Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/16/18

 Saturday: Tomorrow is Father’s Day, the day to celebrate the person who made you a father. No, not her. You celebrated her last month. (You didn’t forget, did you?!) Celebrate your child by getting her/him the book “Woman in Science” by Rachel Ignotofsky ( This creatively drawn book highlights the contributions of 50 pioneers of science from Hypatia to Katherine Johnson, the main character in the recent movie “Hidden Figures”. 

Sunday: Two years ago astronomers using a radio telescope in Australia discovered the source of fleeting radio signal bursts that had been a mystery for 17 years. And they didn’t have to probe the depths of deep space. They only had to probe the depths of… the observatory kitchen. It turns out the signal came from opening the microwave door prematurely. Read more about The Microwave Emission here: Sheldon Cooper used similar methods of science when he discovered a can opener instead of magnetic monopoles in the season three premiere of “The Big Bang Theory” 

Monday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because the days are very long. Because the temperature is rising. Because kids are getting out of school. Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 11 p.m. Vega, the third brightest star visible from Ellensburg, is about five fists held upright and at arms length above the east horizon. Deneb, at the tail of Cygnus the swan is about three and a half fists above the northeast horizon. The third star in the triangle, Altair, in Aquila the eagle is two fists above the east horizon. 
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. 

Tuesday: Venus is near the Beehive Cluster for the next two nights. This cluster, one of the closest to Earth, consists of about 350 stars, about 50 of which can be seen with binoculars on a dark night. Venus is about one fist above the west-northwest horizon at 10 p.m. In other sky news, Jupiter is three fists above due south at this time. 

Wednesday: Nearly 400 years ago, Galileo viewed the Pleiades star cluster through his telescope and saw that the seven or so stars in the region visible to the naked eye became many more. There are two main types of star clusters. Open star clusters, like the Pleaides and the Beehive, are groups of a few dozen to a few thousand stars that formed from the same cloud of gas and dust within our galaxy. Stars in open star clusters are young as far as stars go. Globular clusters are groups of up to a few million stars that orbit the core of spiral galaxies such as our own Milky Way. One of the most well known star clusters is the globular cluster in Hercules, an object that is fairly easy to find with binoculars. First find Vega, the bright bluish star five fists above the east horizon at 11 p.m. Two fists above Vega is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the upper left hand star of the keystone. The globular cluster is one third of the way to the rightmost star of the keystone. It looks like a fuzzy patch on the obtuse angle of a small obtuse triangle. If you don’t know what an obtuse angle is, you should not have told your teacher, “I’ll never need to know this stuff”. 

Thursday: Early this morning, the summer solstice occurs. This is when the Sun reaches its highest declination (the official name for sky latitude) of 23.5 degrees above the celestial equator. The celestial equator is the line that divides the northern sky from the southern sky. In Ellensburg, the Sun is about seven fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 1:00 p.m. (noon standard time). Contrary to popular belief, the Sun is never straight overhead in Ellensburg or anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states. The northernmost portion of the world where the Sun can be directly overhead is 23.5 degrees north latitude. In ancient times, the Sun was in the constellation Cancer the crab on the first day of summer. Hence, 23.5 degrees north latitude has the nickname "Tropic of Cancer". Because the Earth wobbles like a spinning top, the Sun's apparent path through the sky changes slightly over time. Now, the Sun is in the constellation Taurus the bull on the first day of summer. However, citing the high cost of revising all of the science books, geographers are not changing the name of 23.5 degrees north latitude to "Tropic of Taurus". The first day of summer is often called the summer solstice. However, astronomers refer to the summer solstice as the point in the sky in which the Sun is at its highest point above the celestial equator. Thus, summer starts when the Sun is at the summer solstice point. This year, that happens at 3:07 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. 

Friday: At midnight, Saturn is two fists above the south-southeast horizon and Mars is a half a fist above the 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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/9/18

Have you bought your favorite CWU graduate a graduation gift yet? Why not get her or him a star? I don’t mean from one of those organizations that offers to “register the name of YOUR star with the U.S. Patent Office”. No company owns the right to name stars after people. Besides, the stars those companies “name” are so dim you can’t find them. In this column, I’ll pick a constellation and representative star for each of the four colleges at CWU. Then, I’ll briefly tell the story of the constellation and relate that story to the aspect of public service CWU graduates from that college are uniquely qualified to engage in based on my version of sky interpretation. If different couples can have “their” song, then your favorite college graduate can have her or his star 

Saturday: College of Arts and Humanities: You are the people who interpret the world in unique ways. Then, you share those ways with others. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus charmed everyone he met when he played the lyre or harp. After his wife died tragically, he journeyed to the underworld to charm its inhabitants in an effort to win his wife back to the living world. Your service reminder: use your talent to bring joy to others. The constellation Lyra and its bright star Vega should remind you of the power of the arts. Vega is five and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 11 p.m. 

Sunday: Venus is a little more than a fist above the west-northwest horizon at 10 p.m. The two brightest stars in Gemini, Pollux and Castor, are just to the right of Venus. If you look three fists above the south horizon, you can see Jupiter right above the star Zubenelgenubi. 

Monday: College of Business. You are the future movers and shakers. The future CEOs. The future big donors to Central. Auriga represented a king of Athens who happened to be mobility impaired. Instead of sitting around waiting for others to transport him, he took the initiative to invent the four-wheeled chariot. He solved a problem for a special need. Your service reminder: address the problems of those in the most need. To remind you of that, look to the constellation Auriga. Its bright star Capella is about a half a fist above the north-northwest horizon at 11 p.m. 

Tuesday: College of Education and Professional Studies. You are the teachers. The craftspeople. The facilitators of learning in a diverse world. Bootes, the herdsman, was such a person. Bootes’ job was to guide the northern constellations to the feeding place and the watering hole. He and his dogs were especially in charge of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the greater and lesser bears. Your service reminder: guide others to a better place in life. Look to the constellation Bootes and its bright star Arcturus to remind you of this. Arcturus is five and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m. 

Wednesday: It's graduation week so stay up late. At 1 a.m., Saturn is two fists above the south horizon and Mars is one fist above due southwest. 

Thursday: College of the Sciences. You are the people who will systematically study how the world works. Agriculture is an important scientific application. Each year, farmers must use the findings of science to be successful. Who better to represent the College of the Sciences than Virgo, the goddess of the harvest? Virgo looms large in the sky holding an ear of wheat in her hand. Your service reminder: study the practical aspects of the scientific world. The ear of wheat, and your service reminder, is represented by the bright star Spica. Spica is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon at 11 p.m. Tonight; you’ve got a warrior’s spirit, as well, because the planet Mars, which represents the Roman god of war, is one fist to the right of Spica. 

Friday: "Do I have to wake up yet? It's so early!" This morning is the earliest sunrise for the northern part of the United States, including Ellensburg "Wait, I thought this happened on the longest day of the year, which hasn't occurred yet." Because the Earth's orbit is not a perfect circle, some days are a little longer than 24 hours and some are a little shorter. June days are a little longer so the earliest sunrise occurs before the longest day and the latest sunset occurs after the longest day. Go to to read more about this phenomenon. 

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, May 31, 2018

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 6/2/18

Saturday: The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its First Saturday Planetarium Show today from noon to 1 pm. Local science educator Megan Rivard will give a kid-friendly presentation about what can be seen in the summer sky called "Summer Night Lights – A Tour". There will be a show at noon on the first Saturday of every month hosted by different CWU astronomers and astronomy educators. The planetarium is room 101 in Science Phase II, just off the corner of 11th and Wildcat Way, H-11 on the campus map found at 

Sunday: Cygnus the swan flies tonight. Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation, whose name means “tail” in Arabic, is two and a half fists held upright and at arm's length above the northeast horizon at 10 p.m. Cygnus’ wings make a vertical line one half a fist to the right of Deneb. Its head, marked by the star Albireo, is two fists to the right of Deneb. While Deneb is at the tail of Cygnus, it is at the head of the line of bright stars. It is 160,000 times more luminous than the Sun making it one of the brightest stars in the galaxy. It does not dominate our night sky because it is 2,600 light years away, one of the farthest naked eye stars. If Deneb were 25 light years away, it would shine as bright as a crescent moon. Compare that to Vega, which is 25 light years away. Vega is three and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon at this time. 

Monday: Venus is one and a half fists above the west horizon at 9:30 p.m. 

Tuesday: While the NASA probe Dawn is off exploring the largest main-belt asteroid Ceres, you can explore the second largest asteroid Vesta. NASA has released Vesta Trek, a free web-based application that allows you to zoom in, “fly” over the surface, measure craters sizes, and see what Vesta looks like in different wavelengths of light. Go to for more information about Vesta Trek and the Dawn mission. Vesta is the brightest asteroid and can easily be seen with binoculars. For the next few weeks, use Saturn as your celestial starting point. Find Saturn with your binoculars, a little more than one fist above the southeast horizon at midnight. Shift your binoculars so Saturn is in the lower left edge of your field of view. Move your binoculars a little to the upper right. The brightest point of light in the region of the sky you are now looking at is Vesta. To confirm, go back to that spot for the next few nights. Vesta will move noticeably from night to night with respect to the background stars. 

Wednesday: As the weather warms up, people start thinking about swimming in a nice cool body of water. Recently, astronomers have discovered evidence an ocean about 20 miles beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA’s Cassini probes measured variations in how the moon’s gravity pulled on the orbiting spacecraft. These variations can be explained by a large amount of liquid water under one section of the ice because liquid water is denser than an equal volume of ice. While you need a very large telescope to see Enceladus, Saturn is one fist above the southeast horizon at 11:30 p.m. 

Thursday: Jupiter is two and a half fists above due south at 10:47 pm. That is as high as it will get above the horizon this season. 

Friday: Mars is two fists above due south at 4:30 a.m. I know, you may still be sleeping. But your co-worker isn't so she will soon pass you in the race to the top of the career ladder! And, she will see Mars. 

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