Monday, March 25, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/30/19

Saturday:  Some people in town today for the Yakima River Canyon Marathon may have been looking for a little running inspiration. While nothing can take the place of a 20 mile run for marathon preparation (I know), certain objects in the night sky are inspiring. In the Bible, Job specifically mentions the star Arcturus, or the bear keeper, to his friend as a sign of God's majesty. He describes God as that "Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers (constellations) of the south" (Job 9:9, King James Version). Whatever your religious beliefs, it is clear that Job was impressed with this very bright star. See the star that inspired Job about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 10 p.m.
Mars and the Pleiades are neighbors in the evening sky. They are three fists held upright and at arm’s length above due west at 9 p.m.

Sunday: Where do art and science mix? How about nearly everywhere? But, more specifically, in two contests during the Global Astronomy Month of April. There is an art contest and a poetry contest where people of all ages can compete for prizes or just create for the sake of expression. This is a great opportunity for a classroom assignment for creative teachers and students. For more information, go to

Monday: Venus and the waning crescent Moon are side by side, low in the eastern sky at 6 a.m.

Tuesday: Hopefully, you saw Mars near the Pleiades on Saturday night. If you didn’t, look again tonight. They are still pretty close in the sky. But tonight, while you look, imagine rivers flowing on Mars. The high-resolution camera on the Mars Express Orbiter recently took images that show clear evidence of an ancient river bed. This, along with other evidence including lake beds, outflow channels, and some minerals that are known to form in liquid water makes scientists very confident that Mars was once a wet world. For more images of the river beds, go to

Wednesday: Listen; do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Whoa oh, oh. The Beatles certainly didn’t write this song about the Barringer meteorite crater in Arizona. Astronomers are studying this 50,000-year-old impact to learn more about our planet’s violent history as well as the physics of impacts throughout the solar system. If you’d like to be let in on some of these secrets, go to

Thursday: If the National Enquirer was around in Galileo’s day, it may have featured the headline: “Saturn has love handles; Opis leaves him for a much hotter starlet”. When Galileo first observed Saturn through a telescope, he reported objects that looked like bulges on either side of Saturn’s midsection. He was actually seeing Saturn’s rings through less than ideal optics. Saturn is one and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon at 5:30 a.m. You can see Saturn’s rings clearly with a small telescope. Move that small telescope to the west to find Jupiter two fists above the south horizon. The same small telescope that shows Saturn’s rings will show the four large Jovian moons that Galileo discovered.

Friday: The CWU Physics Department and the College of the Sciences is hosting its monthly First Saturday planetarium show tomorrow from noon to 1 p.m. CWU professor Bruce Palmquist and STEM Teaching major Katy Shain will give an overview of the night sky and Solar System. The show is free and open to all ages. Tomorrow’s show is likely to fill up because the official planetarium dedication ceremony will follow at 1:15. There will be a show 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

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, March 13, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/23/19

Saturday:  Has there ever been life on Mars? Astronomers don’t know. But the Mars Curiosity Rover has been digging up some strong evidence that Mars was hospitable to life in the past. At the end of 2012, the first drilling assignment for Curiosity found clay-like minerals that form in the presence of water. In December 2013, scientists announced the strongest evidence yet for an ancient fresh-water lake in Gale Crater. Planetary geologist John Grotzinger said that Earth microbes would have thrived in this lake if they were placed there. Last year, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile found evidence that Mars was once had an ocean that held more water than the Arctic Ocean and covered a greater percentage of Mars’ surface than the Atlantic Ocean does on Earth. Finally, this past November, the InSight mission landed on Mars and almost immediately started digging to study the geology of Mars. While geology isn’t life, many scientists think there is a relationship between geologic activity and the favorability for life to evolve.Watch a short video about the InSight Mission at Watch reddish Mars, itself, four fists held upright and at arm’s length above the west-southwest horizon at 8:00 p.m.
By the way, the name of the observatory in Chile really is Very Large Telescope. See for yourself at

Sunday: Orion still has a prominent spot in the nighttime sky. The belt is three fists above due southwest at 9 p.m.

Monday: Two weeks ago, the Moon was next to Mars in the evening sky. This morning at 6:30, the Moon is near the bright star Antares, known as Mars’ rival. We know it is Mar’s rival because its name tells us. Mars was the Roman god of war and Aries was the Greek god of war. The prefix “ant-” is another way to say “anti-” meaning “against”, “opposite of”, or “rival to”.

Tuesday: This morning, the Moon has moved eastward in the sky so it is near Jupiter. Jupiter less than a fist to the left of the Moon and is two fists above the south horizon. Saturn is one and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon. Venus is a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon. And, for an added challenge, Mercury is hiding in the glare of the soon-to-rise Sun, about a fist to the lower left of Venus.

Wednesday: In this busy world, it is important to know what time it is. We have many devices that give us the time. A phone. A computer. A watch. But who has time to build a phone, computer or even a watch. Not you. But everyone has enough time to build a simple Sun Clock. All you need is a pencil, a compass and a print out of the clock template. Go to for more information.

Thursday: April is Global Astronomy Month (GAM). While many astronomy experiences come from looking up, you can also experience astronomy looking down… at pen and paper. GAM has numerous arts initiatives and is looking for contributors. Even if you’ve never written a poem before, this is your opportunity to express your love for astronomy in a unique way and possibly share it with others. Go to for more information about the AstroPoetry contest.

Friday: You need to get up early tomorrow to cheer on your favorite runners at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon starting at 8 a.m. on Canyon Road just south of Berry Road. So why not get a little viewing in? To symbolize the long trail of a marathon, follow the long trail of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It seems to rise up from the ground due south. At its highest, it is five fists above due east. It sinks back to the ground due north. The thickest part of the Milky Way is in the southern sky because that is the direction of the center of the galaxy.

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

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/16/19

Saturday:  Ask someone which day in March has the same duration day and night. Go ahead, ask someone. Why are you still reading this? I can wait. If that person said the first day of spring, they are wrong. Today, four days before the first day of spring, is the date in which day and night are closest in duration in central Washington. There are two main reasons for this. First, the atmosphere acts like a lens, bending light from the Sun above the horizon when the Sun is actually below the horizon. This makes the Sun appear to rise before it actually rises and appear to set after is actually sets. Second, spring starts when the center of the Sun passes through the point called the vernal equinox. But, the Sun is not a point. The upper edge of the Sun rises about a minute before the center of the Sun and the lower edge sets a minute after the center of the Sun. Thus, even if we didn’t have an atmosphere that bends the sunlight, daytime on the first day of spring would still be longer than 12 hours.

Sunday: Many artists have sung the song “Blue Moon”. But few have sung the song “Blue Planet”. It goes, in part “Blue Planet, you saw me standing with 27 others. Rolling around like a barrel. Without close sisters or brothers.” It’s about the planet Uranus, which orbits the Sun in a rolling motion and has 27 moons. Every one of Uranus’ moons is named after characters in works by William  Shakespeare or Alexander Pope. Uranus is two fists above the west horizon at 8 p.m., easily visible with binoculars. First find Hamal and Sheratan, two stars of similar brightness, three fists above due west and a half a fist apart from each other. Then move your binoculars from Sheratan, the lower and dimmer of the two, toward Mesarthim, a star about half as bright to the lower left of Sheratan. Continue along the line between Sheratan to Mesarthim for about two or three binocular fields of view and you will get to Uranus. Return to this same spot for the next few nights. If the point you are looking at moves compared to the neighboring points of light, are are looking at Uranus.

Monday: The bright star Regulus is about two fingers to the right of the Moon at 8 p.m. They are three and a half fists above the east-southeast horizon.

Tuesday: Mars is three fists above the west horizon at 9:00 p.m.

Wednesday: Look up in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. No, it’s the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox!? Spring starts at 3:01 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. The first day of spring is often called the vernal equinox. This label for the day is misleading. The vernal equinox is actually the point in the sky where the Sun’s apparent path with respect to the background stars (called the ecliptic) crosses the line that divides the stars into northern and southern celestial hemispheres (called the celestial equator). This point is in the constellation Pisces the fishes. At the vernal equinox, the Sun is moving from the southern region of background stars to the northern region.
Because the Earth slowly wobbles like a spinning top, the vernal equinox is slowly moving into the constellation Aquarius. By the year 2597, the vernal equinox will reach the constellation Aquarius and the “Age of Aquarius” will begin. Until then, we’ll be in “the age of Pisces”.

Thursday: There is a lot to see at 6:30 a.m. The coffee pot. A hot shower. Your alarm clock. (Oh, I’m sorry. Apparently everyone uses their phone for an alarm now.) There is also a lot to see in the sky. The bright star Spica is less than one fist to the lower left of the Moon in the west-southwest sky. Jupiter is two fists above the south horizon. Saturn is one and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon. And bright Venus is a half a fist above the east-southeast horizon.

Friday: 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. At 9:42 p.m., it will be as close as it gets to the horizon, about two degrees above due north. Watch it reach this due north position about 4 minutes earlier each night.

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, March 8, 2019

The Ellensburg WA sky for the week of 3/9/19

Saturday: Don't forget to set your clocks ahead one hour tonight for the annual ritual called daylight savings. Daylight savings originated in the United States during World War I to save energy for the war effort. But a recent study by two economists shows that switching to daylight savings time may actually lead to higher utility bills. When the economists compared the previous few years of energy bills in the section of Indiana that just started observing daylight savings, they discovered that switching to daylight savings cost Indiana utility customers $8.6 million in electricity. In an even more important consequence of daylight savings, Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia discovered a 7% jump in traffic accidents on the Monday after we "spring ahead". Blame it on the lost hour of sleep. And, sky watchers will lose even more sleep because the sky stays light for an additional hour.

Sunday: “The crow rises in the southeast,” said spy number one. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize that code,” replied spy number two. Spy one exclaimed, “That’s because it’s not a code, you idiot. I’m talking about the constellation Corvus the crow.” This very bad spy movie dialogue is to remind you that Corvus had a very bad life. According to one myth, Corvus brought the god Apollo the news that his girlfriend was seeing someone else. In a classic case of punishing the messenger, Apollo turned the formerly beautifully colored crow black. The box-shaped Corvus is one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 11 p.m.

Monday: If you ask an astrobiologist for the three most likely places to find evidence of life in the Solar System, other than Earth, they’d probably say Mars, Europa (“Didn’t they sing “The Final Countdown”?”), and Enceladus. Mars makes sense because you know scientists have sent a lot of probes there. Astronomers first discovered strong evidence of a large water ocean on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 1989. However, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, first piqued astrobiologists’ interest a few years ago then NASA’s Cassini probe discovered jets of water containing organic materials shooting out. Six years ago, the German space agency started a project called Enceladus Explorer, EnEx for short, to collect sample from deep within Enceladus. For a visualization of the Enceladus mission, go to At 8 p.m., Mars is less than one fist to the right of the Moon and four fists above the west-southwest horizon. Tomorrow morning at 7 a.m., Jupiter & Europa are about two fists above the south horizon and Saturn & Enceladus are one and a half fists above the south-southeast horizon.

Tuesday: By the way, the Swedish group Europe sang “The Final Countdown”. And they were “heading for Venus” in the song, not to the worlds of the outer Solar System. Venus is one fist above the southeast horizon at 7:00 a.m.

Wednesday: Aldebaran and the Hyades Cluster are one fist below the Moon, high in the southwest sky at 9 p.m. The stars in the Hyades Cluster are all young, as as stars are judged, formed in the same cloud of gas and dust a few hundred million years old. But just as children move away from home, the stars of the Hyades Cluster are slowly drifting apart. Millenia from now, future sky watchers will see these stars as random points of light in the sky and now as a family. I hope they at least call home every so often. For more information, go to

Thursday: Two of the best, and certainly the most available, “tools” for viewing the night sky are your eyes. Your eyes let you see the entire sky in just a few seconds. Your eyes can read star charts, decipher astronomy apps, and spot meteors while your friend is still setting up her tripod. Your naked eyes are not as effective as gathering light. They work well when the light source is comparatively bright and the detailed features are fairly large. It’s best to practice on a special Solar System body known scientifically as the Magnificent Optical Object of Nearness. Artists such as Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci produced the first realistic naked eye depictions of the Magnificent Optical Object of Nearness. This week you can use your own eyes to observe evidence of violent collisions and ancient lava flows. For more information to observe the Magnificent Optical Object of Nearness, better known as the Moon, go to

Friday: The bright star Arcturus is two and a half fists above due east 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