Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/12/19

Saturday:  Mars is less than a fist to the right of the Moon at 9 p.m. The sky is so wondrous. It makes me want to sing. Who can forget that memorable song by Three Dog Constellations Night, “The sky is black. The stars are white. Together we learn to find the light.” Well, maybe it didn’t go like that. Which is good. Because not all stars are white. Most stars are too dim to notice a color. But, two of the stars in the constellation Orion provide a noticeable contrast with each other. Betelgeuse, four and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south horizon at 9:00 p.m. is a red giant. Rigel, the bright star about two fists to the lower right of Betelgeuse, is a blue giant.
By the way, the three dog constellations are Canis Major, the greater dog, found one and a half fists to the lower left of Orion; Canis Minor, the lesser dog, found two and a half fists to the left of Betelgeuse; and Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs, found low in the northeast sky, halfway between the Big Dipper and the horizon. Canis Major contains Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.

Sunday: Venus, Jupiter and the bright star Antares make make a small triangle low in the south-southeast sky at about 7 a.m. every day this week. The very bright Venus is at the top of the triangle. Jupiter is to the lower left of Venus, one fist away this morning but getting closer everyday this week. Antares is one fist below Venus this morning.

Monday: Do you ever take photos to spy on your neighbors? The Hubble Space Telescope does. Last week, Hubble scientists released the best ever image of the Triangulum Galaxy, the second closest spiral galaxy to Earth. Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys weaved together 54 separate images to provide enough detail to see 10 million individual stars out of the estimated 40 billion stars in the galaxy. See the pictures at

Tuesday: You never see a giraffe on the ground in Ellensburg. But you can look for one every night in the sky. The constellation Camelopardalis the giraffe is circumpolar from Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees north meaning it is always above the horizon. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the appearance of the stars in Camelopardalis. The brightest star in the constellation appears only about half as bright as the dimmest star in the Big Dipper. However, the actual luminosities of the three brightest stars in Camelopardalis are very high, each at least 3,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Alpha Camelopardalis, a mind boggling 600,000 times more luminous than the Sun, is seven fists above the northern horizon at 9 p.m.

Wednesday: Have you ever planned a vacation to a place because it was supposedly the up-and-coming locale? Then, when the vacation time finally arrives, you find out the place doesn’t live up to its billing? A little over six years ago, astronomers discovered that the star Tau Ceti, one of our closest neighbors at 12 light years away, has five planets. They claimed two of the planets are in the so-called habitable zone where the temperature is just right for having liquid water. Time for a va-ca-tion! Well, not so fast. Astronomers have only a lower limit to the planet masses so they may be too massive for complex life to form. And the Tau Ceti system has ten times as much mass in dust and rocks as our own solar system. So you’ll want to do some research before you travel there. Tau Ceti is two and a half fists above the south-southwest horizon at 7 p.m. For more information about the discovery, go to

Thursday: These next two weeks are the coldest of the year so it is time to turn up the furnace. Fornax the furnace is one fist above due south at 7 p.m.

Friday: Get ready for a total lunar eclipse this Sunday night as seen from the United States. Go to to determine when the eclipse will be visible in your location. In the Pacific Time Zone, the eclipse will be total from about 8:40 p.m. to 9:45 p.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

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 1/5/19

Saturday:  The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its monthly First Saturday planetarium show today from noon to 1 p.m. CWU professor Bruce Palmquist will give a presentation called “The sky in different wavelengths”. If you want the chance to say, “look at the pretty colors”, come to this show. The show is free and open to all ages. There will be a show at noon on the first Saturday of every month of the school year hosted by different CWU astronomers and astronomy educators. The CWU Lydig 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 
If you are going to be in northeast Russia this afternoon, there will be a partial solar eclipse to view. For more information about this, go to the NASA solar eclipse website at 

Sunday: This morning is  Venus’ greatest western elongation. So what, you say? Not so what. This means Venus is far from the Sun in the sky. So what, you say? Not so what. This means that Venus is easy to observe. It is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the south-southeast horizon at 7:15 am. It is the brightest point of light in that part of the sky. Jupiter, the second brightest point of light, is a fist and a half to the lower left of Venus and a fist and a half above the horizon. If you look carefully, you may be able to see Mercury a little bit above the southeast horizon. 

Monday: How do you study the life cycle of a dog? Easy. Get a dog from the animal shelter, care for it for 15 years and study it. How do you study the life cycle of a star? Easy. Pick a star, watch it for a few billion years, and…. Wait a minute. Astronomers can’t observe something for a few billion years. Instead, they study stars that are at different points in their long life cycle and piece together the information from those different stars. What they do is like studying a one-year-old dog for a few minutes, then studying a different two-year-old dog for a few minutes, and so on. The sky in and near the constellation Orion provides an example of four objects at different points of star life. 
First, find Rigel, the bright star in the lower right corner of the constellation Orion. This star, rapidly burning its fuel for a high energy but short-lived existence, is three and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 10 p.m. It was not, is not, and never will be like our Sun. However, about one fist up and to the left are the three objects of Orion’s sword holder. The middle “star” is really a star-forming region called the Orion nebula. There you’ll find baby Suns. Now, look about two fists to the right and one fist down from Rigel. You should be looking at a star that is about one tenth as bright as Rigel but still the brightest in its local region. The third star to the right of that star is Epsilon Eridani, the most Sun-like close and bright star. Betelgeuse, in the upper left corner of Orion, is a star at the end of its life that started out life a bit larger than the Sun. 

Tuesday: A week ago today, the NASA probe called New Horizons sent back the first detailed image of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) that formed in its current state about 4.5 billion years ago. Ultima looks like a 30-kilometer long reddish snowman spinning through space. Check out the newest images and the latest information at Astronomers will be downloading and processing the data over the next 20 months. 

Wednesday: Mars, the more well-known red Solar System object, is four and a half fists above due south at 5 p.m. 

Thursday: January 10-13 is the worldwide celebration of 100 hours of astronomy. Of course, the CWU Physics Department started early with the First Saturday planetarium show earlier in the week. The Seattle Astronomical Society will have events in the South King County area Friday and Saturday night. Go to and select “Events” for more information. 

Friday: Have you ever looked down on the ground and spotted a penny? In Yakima? While you were standing in Ellensburg? If you have, then you may be able to see the star Hamal as more than just a point of light. It has an angular diameter that can be directly measured from Earth. Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation Aries the ram, has the same angular diameter as a penny 37 miles away. (For comparison, the moon is about half the diameter of a penny held at arm’s length.) Hamal is three and a half fists above due west at 11 p.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