Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: If you want to put somebody off, tell her or him to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon. At 9:32 p.m., it will be as close as it gets to the horizon, about two degrees above due north. Watch it reach this due north position about 4 minutes earlier each night.

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: If you ask an astrobiologist for the three most likely places to find evidence of life in the Solar System, other than Earth, they’d probably say Mars, Europa (“Didn’t they sing “The Final Countdown”?”), and Enceladus. Mars makes sense because you know scientists have sent a lot of probes there. Astronomers first discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, first piqued astrobiologists’ interest a few years ago then NASA’s Cassini probe discovered jets of water containing organic materials shooting out. Five years ago, the German space agency started a project called Enceladus Explorer, EnEx for short, to collect sample from deep within Enceladus. For more information on the Enceladus mission, go to At 8 p.m., Mars is two and a half fists above the west horizon. By 11 p.m., Jupiter and Europa are about one and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon. By 6 a.m., Saturn and Enceladus are two fists above the south-southeast horizon. By the way, the Swedish group Europe sang “The Final Countdown”. And they were “heading for Venus” in the song, not to the worlds of the outer Solar System. Venus is one fist above the west horizon at 8 p.m.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

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

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

Sunday: It’s getting dark. The last remnant of twilight has disappeared. Suddenly, you notice a large softly radiant pyramid of light in the western sky. The base of this ghostly triangle is along the west horizon and the peak stretches two or three fists above the horizon. It is not really a ghost. It is an effect called the zodiacal light. This light comes from sunlight reflecting off dust grains in our solar system. The effect is the most visible when the band of constellations called the zodiac makes a steep angle with the horizon. You need a clear dark sky with no haze or light pollution to see the zodiacal light. At its brightest, the zodiacal light rivals the light of the central Milky Way. Look for the ghostly patch after twilight for the next few weeks.

Monday: It is often said that Earth is a water world because about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. What would it look like if all that water on the surface were gathered up into a ball? That “ball” would be about 700 km in diameter, less than half the diameter of the Moon. The Astronomy Picture of the day shows us right here

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

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

Thursday: In this busy world, it is important to know what time it is. We have many devises that give us the time. A phone. A computer. A watch. But who has time to build a phone, computer or even a watch. Not you. But everyone has enough time to build a simple Sun Clock. All you need is a pencil, a compass and a print out of the clock template. Go to for more information.

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

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