Friday, July 27, 2018

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/28/18

With a giant new Harry Potter Lego set coming out in September to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the release of the first Happy Potter book in America, you better brush up on some of the character names.

Saturday: At 9 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 fists above the west-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 4:30 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 about 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 10 p.m.

Thursday: Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius, is one and a half fists above due south at 8:45 p.m. 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 11:30 p.m., the left hand corner of the square is about three 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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Ellensburg sky for the week of 7/14/18

Saturday: The Moon starts its night sky Solar System tour tonight. It is less than a half a fist held upright and at arm's length above Mercury, low in the west-northwest sky at 9:30 p.m. 

Sunday: Fresh off of a successful appearance with the innermost planet, the Moon passes over Venus in the sky tonight. You'll barely be able to fit a finger between Venus and the Moon at 9:30 p.m., low in the western sky. 

Monday: At 11:45 p.m., Saturn is almost exactly two fists above due south and Mars is one fist above the south-southeast horizon. 

Tuesday: 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.  

Wednesday: 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 For example, if it weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies.  

Thursday: Last week marked the three-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. 

Friday: Take a two and a half hour walk. Too long, you say? Forty-nine 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. The Moon is celebrating this event with Jupiter tonight. They are about two fists above the southwest horizon at 10 p.m. with Jupiter being less than a half a fist below the Moon. 

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 6, 2018

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 7/7/18

Saturday: The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its first Saturday planetarium show today from noon to 1 pm. CWU physics professor Tony Smith will give a show called Space: The Fun and the Fiction. Have Scotty beam you aboard and come to the presentation. There will be a show at noon on the first Saturday of every month hosted by different CWU astronomers and astronomy educators. These shows are free and open to all ages. 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: Venus is within a fingerwidth of the bright star Regulus for the next few days. They are about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due west at 9:30 p.m. Venus is the brighter of the two. Mercury is lower, about a half a fist above the west-northwest horizon at this time.

Monday: 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.

Tuesday: 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

Wednesday: It is Wednesday so you want to go to bed early fo focus on the early evening (for summer, anyway) planets. At 10 p.m., Jupiter is two and a half fists above the southwest horizon. It is the brightest point of light in its part of the sky. Saturn is about five fists to the left of Jupiter, about one and a half fists above the southeast horizon. The star Antares is halfway between the two in the night sky.

Thursday: Mizar is a star in the middle of the Big Dipper handle. Don’t 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.

Friday: It is Friday so you don’t mind staying up late. Mars is one fist above the southeast horizon at midnight.

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