Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/16/19

Saturday:  “Oooo, they’re little runaways. Orion’s stars moved fast. Tried to make a getaway. Ooo-oo, they’re little runaways,” sang Bon Jovi in his astronomical hit “Runaway.  At least that’s what I hear when I listen to the song. After all, it fits the recently calculated trajectory of AE Aurigae, Mu Columbae, and 53 Arietis. Extrapolating the actual motion of these three stars back in time, they were all in the location of the star-forming region called the Orion Nebula a few million years ago. What kicked these stars out? Not paying rent? Excessive partying? No, it was simply gravitational interactions with nearby stars. Find out more about the eviction at http://goo.gl/UeLwKQ. Orion is about four fists held upright and at arm’s length above due south at 8 p.m.

Sunday: Saturn is about a thumb width below the very bright Venus, one fist above the southeast horizon at 6 a.m.

Monday: “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Pluto. Happy Birthday to you.” On this day in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, at that time classified as the ninth planet. However, as astronomers started discovering a lot of similar objects in that part of the solar system, they realized that had a classification crisis on their hands. Should everything in this region of the solar system be named a planet? Eventually the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto and all future Pluto-like objects as dwarf planets. Pluto is way too dim to be seen with binoculars or small telescopes. But you can check out its general location, one fist to the lower left of Saturn and Venus, a half a fist above the southeast horizon at 6 a.m.

Tuesday: How did life begin on Earth? Well, there’s a mommy and a daddy and they…. Oh, wait. You said “on Earth”. Many astronomers think that the key elements for life such as carbon, oxygen, and sulfur came from Theia, the Mars-sized object that collided with the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. These elements would have boiled out of the primordial Earth so astronomers have been looking for an extraterrestrial delivery vehicle. According to computer models, Theia meets the criteria. Read more about this at

Wednesday: Clyde Tombaugh discovered the first planet 9. Will you discover the new Planet 9? You and thousands of others will have the opportunity to comb through images of the sky from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). You’ll view short “flipbook” movies of the same patch of sky on different nights. Any point of light that moves could be Planet 9 or another undiscovered Solar System object. Join the search for Planet 9 at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/marckuchner/backyard-worlds-planet-9.

Thursday: Mercury is one fist above the west-southwest horizon at 6 p.m.

Friday: The Stargate movies and TV shows have access to a portal to other planets. Harry Potter has access to a portal to the Chamber of Secrets. You have access to a Portal to the Universe. This portal is not in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom but is on the web at http://www.portaltotheuniverse.org/. It is a repository of up-to-date astronomy news, blogs, and podcasts. A recent story highlights how planet hunters like you and Clyde Tombaugh look for other planetary systems. Astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics: Harvard and Smithsonian just discovered a planetary disk that has been flipped perpendicular to the orbital plane of the binary star system it orbits. Until this discovery, a protoplanetary disc orbiting perpendicular to its host stars was only a theory. Read more about this discovery at https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2019-01.

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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.


Friday, February 8, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 2/9/19

Saturday:  Comet Iwamoto is actually meeting brightness expectations! It should be easily visible in binoculars over the next week. Tonight, go outside at 11 p.m. First find Spica, the bright star just above the east-southeast horizon. Then find Regulus, the bright star five fists help upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon. Comet Iwamoto is halfway between those stars. For a more precise aid, there is a set of three stars that make a triangle a little smaller than your fist, pointing toward Regulus. The comet is about a fist to the upper right of this triangle. For more information and a detailed finder chart, go to https://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/comet-iwamoto-ascends-and-brightens/.

Sunday: Mars is a little less than one fist to the right of the Moon. They are four fists above the southwest horizon at 7 p.m.

Monday: The Hyades is an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus, about six fists above due south at 7 p.m.  Although less well known than its star cluster neighbor in the sky, the Pleiades, it is not less interesting. The Hyades has a dozen stars that are visible to the naked eye with several dozen more visible using binoculars. Both star clusters are about 16 light years across but the Hyades is three time closer making it appear much larger in the sky. The brightest star in the region, the red giant Aldebaran, is at one tip of the V-shaped cluster. But it is a foreground star and not an actual member of the cluster. There are our naked eye double stars that are members of the cluster. The easiest to see are Theta 1 and 2 Tauri. They are about a thumb-width to the lower right of Aldebaran. They are about one fifth the diameter of the full Moon apart from each other in the sky but five light years apart in reality. For information on how to spend more happy nights with the Hyades, go to https://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/happy-nights-with-the-hyades/

Tuesday: There is a string of three bright planets visible in the morning sky at 6:30 a.m. Highest is Jupiter, nearly two fists above the south-southeast horizon. Brightest is Venus, just over one fist above the southeast horizon. Finally, there is Saturn, the dimmest of the three. It is about one fist to the lower left of Venus and one fist above the southeast horizon.

Wednesday: The Moon rests in the V of the Hyades Cluster. They are six fists above due south at 7 a.m.

Thursday: According to Greek mythology, the beautiful princess Andromeda was chained to a rock next to the ocean. Cetus the sea monster was about to devour her in order to punish her family. It seemed that all was lost. But, along came the great warrior Perseus, fresh off his defeat of the evil Gorgon, Medusa. The only similarity between Andromeda and Medusa was that Andromeda caused people to stand still and stare at her beauty while Medusa turned people to stone because of her ugliness. (And, you thought you looked bad in the morning.) Even though Perseus’ standing as the son of King Zeus and the slayer of Medusa was probably enough to win Andromeda under normal circumstances, Andromeda’s impending death-by-sea-monster was not a normal circumstance. So, Perseus drove his sword into the sea monsters neck and killed it. In a little known addendum to the story, Perseus carved “Percy (heart symbol) Andi” in the rock, thus originating the use of the heart symbol as a substitute for the word “love”.
You can find these lovers in the sky this Valentine’s Day. Just remember it is rude to stare – and you never know when you might turn to stone. First, find the Great Square of Pegasus at 7 p.m. between one and a half and three and a half fists above the west horizon. The lowest star in Andromeda is the top star in the square. This represents Andromeda’s head. Perseus is at her feet, nearly straight overhead. Mirphak, the brightest star in Perseus, is about eight fists above the west horizon. Perseus’ body is represented by the line of stars to the left and right of Mirphak.

Friday: This President’s Day weekend, let’s remember Abraham Lincoln: 16th president, country lawyer, man on the penny, vampire hunter, and astronomer. Vampire hunter? No. Astronomer? Well, maybe not an astronomer, but someone who used observational evidence from the sky to solve a problem. In 1858, Lincoln defended Duff Armstrong, a family friend who was accused of murder. The prosecution thought they had a strong case because their primary witnesses claimed to have observed the killing by the light of the nearly full moon. Let’s listen in on the trial courtesy of the 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: How’d you see so well?
Witness: I told you it was Moon bright, Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln: Moon bright.
Witness: Yes.
(Dramatic pause as Lincoln reaches for something)
Lincoln: Look at this. Go on, look at it. It’s the Farmer’s Almanack (sic). You see what it says about the Moon. That the Moon… set at 10: 21, 40 minutes before the killing took place. So you see it couldn’t have been Moon bright, could it?
Lincoln used the known information about Moon rising and setting times for August 29, 1858 as evidence in a trial. This is one of the earliest uses of forensic astronomy. You may confirm Lincoln’s findings on the Moon set time by going to http://goo.gl/PsCmff, the US Naval Observatory website, and filling out Form A. For more information about Lincoln’s “almanac trial”, go to http://goo.gl/r83q4X.


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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.