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.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 9/2/17

Saturday: The Ellensburg Rodeo is a “Top-25” rodeo. What does it take to be a “Top-25” star? There are many ways to rank stars. The most obvious way for a casual observer to rank stars is by apparent brightness. The apparent brightness is the brightness of a star as seen from Earth, regardless of its distance from the Earth. Shaula (pronounced Show’-la) is the 25th brightest star in the nighttime sky as seen from Earth. It represents the stinger of Scorpius the scorpion. In fact, Shaula means stinger in Arabic. Shaula has a visual brightness rating of 1.62. Sirius, the brightest star has a visual brightness rating of -1.46. (Smaller numbers mean brighter objects.) The dimmest objects that can be seen with the naked eye have a visual brightness rating of about 6. There are approximately 6,000 stars with a lower numbered visual brightness rating than 6 meaning there are 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye. Shaula is a blue sub-giant star that radiates 35,000 times more energy than the Sun. It is 700 light years away making it one of the most distant bright stars. Shaula is a challenge to find because it never gets more than a half a fist above the horizon. Look for it tonight about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon, a little bit west of due south, at 8:30.

Sunday: School starts this week so it is time for a little geometry review. A square is a regular quadrilateral, which means it has four equal sides, four equal angles, and it uses the restroom on a set schedule. Go outside at 10 p.m. tonight with notebook in hand to sketch one. The Great Square of Pegasus is balancing on its corner two and a half fists above due east. The top corner of the square is two fists above the bottom corner. The other two corners are to the left and right of the line segment connecting the top and bottom corners.

Monday: Labor Day was the brainchild of labor unions and is dedicated to American workers. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882. The Greek mythical hero Hercules probably wished there was a Labor Day to commemorate his work. As punishment for killing his family while he was temporarily insane, he had to perform twelve nearly impossible tasks such as killing monsters or stealing things from deities. Hmmm. Maybe we shouldn’t commemorate his labors. But we can enjoy his constellation. The keystone asterism representing the body of Hercules is six fists above the west horizon at 10 p.m. For more information about the Labors of Hercules, go to http://goo.gl/ozVF5.

Tuesday: Geometry review, part 2. Go outside at 10 p.m. tonight with notebook in hand. (Good teaching involves a little repetition.) You’ll have an easy time seeing your notebook because the moon is just a little past full. A triangle is a polygon with three corners and three line segments as sides. A good example is the Summer Triangle made up of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. Vega, the brightest star in the triangle, is a little bit southwest of straight overhead. Deneb is a little bit east of straight overhead and Altair is five fists above the south horizon.

Wednesday: Jupiter is less than one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 8 p.m. Saturn is two fists above the south horizon.

Thursday: Venus is two fists above due east at 6 a.m. But the more interesting sight is to the lower left of Venus, halfway to the horizon. Mercury, Regulus, and Mars make a little line less than a half a fist long. Mercury is the brightest objects and is in the upper right. Mars is the dimmest in the lower left.

Friday: “I’m a little teapot, short and stout. The galactic center, I pour it out.” (I’m a Little Teapot, astronomy version, 2014.) Despite its great size and importance, the center of our Milky Way galaxy and its giant black hole remains hidden to the naked eye behind thick clouds of gas and dust. By plotting the orbits of stars near the middle of the galaxy, astronomers have determined that the black hole’s mass is equal to about 4.5 million Suns. While you can’t see the actual galactic center, you can gaze in the direction of the center by looking just to the right of the teapot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius. This point is about one fist above the south-southwest horizon at 9 p.m.


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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 8/26/17

Saturday: Arcturus is four fists above the west-southwest horizon at 10:30 p.m. This star, whose name means bear watcher, is the brightest in the sky’s northern hemisphere. It follows Ursa Major, the Great Bear, around the North Star. Arcturus is the closest giant star to Earth. It is one of the few stars whose diameter can be measured directly rather than being inferred from its density and mass, which, themselves are derived from other parameters.

Sunday: Have you ever gone to a family reunion, looked around and asked, “How in the world are we related to each other?” Astronomers look around the Solar System and wonder if there is life anywhere else that we are related to. The Mars Science Laboratory landed on Mars in 2012 to investigate whether it ever had conditions favorable for life. The Venus Express studied the atmosphere of Venus from 2006 to 2014. The Cassini Mission continues to study the plume of complex organic chemicals streaming from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA and the European Space Agency are planning missions to study Europa, the Jovian moon with an ice-covered ocean. And many astronomers consider the methane haze in the atmosphere in Saturn’s moon Titan similar to that of the early Earth. To learn more about the search for life in the Solar System and beyond, go to https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/. While you won’t see anyone waving back, you can see Mars and Venus in the early morning sky. At 5:45 a.m., Mars is a half a fist above the east-northeast horizon and Venus is two fists above the east horizon.

Monday: What did you do last Monday? Hopefully, many of you watched the solar eclipse safely. Many professional and citizen scientists, including some from Central Washington University, acquired valuable eclipse data. Read about a summary of three projects here: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/2017-total-solar-eclipse/eclipse-seen-citizen-scientists/. For more information about CWU’s project, go to https://goo.gl/dNkGNx.

Tuesday: Saturn is a half a fist to the left of the Moon in the southwest sky at 10 p.m.

Wednesday: Deneb is nearly straight overhead at 11:30 p.m. When you look at Deneb, you are seeing light that left Deneb about 1,800 years ago.

Thursday: All stars rotate. Our Sun takes a little less than an Earth month to make one rotation. Astronomers have started to study the relationship between mass, stellar rotation, and planetary formation by aiming NASA’s Kepler space telescope toward the Pleiades open star cluster. All 1,000 stars in this group is nearly the same age, 125 million years old. Since all of the stars are the same age and formed from the same set of materials, astronomers have the ideal “laboratory” to isolate the role star mass plays on star rotation and evolution. Read more about the findings at http://goo.gl/osijIY. See the Pleiades for yourself, one fist above the east-northeast horizon at 11:30 p.m.

Friday: Florence + the Machine sang, “Dog Days are Over”. Today, Florence the large near-Earth asteroid will be singing “Nice to get Close to you, Earth”. The 2.7-mile diameter asteroid will pass within about 18 earth-Moon distances. Even though 2.7 miles in diameter seems small compared to the sixe of astronomical objects we are familiar with such as the Moon, Mars, and the Death Star, it is the largest asteroid to pass this close to Earth since the NASA program to detect near-Earth asteroids began.


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, August 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, July 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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