Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of July 24, 2021

Saturday: The Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this week and on into mid-August. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Aquarius near the star Delta Aquarii, also known as Skat. This point is about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeastern horizon at 1 am tonight. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain a fist above Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that section of the sky. You can follow this point throughout the night, as it will remain a fist above Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that section of the sky. The Moon is just past the full phase meaning it is above the horizon during the prime meteor watching time. For more information about this year’s shower, go to https://earthsky.org/?p=159138.  As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Sunday: Jupiter is about a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the Moon at 11:00 p.m. Saturn is about two fists to the upper right of Jupiter. They are low in the southeastern sky.

Monday: Tonight’s challenge: try to find Venus a half a fist above the west-northwestern horizon at 9:30 p.m. Tonight’s bigger challenge: try to find the star Regulus and the planet Mars to the lower right of Venus, about midway between Venus and the horizon.

Tuesday: 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 http://goo.gl/nvuax. For example, if it weren’t for infrared telescopes such as WISE, astronomers would not know about the significant amount of dust in galaxies. We also wouldn’t know how much brighter than the Sun red supergiant stars are. Antares is a red supergiant star, currently sitting at one and a half fists above the southern horizon and a half a fist below the Moon. In the visible wavelengths, Antares shines 10,000 times brighter than the Sun. But since Antares is much cooler than the Sun, its energy distribution peaks in the infrared. So across all wavelengths of light, Antares shines 60,000 times brighter than the Sun.

Wednesday: Altair is nearly five fists above the southeastern horizon at 11:00 p.m.

Thursday: Zubenelgenubi, the second brightest star in the constellation Libra. The name means "southern claw", a holdover from the time when this part of the sky was associated with the neighboring constellation of Scorpius the scorpion. Zubenelgenubi is a binary star system, easily seen with binoculars as a white and yellow pair. To a person living on a planet orbiting the dimmer of the two stars, the brighter star would be nearly as bright as the full Moon appears from Earth. Zubenelgenubi is one and a half fists above due southwest at 10:30 p.m.

Friday: Uranus is one fist to the left of the Moon at 4:30 a.m. With a pair of binoculars, get the Moon in the right hand portion of the field of view. Then move the binoculars a little to the left until you see a little “W” shaped group of stars. The supper left point of light is Uranus.
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, July 16, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of July 17, 2021

Saturday: From left to right, Regulus, Venus, and Mars make a short line segment less than one fist long low in the west-northwestern sky at 9:45 p.m. Venus is the brightest of the three. Mars is just to the lower right of Venus. Regulus is to the left of Venus. 

Sunday: The Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower has a long gradual peak for the next few weeks into mid-August. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. These meteors appear to come from a point in Aquarius near the star Delta Aquarii, also known as Skat. This point is about two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southeast horizon at 3 am early this morning. You can follow this point throughout the night and for the next few weeks, as it will remain a fist above Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that section of the sky. Read about the shower, at https://earthsky.org/?p=159138.  As your Mother might say, dress warm and sit in a comfortable chair for maximum enjoyment. Meteors are tiny rocks that hit the Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Monday: The bright star Vega is is nearly straight overhead at 11:00 p.m. While you can easily find Vega with the naked eye, there are many binocular and small telescope targets in the vicinity. The most well known of these is the four star system called the “double double”. Read more about it at http://tiny.cc/mhcauz

Tuesday: Take a two and a half hour walk today. Too long, you say? Fifty one 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. Their colleague Michael Collins orbited the Moon in the spacecraft the astronauts would use to return to Earth. While everyone seems to know about Armstrong and Aldrin, spend some time learning more about Collins by reading https://time.com/5624528/michael-collins-apollo-11/.

Wednesday: Saturn is one and a half fists above due southeast at 11:00 p.m.. Jupiter and its largest moon Ganymede is two and a half fists to the lower left of Saturn.  Last month, NASA’s Juno probe passed close by Ganymede, taking the best ever images of the icy and rocky body. For more information about Ganymede, go to http://tiny.cc/9hcauz

Thursday: The Gemini twins, Castor and then Pollux, rise just before the Sun. They are both less than a fist above the northeastern horizon at 4:45 a.m. Pollux is the brightest star, as measured from Earth, with a confirmed planet in orbit. It is likely that there are brighter stars with undiscovered planets.

Friday: You’ve seen all of the top 100 lists: top 100 ways to use Duct Tape, top 100 Somali restaurants in Washington, etc. Now get excited for this week’s full Moon by reading about and finding some of the lunar 100 at http://goo.gl/ldGvH6 This list describes 100 interesting landmarks on the Moon that are visible from Earth. They are listed from easiest to see, starting with the entire moon itself at number 1, to most difficult (Mare Marginis swirls, anyone?). Stay up all night to binge watch the moon or just make a few observations a month. It’s your decision. It’s our moon. Start your viewing tonight at 10:00 p.m. when the Moon is two fists held upright and at arm’s length above the southern horizon and one fist above the bright reddish star Antares. I suggest starting with Mare Crisium, the circular, dark, basaltic plain in the upper right-hand portion of the moon. Items such as Crisium were named "Mare" by early astronomers who mistook them for seas, instead of the hardened lava beds that they really are. 

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.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of July 10, 2021

Saturday: Star light. Star bright. The first star you see tonight might be Arcturus, six fists above the southwestern horizon right after sunset.

Sunday: If your wish was to see the Moon near two bright planets, your wish will be met tonight. At 10:00 p.m., Mars and Venus are less than a half a fist to the left of the waxing crescent Moon. You’ll barely be able to fit your pinky between Mars and the much brighter Venus.

Monday:  Stonehenge was created on the island of Great Britain by Neolithic people. “Manhattanhenge” was created on the island of Manhattan by modern day architects and construction workers. Twice a year, the end of May and mid-July, the setting Sun aligns perfectly with the Manhattan grid pattern. That means observers will see the Sun set at the end of the street. The first Manhattanhenge sunset is tonight at 8:20 p.m. Eastern time and then again tomorrow at 8:21 p.m. Eastern time. For more information about Manhattanhenge, go to http://tiny.cc/cd7ytz

Tuesday: Let’s learn about Capella. It is the fourth brightest star we can see in Ellensburg. It is the most northerly bright star. It is a binary star consisting of two yellow giant stars that orbit each other every 100 days. At 10:00 p.m., Capella is a half a fist above the northern horizon. You can also use the Big Dipper to find it.  First, find the two “cap” stars on the cup of the Big Dipper, the stars on the top of the cup. Draw a line from the “cap” star closest to the handle to the cap star farthest from the handle. Then, continue that line to the next very bright star, which is Capella. Thus, you can “cap” to Capella. If you can’t “cap” tonight, don’t worry. Capella is the brightest circumpolar star meaning it is the brightest star that never goes below the horizon from our point of view in Ellensburg.

Wednesday: Six years ago today, NASA’s New Horizons probe passed 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 http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/. Pluto, itself, is about one and a half fists above the southeastern horizon, and one and a half fists to the upper right of the much brighter Saturn.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint. People should be more interested in astronomy. The best group to start with is children. If you are stuck at home, wondering what to do, go to the NASA Kids Club website at https://www.nasa.gov/kidsclub/. There are fun and educational activities for younger children. Older children may like my favorite NASA website about planets outside our Solar System. I suggest first exploring the “Galaxy of Horrors!” at https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/alien-worlds/galaxy-of-horrors/

Thursday: Jupiter is one fist above the east-southeastern horizon at midnight.

Friday: Say "Cheese". 170 years ago tomorrow, 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 night time star we can see in Ellensburg, behind Sirius and Arcturus. Vega is nearly straight overhead at 11:00 tonight. 

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.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of July 3, 2021

Saturday: Venus is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length above the west-northwestern horizon at 10:00 p.m. Mars is about a half a fist to the upper left of Venus.  Venus doesn’t have tectonic plates like Earth does. But that doesn’t mean that its surface is static. Planetary scientists have been studying a Venus lowland that moves like blocks of ice on a frozen lake. While more data is needed, this seems to be a type of crust activity that is between a solid crust and a planet with plate tectonics. For more information about this, go to https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/venus-surface-is-fragmented-like-pack-ice/.

Sunday: The bright supergiant star Antares is one and a half fists above the southern horizon at 10:30 p.m.

Monday: Hot enough for you? Don’t blame the Earth-Sun distance. Surprisingly, the overall temperature of the Earth is slightly higher in July, when the Earth is farthest from the Sun, than in January, when it is closest. That’s because in July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. (This is the real cause of the seasons.) The Northern Hemisphere has more land than the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, in July, the large amount of Northern Hemisphere land heats up the entire Earth about two degrees Celsius warmer than in January. In January, the watery Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun. But, water does not heat up as fast as land so the Earth is a few degrees cooler. The distance between the Earth and the Sun is its greatest tomorrow, 152.1 million kilometers. This is called aphelion from the Greek prefix “apo” meaning “apart” and Helios, the Greek god of the Sun.

Tuesday: 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 wait for a VERY long time, Eltanin will be the brightest star in the entire 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 the brightest star.

Wednesday: Saturn is one fist above the southeastern horizon and Jupiter is a half a fist above the east-southeastern horizon at midnight.

Thursday: 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 three fists above the western horizon at 11:00 p.m. 

Friday: 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 outsmarted. Mizar doesn’t play as big a role in its episode. It is the star of the homeworld of one of the alien species in The Next Generation episode “Allegiance”. Izar is one fist above the bright star Arcturus and five and a half fists above the west-southwestern horizon at 11:00 p.m. Mizar is five and a half fists above the northwest horizon at this time.

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, June 25, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of June 26, 2021

 Saturday:  The Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn are low in the southeastern sky at midnight. Saturn is one fists above the southeastern horizon, a half a fist to the upper left of the Moon. Jupiter is the bright point of light two fists to the left of the Moon. 

Sunday: 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 Pleiades 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 and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the eastern horizon at 11:00 p.m. Two fists above Vega, and close to straight overhead, is a keystone shape. Aim your binoculars at the upper left hand star of the keystone, the star closest to straight overhead. 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”.

Monday: Venus is a half a fist above the northwestern horizon. Mars is a fist to the upper left of Venus.

Tuesday: Hot enough for you? If not, astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space telescope have discovered a planet so hot that molecules can’t even remain intact. This planet, called KELT-9b, is an ultra-hot Jupiter with a surface temperature of 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Hydrogen gas molecules are ripped apart on the hot day side and recombine on the much cooler night side. For more information about this discovery, go to https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/news/1626/for-hottest-planet-a-major-meltdown-study-shows/

Wednesday: Happy Asteroid Day (http://www.asteroidday.org/), the day we celebrate avoiding the destruction of the Earth by an undiscovered asteroid. There are a million asteroids in the Solar System with the potential to strike Earth and destroy a city. Astronomers have discovered only 1% of them. Asteroid Day is an effort to educate the public and encourage policy makers to fund this important effort. King Tut may have celebrated an ancient Asteroid Day by asking his assistants to make a dagger out of a broken-off asteroid that landed on Earth. Astronomers discovered that the blade of the knife contained much more nickel than is found in terrestrial iron, an amount consistent with iron meteorites, especially with one found in the year 2000 in the Kharga region in northern Egypt. For more information about the dagger, go to http://goo.gl/BHBivd.

Thursday: The bright star Arcturus is five fists above the southwestern horizon at 10:30 p.m.

Friday: About six 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: http://goo.gl/Ftb04C. 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” http://goo.gl/kAEoOD.

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, June 18, 2021

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of June 19, 2021

Saturday: The bright star Spica is about a half a fist held at arm’s length to the lower right of the Moon. They are three fists above the south-southeastern horizon at 10:00 p.m.

Sunday: Today is Father’s Day, the day to celebrate the person who gave you a father: your grandmother. In fact, celebrate this with your child by getting them the book “Woman in Science” by Rachel Ignotofsky (http://www.readwomeninscience.com/). 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”.

Monday: Last night, the Sun reached 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 declination above the celestial equator. Summer starts when the Sun is at the summer solstice point. This year, that happens tonight at 8:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

Tuesday: Saturn is one fist above the southeastern horizon and Jupiter is a half a fist above the east-southeastern horizon at 12:30 a.m.

Wednesday: At 10:00 p.m., Venus is about a half a fist above the west-northwestern horizon. Mars is a fist to the upper left of Venus. You’ll find it in the midst of the Beehive Cluster, one of the closest star clusters to Earth. It consists of about 350 stars, about 50 of which can be seen with binoculars on a dark night. 

Thursday: “Mom, I can’t sleep. It is too light out!” A poor excuse you say? Good astronomy skills, I say. The latest sunset of the year happens this weekend. Surprisingly, the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset do not both happen on the longest day of the year, the day of the summer solstice. The earliest sunrise occurs just before the longest day and the latest sunset occurs just after the longest day. This phenomenon relates to the angle of the Sun’s path near rising and setting. In Ellensburg, that angle is about 66 degrees above the southern horizon at noon near the first day of summer. Because of the Earth’s orbit, which causes the Sun’s apparent motion, the angles are not symmetric. The asymmetries in orbital angles leads to the asymmetry in rise and set times. This year, the sun sets at about 9:01 p.m. between June 22 and June 29 as viewed from Ellensburg, WA. Find sunset data for your location at https://www.timeanddate.com/

Friday: Don’t wait until next weekend to watch those wimpy firecracker shows. Find the hypergiant star Rho Cassiopeiae. Astronomers think that Rho Cassiopeiae will likely go supernova (explode) in the near future. Of course, for stars, “near future” might mean today. It might mean 20,000 years from now. Rho Cassiopeiae is in the constellation Cassiopeia the queen. At 11:00 tonight, Cassiopeia looks like the letter “W” about two and a half fists above the north-northeastern horizon. Rho Cassiopeiae is about a finger’s width to the right of the rightmost star in the “W”. Once you find it you’ll be thinking, “Big deal, I can hardly see it.” Although it is barely visible to the naked eye, it is actually very bright. It is the 20th most luminous star in the sky, a whopping 550,000 times more luminous than the Sun

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.