. The Double Cluster is five and a half fists above the northeast horizon at 6 p.m., about a fist below the sideways “W” of Cassiopeia and three fists above the bright star Capella.

Tuesday: Have you even seen a Black Hole? Neither have scientists. But they have seen the effects of a Black Hole. Black holes have a strong gravitational influence on anything that passes close to them, including light. Cygnus X-1, the first Black Hole candidate ever discovered, is six fists above the west horizon at 7 p.m., in the middle of the neck of Cygnus the swan. NASA launched the Chandra X-ray observatory in 1999 to study black hole candidates and other high-energy events.

Wednesday: Mars and Spica are less than a half a fist apart, two and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 6:45 a.m. Mars has a red tint and Spica looks bluish-white. Now that you are up, you might as well find something else. How about Jupiter, the king of the plants, one and a half fists above the southeast? Not satisfied? Follow the line from Mars through Jupiter down to the horizon. Venus is just above the horizon, almost obscured by the rising Sun.

Thursday: Is your favorite astronomy-loving relative asking for a telescope this Christmas? Before reaching for your credit card, read this guide to choosing your first telescope, available at http://goo.gl/5oXmGj. If cost is an issue, look no further than this article about low cost telescopes https://goo.gl/8yyddy. These are not cheap telescopes. They are simple, low-cost, easy to use telescopes that your future astronomer will still use for quick observing sessions long after she has purchased a much larger instrument for richer viewing. If you want to give a gag astronomy gift to someone who really bugs you, give them a copy this column. After such a dud “gift”, you’ll never hear from them again. And that may be the best gift of all.

Friday: I am guessing that some of you don’t like the line of reasoning from Tuesday: that seeing the effects of a Black Hole is good enough to claim there are Black Holes. You have never seen the wind. But, you have seen the effects of the wind. And no Ellensburg resident doubts the existence of the wind.


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, November 15, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/18/17

Saturday: Do you want to learn more about what goes on at night in the natural world? You can at a free event called Nature of Night on the CWU campus, today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Go to the two largest science buildings on campus, J-9 and H-10 on the map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map. There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more. The College of the Sciences gets help from various community organizations to put on this event.

Sunday: Are you disappointed because you are not going anywhere for Thanksgiving? Why not take a (virtual) trip to outer space using Google’s new visualization tool called 100,000 Stars. It shows the stars in our neighborhood in a very good 3-D simulation. The Sun is initially at the center. If you zoom in, you can click on neighboring stars and learn more about them. Go to http://stars.chromeexperiments.com/ for the simulation. It works best on a Chrome browser.

Monday: Saturn is about two finger widths to the lower left of the crescent Moon at 5 p.m. Both are low in the southwestern sky. Mercury is below the pair, just above due southwest.

Tuesday: So, you are not into virtual vacations like the Google Simulation, hmmm? How about a vacation to the most recently discovered Earth-sized temperate planet in our stellar neighborhood? The European Southern Observatory discovered that Ross 128, a red dwarf star only 11 light-years away (the 12th nearest star system to Earth) has a rocky planet in its habitable zone. Convenient for those not willing to make a commitment yet, Ross 128 and its planet are moving towards Earth. In only 79, 000 years, it will be the star and exoplanet closest to Earth. This extremely dim star is three and a half fists above due southeast at 6 a.m. For more information about the discover, and to possibly book a trip, go to http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1736/.

Wednesday: Are you thankful that you live in a solar system with multiple planets? You should be. A giant planet like Jupiter cleans up planetary debris that could have collided with Earth and hindered the formation of complex life. Any inhabitants of the planets orbiting Upsilon Andromedae are thankful for this, as well. Upsilon Andromedae, a star in the constellation Andromeda, was the first Sun-like star discovered to have multiple planets orbiting it. So far, all of its planets are giant planets like Jupiter. But, the system is likely to also contain smaller planets. The dim star, but certainly not its planets, is barely visible straight overhead at 9 p.m. Jupiter is much easier to see, but you have to wait until tomorrow morning to see it. It is nearly one and a half fists above the southeast horizon at 7 a.m. Venus is below it, just above the horizon.

Thursday: Some of us have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. But, probably not as much as Andromeda had to be thankful for. 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. Her mother Queen Cassiopeia and her father King Cepheus didn’t know what to do. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came Andromeda’s boyfriend, the great warrior Perseus. 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 monster’s neck and killed it. This was the first time in recorded history that a set of parents actually welcomed an uninvited Thanksgiving visit from the boyfriend. Perseus is about five fists above the east-northeast horizon and Andromeda is about seven fists above the east horizon at 7 p.m.

Friday: The brightest star in the nighttime sky is making its way into the evening sky. Sirius is a little more than a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

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

Saturday: This morning, you have a great opportunity to see a star, other than the Sun, during the daytime. And, not only will you see the star, you will see it be occulted by the Sun. Disappears at 8:40 am, reappears from the unlit side of the Moon at 9:20 a.m.
We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. We wish you a Merry Martinmas. And a happy Friday. Martinmas is a holiday in many parts of the world commemorating Saint Martin of Tours. He was buried on November 11, 397. What does this have to astronomy? Not much except that the celebration on November 11 often doubles as a cross-quarter day celebration, a day that is halfway between an equinox and a solstice. Also, according to an agricultural calendar, November 11 marks the practical beginning of winter.

Sunday: Saturn is less that a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon at 5:30 p.m. Say good-bye because in less than two weeks, Saturn will be obscured by the light of the Sun, beginning a two and a half month period in which there will be no naked eye planets visible in the evening sky.

Monday: Jupiter and Venus are less than the width of the full moon apart from each other in the early morning sky. They are a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m.
When you think of space, the first image that comes to mind is a few large, massive bodies surrounded by a lot of empty space. After all, it is called “outer space”, not “outer stuff”. But that so-called empty space is filled with powerful radiation and high-speed sub-microscopic particles. Much of this is dangerous to life. However, many planets, including Earth, have a shield against radiation and particles called a magnetic field. Jupiter’s magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets.

Tuesday: Imagine Opie and Andy Taylor walking down the dirt path at night to that fishing hole in the sky. They’d probably be looking to catch Pisces, the two fish already conveniently tied together with two ropes. The ropes are connected at the star Alrescha, Arabic for “the cord”. Alrescha is about a half a fist to the lower right of the Moon at 10:30 p.m. The fish are attached to lines of stars that branch out at one o’clock and three o’clock from Alrescha. By the way, “The Fishing Hole”, The Andy Griffith Show’s theme song, was rated the 20th best TV theme song of all time by ign.com. That’s too low of a ranking in my opinion.

Wednesday: The Big Dipper is a circumpolar asterism for the northern part of the United States, meaning it is a group of stars that never goes below the horizon. Alkaid, the outermost star in the Big Dipper handle, gets the closest to the due north horizon at 10:10 p.m., making it to within about a half a fist from the horizon.

Thursday: Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon Starfleet officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, might say “Today is a good day to die.” But Deneb, the bright supergiant star in Cygnus the Swan would say “two million years from now is a good day to die.” This may seem like a long time. But, compared to most stars, two million years from now is as close as today. For example, the Sun will last about five billion years. Small stars known as red dwarfs may last trillions of years. Prepare your astronomically short good byes to Deneb tonight at 7 o’clock when it is seven fists above the west horizon.

Friday: The Leonid meteor shower peaks early this morning and tomorrow morning. These meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Leo the lion. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night and into the morning, as it will remain about one fist above the bright star Regulus. The Moon will be below the horizon nearly the whole night so you should see a pretty good show. The Leonid meteors are particles from the tail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, a comet discovered by Ernst Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle in 1866. These are exceptionally fast moving meteors – over 150,000 miles per hour! Go to http://goo.gl/GkLiw7 to read everything you need to know about the Leonid meteor shower. As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment.
The Nature of Night event takes place tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Science Phase I and Science Phase II on the CWU campus (at J-9 and H-10 on the campus map found at http://www.cwu.edu/facility/campus-map). There will be planetarium shows, fun nighttime projects, telescopes, animals, cookies and much more.


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, November 1, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 11/4/17

Saturday: Before you fall back on to your bed tonight, set your clock back one hour to the real time. Daylight savings ends early Sunday morning at 2 a.m. This means one more hour of sky watching at night because the Sun will set one hour earlier. Ben Franklin proposed the idea of “saving daylight” by adjusting our clocks way back in 1784. Daylight savings time was first utilized during World War I as a way to save electricity. After the war, it was abandoned. It was reintroduced during World War II on a year-round basis. From 1945 to 1966, some areas implemented daylight savings and some did not. Also, it was not implemented with any uniformity as to when it should start and stop. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 codified the daylight savings rules.

Sunday: The bright star Aldebaran is about a finger-width to the upper right of the Moon at 7 p.m. Observers on the east coast of the United States will see the Moon occult Aldebaran, meaning the Moon will pass between Aldebaran and the Earth, blocking it from our view for about 30 minutes.

Monday: Saturn is less that one fist above due southwest at 6 p.m.

Tuesday: Did you look up Ruby Payne-Scott and Grote Reber based on last week’s Halloween costume suggestion? Ruby Payne-Scott was an Australian pioneer of science and the first female radio astronomer. She discovered many different types of stellar radio phenomena. She also discovered sexism in the workplace because married women were not allowed to hold permanent public service jobs. So she married in secret. Grote Reber created the first parabolic reflecting antenna to be used as a radio telescope. This is a standard design today.

Wednesday: Mars is two fists above the east-southeast horizon at 6 a.m. Venus is just barely above the east-southeast horizon at this time.

Thursday: While Stonehenge is an ancient burial ground visited by religious people for thousands of years, MIThenge is an 825-foot long hallway on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited by the Sun’s rays twice a year.  Every year in November and January, the setting Sun lines up with a narrow window at the end of the long hall and the light shines down to the opposite end. This season’s alignment is from November 10-12. For more information, visit http://goo.gl/0hwFQf or visit MIT. In addition, challenge yourself to find a similar alignment.

Friday: The Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow night. These are slow moving meteors that result in the occasional fireball. The Taurid meteor showers produce a few bright meteors every hour. The waning crescent Moon rises well after midnight so it won’t be much of a problem. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull, near the open star cluster called the Pleiades. This point is about three fists above the east horizon at 8 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist above the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke.


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, October 26, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 10/28/17

Saturday: Lacerta, the faint lizard constellation, is straight overhead at 9 p.m. It was named by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687 to fill the space between the much brighter and well-defined constellations Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus going clockwise from the constellation just south of Lacerta.

Sunday: What do Justin Bieber and Betelgeuse have in common? Both are superstars. One will shine brightly for about a few hundred thousand more years. The other will only seem to be around for that long. “Sorry” Beliebers. “If you Love Yourself”, you and your “Boyfriend” need to learn more about Betelgeuse, the real super giant star that is big enough to hold about one million Suns. “What Do You Mean” you don’t know where to look? For more information about Betelgeuse, go to http://goo.gl/0MyfHT. You’ll find it one fist above due east at 11 p.m.

Monday: What time is tea time? Certainly not during an autumn evening. The constellation Sagittarius the archer, with its signature teapot shape, is sinking into the south-southwest horizon by 8 p.m. The handle is on top and the spout is touching the horizon ready to pour that last cup of tea. Mars is riding the teapot, about one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon.

Tuesday: Halloween. The pumpkins. The candy. The children going door-to-door dressed up as their favorite radio astronomers: Ruby Payne-Scott and Grote Reber. At least they should because Halloween is, in part, an astronomical holiday. Halloween is a “cross-quarter date”, a day approximately midway between an equinox and a solstice. Historically, the Celts of the British Isles used cross-quarter dates as the beginnings of seasons. For the Celts, winter began with Halloween. So when all those little Hevelius’s come to your door tonight night, honor the Celts and give them a wintry treat. If they ask you for a trick, point out Saturn, one fist above the southwest horizon at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday: Happy Celtic New Year! Many historians think that November 1, known for the festival of Samhain, was the ancient Celtic New Year’s Day. Samhain, Old Irish for “summer’s end”, was a harvest festival that may have contributed to some of the customs of our current “holiday” of Halloween.

Thursday: “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.” Constellations can be considered neighborhoods in the nighttime sky. But, the stars in those constellations are not necessarily neighbors in real life. For example, the bright stars in the constellation Cassiopeia range from 19 light years to over 10,000 light years away from Earth. One constellation that consists of real neighbors is Ursa Major. Or, more specifically, the Big Dipper. Five stars in the Big Dipper are all moving in the same direction in space, are about the same age and are all about 80 light years from Earth. “Please won’t you be my neighbor?” Skat, the third brightest star in the constellation Aquarius is a neighbor to these five Big Dipper stars, all of which are about 30 light years from each other. They are thought to have originated in the same nebula about 500 million years ago. Just like human children do, these child stars are slowly moving away from home. Skat is about three fists above due south at 9 p.m. The much brighter Fomalhaut is a fist and a half below Skat. And, it’s not fun being below Skat.

Friday: At 7 am, Mars is two fists and Venus is a half a fist above the east-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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of 10/21/17

Saturday: Dead October flowers lead to November meteor showers. While the Leonid meteor shower is the next big name event, the few bright and surprisingly colorful fireballs per hour you can see during the typical Southern and Northern Taurids meteor showers may make it worth your while to stay up late for a few nights. These two showers overlap from mid-October to mid-November. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Taurus the bull. This point is nearly four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east-southeast horizon at 11 p.m. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain one fist to the right of the V-shaped Hyades Cluster with its bright star Aldebaran (pronounced Al-deb’-a-ran). Meteors are tiny rocks that burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into them. These rocks are broken off parts of Comet 2P/Encke. For more information about the Taurid meteor showers, go to https://goo.gl/oqnZWy.

Sunday: Halloween is coming soon so make sure you load up on peanut clusters, almond clusters, and open star clusters. That last one will be easy (and cheap… actually free) because two of the most prominent open star clusters in the sky are easily visible in the autumn sky. The sideways V-shaped Hyades Cluster is two fists above due east at 10 p.m. Containing over 300 stars; the Hyades cluster is about 150 light years away and 625 million years old. The Pleiades Cluster, a little more than three fists above due east, is larger at over 1000 stars and younger. Compared to our 5 billion year old Sun, the 100 million year age of the Pleiades is infant-like. The moon will help you find these clusters. This morning at 6:30 a.m., the Pleiades cluster is less than one fist to the upper right of the moon and the Hyades cluster is about one fist to the upper left of the moon. Tomorrow morning, the moon sits in the “V” of the Hyades cluster.

Monday: Saturn is about one fist above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m.

Tuesday: Vega, the bright bluish star in the constellation Lyra, is six fists above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

Wednesday: Along with the not-so-subtle drug reference in their name, The Doobie Brothers could have made an astronomy reference in their song lyrics if they would have written: “Old Earth water, keep on rollin’, Mississippi moon won’t you keep on shining on me.” Astronomers now think that some of the water on Earth may be older than the Solar System. The chemical signature of the water indicates it came from a very cold source, just a few degrees above absolute zero. The early Solar System was much warmer than this meaning the water came from a source outside the Solar System. For more information about the old Earth water, go to http://goo.gl/QsEu5P.

Thursday: Rho Cassiopeiae is the most distant star that can be seen with the naked eye by most people. It is about 8,200 light years away. That means that the light that reaches your eyes from that star left over 8,000 years ago, before the beginning of time according to the Byzantine calendar. Rho Cassiopeiae is six fists above the northeast horizon at 8 p.m., just above the zigzag line that marks the constellation Cassiopeia.

Friday: At 7 a.m., Mars is two fists and Venus is one fist above the east-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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 10/14/17

Saturday: Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a dolphin. A dolphin? The constellation Delphinus the dolphin is nearly six fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 8 p.m. The constellation’s two brightest stars are called Sualocin and Rotanev, which is Nicolaus Venator spelled backwards. Venator worked at the Palermo Observatory in Italy in the mid nineteenth century. He slipped these names into Giuseppe Piazzi’s star catalog without him noticing. The Daily Record (shop Ellensburg) would never let anything like that get into their newspaper. Their editing (shop Ellensburg) staff is too good. Nothing (pohs grubsnellE) evades their gaze.

Sunday: Saturn is one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 7 p.m.

Monday: The Milky Way makes a faint white trail from due northeast through straight overhead to due southwest at 9 p.m. Starting in the northeast, the Milky Way “passes through” the prominent constellations Auriga the charioteer, Cassiopeia the queen, and Cygnus the swan with its brightest star, Deneb, nearly straight overhead. After Cygnus, you’ll see Aquila the eagle with its brightest star Altair about four and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southwest horizon.

Tuesday: The waning crescent Moon, Venus, and Mars are in close proximity in the early morning sky. At 6:30 a.m., the Moon is low in the eastern sky with Mars about two finger widths above it and Venus about a half a fist below it.

Wednesday: The constellation Vulpecula, the fox, stands six fists above due southwest at 9 p.m. It is in the middle of the Summer Triangle, which is defined by the bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair. The fox is so faint that you need dark skies to see it.

Thursday: The moon is almost directly between the Earth and Sun today. That means you won’t be able to see it. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Contrary to the belief of toddlers and immature politicians, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Note a double negative statement followed by a triple negative statement. I’m not unsorry about that.) Now, back to the science. What would happen to the earth if the moon really didn’t exist? In that 2013 blockbuster Oblivion, aliens destroy the moon and Tom Cruise survives. But the long-term effects on the earth would be devastating to life, as we know it. The moon stabilizes the spin axis of the earth keeping the seasons fairly uniform over time. For more information on what would happen to the earth if the moon were destroyed, go to http://goo.gl/4EbzLa. For more information on Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Cruise.

Friday: The Orionid meteor shower consists of the Earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail. This shower peaks tonight after midnight. This is not a meteor shower that typically results in a meteor storm. There will be about 15-20 meteors per hour, many more meteors than are visible on a typical night but not the storm that some showers bring. Luckily, the Moon will not be out to obscure the dimmer meteors with its light. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about one fist above due east at midnight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain one fist above the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. If you fall asleep tonight, you can catch the tail end of the shower every night until early November. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/8f8J50.


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, October 4, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 10/7/17

Saturday: The Draconid meteor shower peaks tonight and tomorrow night. The meteors appear to come from a point in the head of Draco, the dragon constellation. This point is nearly straight overhead at 7 p.m. tonight. This point remains near the trapezoid-shaped head of Draco throughout the night. Unlike most meteor showers, this one is best observed in the early evening rather than after midnight. Call this the “early to bed” meteor shower. Draconid meteors are slow moving which means you will have a easy time differentiating true Draconid meteors, from Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, from the stray grains of dust that happen to enter the Earth’s atmosphere every day and night. The waning gibbous moon will rise between 8:00 and 9:00 pm these next two nights so get your meteor observing in early. For everything you need to know about the Draconid meteor shower, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=3669.

Sunday: Astronomy tabloid headline: “Moon seen partying with the seven sisters of the Pleaides and the five sisters of the Hyades”. The Pleades and the Hyades are open star clusters in the constellation Taurus the Bull.In fact, the Hyades cluster makes up the snout of Taurus. In actuality, it is a group of about 300 stars situated about 150 light years from Earth. The Pleiades consists of about 1,000 stars that are 440 light years away. At 11 p.m., low in the eastern sky, the Hyades is about a half a fist to the lower left of the Moon and the Pleiades is one fist above the Moon.

Monday: At 7 p.m., Saturn is one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon.

Tuesday: Astronomy tabloid headline: “Moon seen rising with Mars and Venus early this morning”. At 6 a.m., all three are low on the eastern horizon. Mars is about a thumb width to the upper right of the Moon. Venus is about a half a fist below the Moon.

Wednesday: While you are resting after looking for Draconid meteors this past weekend, start thinking about the Orionid meteor shower. This shower, which consists of the earth colliding with pieces of the remains of Halley's Comet's tail, peaks on October 21 and 22 but produces meteors from now until early November. These meteors appear to come from a point in Orion, the hunter. This point is about two fists above the southeast horizon at 1 a.m. tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night as it will remain near the prominent reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced Bet'-el-jews). The Orionid meteors are fast - up to 40 miles per second. For more information about the Orionids, go to https://goo.gl/ikAodW.

Thursday: Astronomers will practice their planetary defense system today when a Klingon Bird-of-Prey enters Earth’s orbit…. Wait. That’s the plot of a Star Trek story.  Actually, asteroid 2012 TC4 will pass about 25 thousand miles from Earth. That’s one-tenth the Earth-Moon distance. This will give astronomers the opportunity to test their asteroid tracking and detection network, as well as get more precise orbital parameters for this 30 to 100 meter diameter minor planet.

Friday: The constellation Orion is four fists above due south at 6 a.m. The Orion is a cloud of gas and dust visible with binoculars about a half a fist below the “belt” of three stars. Are you are feeling especially attracted to the nebula? If so, that might be because astronomers found evidence of a black hole in the middle. They have not directly observed the back hole, which would be the closest known one to Earth at a distance of 1,300 light years. But the motion of stars in the region is consistent with them being near a black hole 100 times the mass of the Sun. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/AGjFf.


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, September 27, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 9/30/17

Saturday: Mnemonics are helpful for remembering astronomy facts. (Similarly, “Johnny Mnemonic”, the 1995 cyberpunk film, was helpful in getting Keanu Reeves’ career going.) After all, school children all around the country are learning the order of the planets by remembering, “My very excellent mother just served us nine….” Oops, I guess that one needs updating. Well, here’s one that will not need updating for nearly 100,000 years: the order of the stars in the Big Dipper. Because the nighttime stars are so far away from us, their actual motion through the sky, called their “proper motion” is not noticeable over even thousands of years. That is why the constellations have remained the same since ancient times. But two stars in the Big Dipper have a proper motion large enough such than in 100,000 years; the stars will no longer make a dipper shape. Until then, you can remember the names of the seven dipper stars in order from handle to cup by remembering this helpful advice for teens: “AM, ask mom. PM, dad”. The stars are Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phad, Merek, and Duhbe. The Big Dipper is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the north horizon at 11 p.m.

Sunday: Venus and Mars are about a pinky width apart, one and a half fists above the east horizon at 6:30 a.m. That’s pretty close. But, they will get closer later in the week. By Thursday morning, they’ll be less than the apparent diameter of the full Moon apart from each other.

Monday: Say “good bye” to Jupiter because it will soon be lost in the glare of the Sun for a few weeks. It is less than a half a fist above the west-southwest horizon right after sunset.

Tuesday: Since Halloween is later this month; the stores are filled with bags of candy clusters. Instead, take time to look at a star cluster. The Hyades cluster is an open star cluster that represents the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull. It is one of the biggest and nearest star clusters with about 200 stars 150 light years away. The Hyades cluster was the first cluster to be the subject of detailed motion studies. These studies allowed astronomers to pinpoint the distance to the Hyades and provide important information about the scale of the universe. Aldebaran, nearly two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m., is a foreground star and not a part of the Hyades cluster.

Wednesday: Speaking of good byes, NASA said “good bye” to the Cassini spacecraft earlier this month. This picture (https://stardate.org/astro-guide/gallery/saying-goodbye) shows Cassini saying “good bye” to the moon Enceladus as it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere.  Say “Hello” to Saturn at 7:30 tonight, one and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon.

Thursday: Get up at 6:30 a.m., dig a dime out of your piggy bank, and hold it out at arms length, one and a half fists above the east horizon. You’ll be able to block both Mars and Venus at the same time. That’s how close together they are in the sky. Winter is coming to the morning sky. The “winter constellations” such as Orion, Taurus, and Gemini are high above the southern horizon at 6:30 a.m. They are called winter constellations because they are high in the sky during the evening viewing hours of the winter months.

Friday: To the people of Ancient Greece, the stars that are about five and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon at 10 p.m. were known as Cassiopeia and Andromeda, a mythological queen and her daughter. But not all cultures imagined the same pictures in the sky. To the people of Polynesia, the stars of Cassiopeia and Andromeda represented a dolphin, called Kwu. Cassiopeia formed its tail, the brightest stars of Andromeda formed its fins, and its fainter stars outlined the dolphin’s body.


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, September 7, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 9/16/17

Saturday: “You know Aries and Cancer and Draco and Libra. Leo and Pisces and Virgo and Hydra. But, do you recall, the pointiest asterism of all? Triangulum, the three sided asterism, had a very pointy edge….” Sorry. Some stores have started sending out their Christmas catalogues and that has put me in the mood to modify some Christmas songs. Anyway, Triangulum is a small constellation between the more prominent Andromeda and Aries. Its main feature is a skinny triangle oriented parallel to and nearly four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m.

Sunday: Jupiter is about a half a fist above the west-southwest horizon and Saturn is two fists above the south-southwest horizon at 7:45 p.m.

Monday: This morning is a 3M morning. A Moon, Mercury, and Mars morning. (Wait. Morning starts with “m”, as well. So maybe it’s just a 4M. Anyway….) The waning crescent moon is one fist above the east horizon. Bright Mercury and somewhat bright Mars are to the lower left of the Moon. Very bright Venus is about a fist to the upper right of the Moon.  The star Regulus is right below Venus.

Tuesday: To celebrate the start of school at Central Washington University tomorrow, you could take a quick trip to Mars. How about America’s desert Southwest? Not enough time? Then just look at some photos from… from…. Hmmm. The photos at https://goo.gl/Elx7O8 look like they could be from either place. The Murray Buttes region of Mars, where the Curiosity rover has been exploring, look a lot like the landscape of Utah. So much so that the Mars-based movie John Carter was filmed there. Look for John Carter at your local video store. (“What’s that?” said the child.) Look for Mars one fist above the east horizon at 6 a.m.

Wednesday: Fomalhaut, the southernmost bright star visible from the northern USA, is one fist above the south-southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Thursday: According to “One world, group hug, love everyone” philosophy, political borders are human-made and can’t be seen from space so why can’t we all just get along. According to real world, pragmatic discoveries, some human-made political borders CAN be seen from space. Since 2003, India has illuminated its border with Pakistan to prevent illegal crossings. In 2011, astronaut Ron Garan took a picture of that border from the International Space Station. For more information, including the photo, go to http://goo.gl/mY8xG.

Friday: At precisely 1:02 p.m. PDT, the center of the Sun crosses the celestial equator and passes into the southern sky. The celestial equator is an imaginary line that divides the sky into a northern and southern half. When the Sun is in the southern half of the sky, it appears to take a shorter path from rising to setting. It also does not get as high in the sky at noon. This leads to shorter days and longer nights. Since the Sun crosses the celestial equator today, there is an instant when it is equally in the northern and southern sky, called the north and south celestial hemispheres. This so-called “equal night” is given by the Latin word equinox. Thus, today is known as the Autumnal Equinox. However, the day and night are not of equal duration today. The sun rises at 6:49 a.m. and sets at 6:59 p.m. Day and night are closest to equal duration on Monday.


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 9/9/17

Saturday: Today: “Excuse me, do you have the time?”
“No, but the Big Dipper does.”
You can use the orientation of the Big Dipper to tell time with a precision of about 15-30 minutes. First, find the two stars at the far end of the Big Dipper cup, the stars that do not touch the handle. Draw an imaginary line segment starting at the North Star and passing through the two Big Dipper cup stars. Now, draw a big circle around the North Star. Your circle is a 24-hour clock. Number the circle from 0 hours at the top, counterclockwise to 12 hours at the bottom of the circle, and back up to 24 hours at the top. (O hours and 24 hours are the same on this clock because the day is 24 hours long.) The hour number on the big circle closest to where your imaginary line intersects this circle is called your raw time. Due to the location of the Big Dipper compared to the rest of the stars, the time nearest the intersection (the raw time) is correct for March 6. For any other night, subtract two times the number of months the current date is after March 6 from the raw time. For example, let’s say the imaginary line between the North Star and the Dipper stars is pointed to the right. That means the raw time is 18 hours or 6 p.m. If you made this observation on October 6, which is seven months after March 6, you would subtract two times seven or 14 hours from the raw time.  Thus, the time for November 6 is 18 hours minus 14 hours or 4 hours. In other words, 4 a.m. Don’t forget to convert for daylight savings time if needed. For a more complete explanation on how to do the Big Dipper clock math, go to http://goo.gl/02HmA. If you prefer a more visual tool, and a fun project to do with your kids, there is a simple “star clock” template and instructions at http://goo.gl/SFKrE. Use this paper star clock whenever you watch is broken.

Sunday: Jupiter is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon at 8 p.m. Saturn is two fists above the south-southwest horizon at this time. Both of these planets can be seen as disks even through a small backyard telescope. The reddish bright star Antares is to the lower right of Saturn, a little more than one fist above the south-southwest horizon. Even though Antares is a supergiant, it still looks like a point through most telescopes. Most, but not all. Astronomers used the European Space Agency Very Large Telescope Interferometer to create an image of the surface of Antares. To see that image for yourself, go to https://goo.gl/Y4G4WF.

Monday: The calendar says summer is nearing an end. School starting says summer is nearing an end. The summer triangle in the sky begs to differ, as it is still high in the sky. Vega, the brightest star in the triangle, is a little bit south of straight overhead at sunset. Deneb is six and a half fists above the east horizon and Altair is five fists above the southeast horizon.

Tuesday: In 1987, the rock group Def Leppard sang “Pour some sugar on me, in the name of love. Pour some sugar on me, come on fire me up”. In 2012, some European astronomers “found some sugar near stars, they were very young. Found some sugar near stars, out where planets formed.” Astronomers observed molecules of glycolaldehyde, a simple form of sugar, in the disk of gas and dust orbiting young binary stars. This is the first time astronomers have found this simple sugar so close to a star indicating that organic molecules can be found in planet-forming regions of stars. For more information, go to http://goo.gl/tfwy1.

Wednesday: The morning sky is packed with planets. At 6 a.m., Venus is two fists above due east. One fist above the horizon, a little bit south of east, sit three bright objects making a diagonal line from Venus to the rising Sun. The one in the middle is Mercury, the brightest of the three. Just above Mercury is the star Regulus and just below Mercury is Mars.

Thursday: Had the script been written a little differently for a well-known Robin Williams movie, we might have heard Mr. Williams shout, “Goooood Morning Orion the hunter”. Orion is typically thought of as a winter constellation. But, it makes its first appearance in the early morning summer sky. The lowest corner of Orion’s body, represented by the star Saiph (pronounced “safe”), rises at 2 a.m., well before the Sun. By 6 a.m., Orion’s belt is nearly four fists above the south-southeast horizon.

Friday: Stuart Sutcliffe was the fifth Beatle. d’Artagnan was the fourth Musketeer. Ophiuchus is the thirteenth constellation in the Zodiac. The Zodiac consists of all the constellations that the Sun appears to line up with as the Earth’s celestial perspective changes throughout its annual orbit. You know twelve constellations in the Zodiac because they are the 12 horoscope signs. But the Sun also lines up with Ophiuchus for about two weeks every year. You can spend some time with Ophiuchus tonight. The center of the coffin shaped group of stars is three fists above due southwest at 9 p.m.


The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.