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

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

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

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:, 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 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 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

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