Friday, February 17, 2017

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

Saturday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, at that time classified as the ninth planet. However, as astronomers started discovering a lot of similar objects in that part of the solar system, they realized that had a classification crisis on their hands. Should everything in this region of the solar system be named a planet? Eventually the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto and all future Pluto-like objects as dwarf planets.

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

Monday: Orion stands tall in the southern sky. At 7:30 p.m., the middle of Orion’s belt is four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south. And talk about belt tightening! Alnilam, the middle star in the belt, is losing mass at a rate of about 100 thousand trillion tons a day. That’s a 1 followed by 17 zeros tons per day.

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

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

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

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

The positional information in this column about stars and planets is typically accurate for the entire week. For up to date information about the night sky, go to

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