Thursday, June 1, 2023

What's up in the Ellensburg, WEA sky for the week of June 3, 2023

Saturday: You know Metis and Thebe and Adrastea and Amalthea. Io and Ganymede and Callisto and Europa. But do you recall? There are 95 Jovian moons in all. Just 60 years ago, Jupiter was thought to have only 12 moons. But astronomers are red nosed with delight that the advent of supersensitive electronic cameras has caused the number of discovered moons to rapidly increase. Jupiter’s 79 moons range in size from Ganymede, the largest in the Solar System with a diameter of 5,262 kilometers, to numerous moons with diameters of only one kilometer. Recently, Saturn moved into first in the moon race with the discovery of 62 new moons to bring the total to 146. Uranus is next with 27. Then comes Neptune with 14, Mars with 2, and Earth with 1. Our moon is the fifth largest in the Solar System, with a diameter of 3,475 kilometers. (One kilometer is 0.62 miles.) Even dwarf planets have moons. Pluto has 5, Eris has 1, Haumea has 2, and Makemake has 1. Eris is an outer solar system object that was discovered in 2005 and named in September of 2006. Because astronomers thought it was larger than Pluto, people called it the tenth planet for a while. (More recent measurements show Eris to be a little smaller in diameter than Pluto.) Haumea, the newest dwarf planet with a moon, was discovered in 2004 and officially named a dwarf planet on September 17, 2008. Go to https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/ for more information about Solar System moons.

Sunday: Tonight, Venus is as far away from the Sun in the sky as it will get this orbital cycle. Since Venus is in the evening sky, it is east of the Sun so this occurrence is called the greatest eastern elongation. This evening will be the best evening to observe Venus for the next few weeks. Venus is two fists above the west-northwestern horizon at 10:00 p.m. By early September, Venus will be visible in the morning sky. The stars Pollux and Castor are to the right of Venus. The planet Mars is about a fist to the upper left of Venus.

Monday: Summer is nearly here. How do I know? Because the days are very long. Because the temperature is rising. Because the school year is ending. Also, because the Summer Triangle is fairly high in the eastern sky at 11:00 p.m. Vega, the third brightest star visible from Ellensburg, is about five fists above the east horizon. Deneb, at the tail of Cygnus the swan is about three and a half fists above the east-northeast horizon. The third star in the triangle, Altair in Aquila the eagle, is nearly two fists above the east horizon.

If you want to put somebody off, tell her to wait until Deneb sets. At Ellensburg’s latitude of 47 degrees, Deneb is a circumpolar star meaning it never goes below the horizon.

Tuesday: The questions who, what, where, and when can only be asked with a “W”. At 9:30 p.m., the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia is nearly two fists above due north. The middle star in the W was used as a navigation reference point during the early space missions. The American astronaut Gus Grissom nicknamed the star Navi, his middle name Ivan spelled backwards. After he died in the Apollo 1 fire, the star name was kept as a memorial.

Wednesday: Antares is one and a half fists above the south-southeastern horizon at 11:30 p.m.

Thursday: The bright star Capella is a half a fist above the north-northwestern horizon at 11:30 p.m. Interestingly enough, it is only about two fists from the Sun. If you viewed Capella from Ketchikan, the southernmost city in Alaska, Capella would be one and a half fists above the horizon. The Sun would be close enough to the horizon that there would be a twilight glow.

Friday: It looks so peaceful up there. But life is not peaceful for Jupiter. According to a recent study by astronomers, Jupiter gets hit by a 5-20 meter diameter asteroid 10 to 65 times a year. For comparison, the object that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013 was 20 meters in diameter. Earth gets hit by a 20-meter asteroid about once every 50 years. For more information, go to https://goo.gl/RxPc5G. Jupiter is one fist above the eastern horizon at 4:15 a.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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

What's up in the Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of May 27, 2023

Saturday: Cygnus the swan flies tonight. Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation, whose name means “tail” in Arabic, is two and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due northeast at 10:00 p.m. Cygnus’ wings make a vertical line one half a fist to the right of Deneb. Its head, marked by the star Albireo, is two fists to the right of Deneb. While Deneb is at the tail of Cygnus, it is at the head of the line of bright stars. It is 160,000 times more luminous than the Sun making it one of the brightest stars in the galaxy. It does not dominate our night sky because it is 2,600 light years away, one of the farthest naked eye stars. If Deneb were 25 light years away, it would shine as bright as a crescent moon. Compare that to Vega, its fellow Summer Triangle star. Vega IS 25 light years away and certainly doesn’t rival the light of the crescent Moon. Vega is about two fists to the upper right of Deneb.

Sunday: Mercury will be as far away from the Sun in the sky as it will get this orbital cycle. This "farthest away" point is known as the planet's greatest elongation. Since Mercury is in the morning sky, it is west of the Sun and this occurrence is called the greatest western elongation. This morning, Mercury is just above the east-northeastern horizon at 4:30 a.m., near Jupiter, the brightest point of light in the sky at this time. Over the next few weeks, Mercury will move toward the Sun in the sky. By mid July, it will be visible in the evening sky.

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 8:13 p.m. Eastern time and then again tomorrow at 8:12 p.m. Eastern time. For more information about Manhattanhenge, go to https://www.amnh.org/research/hayden-planetarium/manhattanhenge.

Tuesday: Spica is less than a half a fist to the lower left of the moon. Both are in the southern sky at 9:30 p.m.

Wednesday: Venus is two and a half fists above the western horizon at 9:30 p.m. The stars Pollux and Castor are just to the upper right of Venus. The planet Mars is a little less than a fist to the upper left of Venus. To the upper left of Mars is the Beehive Cluster, an open star cluster consisting of about 200 stars.

Thursday: Altair, the lowest star in the Summer Triangle, is about one fist above due east at 10:45 p.m.

Friday: As the weather warms up, people start thinking about swimming in a nice cool body of water. A few years ago, astronomers discovered evidence of an ocean about 20 miles beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA’s Cassini probes measured variations in how the moon’s gravity pulled on the orbiting spacecraft. These variations can be explained by a large amount of liquid water under one section of the ice because liquid water is denser than an equal volume of ice. While you need a very large telescope to see Enceladus, you can easily see Saturn two fists above due southeast at 4:30 a.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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

What's up in the Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of May 20, 2023

Saturday: In 1979, the group Foreigner recorded the song “Head Games”. They could have been singing about the constellations Hercules and Ophiuchus when they said “head games, it’s just you and me baby, head games, I can’t take it anymore” because the heads of these two constellations have been right next to each other in the nighttime sky for all of human history. And just to make it easy for you, a star that bears an Arabic name that means “the head” represents each head. In Hercules, it's Ras Algethi (head of the kneeler); in Ophiuchus, Ras Alhague (head of the serpent charmer). At 11:00 p.m., Ras Alhague, the brighter of the two, is about two fists held upright and at arms length above the east-southeastern horizon. Ras Algethi is about a half a fist to the upper right of Ras Alhague.

Sunday: Are you thirsty? I'll wait while you get some water. I will NOT wait while Corvus the crow gets you some water. The Greco-Roman god Apollo made this mistake. He sent Corvus the crow to get some water in the cup known as Crater. Some figs distracted Corvus and he waited for them to ripen so he could eat them. When Corvus got back late, Apollo put Corvus and Crater in the sky with the gently tipping cup just out of the reach of the perpetually thirsty crow. Corvus is a trapezoid-shaped constellation about two fists above due south at 9:30 p.m. Crater is just to the right of Corvus.

Monday: Did you know you can see Venus while the Sun is up? It is bright enough. The trick, of course, is knowing where to look. Venus is a little less than a fist to the upper left of the moon from 5:00 p.m. onward. First use binoculars to see Venus. To do this, orient your binoculars so the moon is in the lower right portion of your field of view. Venus will be in the upper left. Now slowly lower your binoculars, keeping your gaze in the direction of Venus. Note where it is compared to the moon. Look away and then look back towards the moon and Venus to try to find it again. If you are having trouble in the daylight, wait until nighttime. They are about two and a half fists above the western horizon at 9:30 p.m.

The moon will be about midway between Venus and Mars tomorrow night at this time.

Tuesday: Are you up at 2:17 a.m., looking due north and thinking you see a UFO coming to take you away? That's no UFO. It's the bright star Capella, a circumpolar star that never goes below the horizon as viewed from Ellensburg.

Wednesday: Mars is less than a half a fist to the lower right of the moon at 9:30 p.m. The open star cluster called the Beehive Cluster is less than a half a fist to the lower left of the moon. Mars, the moon, and the Beehive Cluster make a small triangle in the sky.

Thursday: Are you thirsty when you get up in the morning? I know you are not waiting for Corvus. That’s okay because the Big Dipper is positioned to hold water in the morning sky. Look three fists above the northwest horizon at 4:30 a.m. You’ll see three stars that make a bent handle and four stars that make a cup.

Friday: The bright star Regulus, in Leo the Lion, is less than a half a fist below the moon. They are in the southwestern sky at 9:30 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

What's up in the Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of May 13, 2023

Saturday: Today is a great day to Get Intimate… Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe. This annual event put on by the Kittitas Environmental Education Network includes many outdoor educational activities, with most of them taking place in the Yakima River Canyon just south of Ellensburg. There are also planetarium shows at 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 p.m. at the CWU Lydig Planetarium on the CWU campus. Go to https://www.ycic.org/giss-and-birdfest for more information about all of the events. The planetarium shows are free. The planetarium is in Discovery Hall, found here: https://map.concept3d.com/?id=1342#!m/412895

Sunday: So you think your mother has issues on Mother’s Day because she has you as a child? Her issues can’t be as bad as Cassiopeia’s issues. First, she was chained to a chair because she boasted about her beauty. Second, she has to revolve around the North Star night after night. Third, her daughter Andromeda was nearly killed by a sea monster. Look for poor Cassiopeia about one and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above the northern horizon at 10:00 p.m. Cassiopeia looks like a stretched out “W”.

Monday: At 10:00 p.m., bright Venus is two fists above the west-northwestern horizon and Mars is three fists above due west.

Tuesday: Have you ever seen a Black Hole? Neither have scientists. But they have seen the effects of a Black Hole. Black holes have a strong gravitational influence on anything that passes close to them, including light. Cygnus X-1, the first Black Hole candidate ever discovered, is two fists above the east-northeastern horizon at 7:00 p.m., in the middle of the neck of Cygnus the swan. NASA launched the Chandra X-ray observatory in 1999 to study black hole candidates and other high-energy events.

Wednesday: This morning, the moon occults, or blocks, the planet Jupiter for most of the United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and far northern Europe. As viewed from Ellensburg and much of the Pacific Northwest, Jupiter will appear to pass just above the moon. See them both low in the eastern sky at 5:00 a.m.

This is a great opportunity to prove to yourself that you can see planets during the day. Follow the moon throughout the morning. Jupiter will be to the right of the moon, appearing to move successively farther away as the day goes by. You might need to first find it with binoculars, then move the binoculars away to see it with the naked eye.

Thursday: If someone gives you a ring and says, “this ring symbolizes our eternal love, just like the rings of Saturn are eternal”, don’t doubt their love. But do doubt their astronomy knowledge. According to data recently analyzed from the Cassini Mission, Saturn’s rings may be only 10 to 100 million years old. As Cassini passed between Saturn and the rings, it was able to get the best estimate yet of the mass of the rings. Saturn’s rings are made mostly of ice and are still very bright and clean. Older rings would be darkened by debris. Also, the ring particles get pulverized by collisions over time. If this relatively low mass of ring particles were older, they would have been destroyed by now. For more information about the lifespan of Saturn’s rings, go to Saturn’s rings https://www.universetoday.com/141272/saturns-rings-are-only-10-to-100-million-years-old/.  Saturn and its young rings are one and a half fists above the southeastern horizon at 4:30 a.m.

Friday: I am guessing that some of you don’t like the line of reasoning from Tuesday: that seeing the effects of a Black Hole is good enough to claim there are Black Holes. You have never seen the wind. But, you have seen the effects of the wind. And no Ellensburg resident doubts the existence of the wind.

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, May 4, 2023

The Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of May 6, 2023

Saturday: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks just before dawn today and tomorrow. Since this meteor shower has a fairly broad peak range, you should start looking before dawn every morning this week. The moon is close to the full moon phase near the peak, meaning all but the brightest meteors will be obscured. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. The meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius near the star Eta. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 4:00 a.m. The Eta Aquarid meteors slam into the Earth at about 40 miles per second. They often leave a long trail. The Eta Aquarid meteors are small rocks that have broken off Halley’s Comet. For more information about the Eta Aquarids, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=158833

Sunday: Mother’s Day is next Sunday. What are you going to get her? Get her a Gem(ma). The star Gemma, also known as Alphekka, is the brightest star in the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Gemma, Latin for jewel, is the central gemstone for the crown. It is four fists above due east at 9:30 p.m.

Monday: The open star cluster M35 is just to the left of Venus. Both celestial objects are two fists above the west-northwestern horizon at 10:00 p.m. Although it is misleading to call M35 A single celestial object. It contains about 500 stars in a region about 2,800 light years away and about 24 light years across. Remember: a light year is the distance that light travels in one year. For comparison, the Sun is about eight light minutes away and the nearest star outside our solar system is about 4.2 light years away.

Tuesday: Give me an “M”. Give me a “3”. What does that spell? “M3.” “Big deal,” you say. It was a big deal to French comet hunter Charles Messier (pronounced Messy A). M3 was the 3rd comet look-alike that Messier cataloged in the late 1700s. M3 is a globular cluster, a cluster of over 100,000 stars that is 32,000 light years away. It is too dim to be seen with the naked eye but is fairly easy to find with binoculars. First find Arcturus five and a half fists held upright and at arm’s length above due southeast at 10:30 p.m. Move your binoculars up one binocular field of view so two stars of nearly identical brightness are in your field of view. When the top star is in the lower left part of your field of view, there should be a fuzzy patch near the center of your field of view. This is M3. Yesterday, you learned about M35. It is an M&M week.

Wednesday: Mars’ two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, are not visible in typical backyard telescopes. But they are an interesting study. The former view among astronomers was that both moons are captured asteroids. That makes sense given Mars’ proximity to the asteroid belt. But recent findings by European astronomers indicate that Phobos is very porous and made of material similar to the surface of Mars. This implies that Phobos may consist of chunks of Martian debris that was blasted off by numerous impacts and gravitationally bound together. Unfortunately, the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe launched late 2011 to collect material from Phobos crashed to Earth after malfunctioning. For more information about this recent model of Phobos’ formation, go to https://sci.esa.int/web/mars-express/-/31031-phobos. For more information about Mars, look three fists above due west at 10:00 p.m.

Thursday: Saturn is one and a half fists above the southeastern horizon at 5:00 a.m.

Friday: This weekend, celebrate Mother’s Day with the big mom of the sky, Virgo. Ancient Greeks and Romans associated this portion of the sky with their own goddess of the harvest, either Demeter (Greeks) or Ceres (Roman). Demeter was the mother of Persephone and Ceres was the mother of Proserpina. According to myth, each of these daughters was abducted causing their mothers great grief. The first star in Virgo rises in the afternoon. Spica, the bright bluish star in the constellation rises at 7:00 p.m. and is three fists above the south-southeastern horizon at 10:00 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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

What's up in the Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of April 29, 2023

Saturday: The bright star Regulus is a half a fist to the lower right of the moon at 9:00 p.m., high in the southern sky.

Sunday: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks just before dawn on May 5, 6, and 7. Since this meteor shower has a fairly broad peak range, you should start looking before dawn every morning this week. The moon is close to the full moon phase near the peak, meaning all but the brightest meteors will be obscured. Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. The meteors appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius near the star Eta. This point is about one fist held upright and at arm’s length above the east horizon at 4:00 a.m. The Eta Aquarid meteors slam into the Earth at about 40 miles per second. They often leave a long trail. The Eta Aquarid meteors are small rocks that have broken off Halley’s Comet. For more information about the Eta Aquarids, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=158833.

Monday: At 10:00 p.m., Venus is nearly two fists above the west-northwestern horizon and Mars is three and a half fists above due west.

Tuesday: “Lately, I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep. Dreaming about the things that we could be. But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard, said no more counting dollars. We’ll be counting 9,096 stars, yeah we’ll be counting 9,096 stars.” Luckily, artistic judgment prevailed over scientific precision in the OneRepublic hit “Counting Stars”. According to the Yale Bright Star Catalog, there are 9,096 stars visible to the naked eye across the entire sky if you are observing from a very dark site. In the northern United States, where a part of the sky is never visible, that number drops to about 6,500. In the middle of a small city at mid-latitudes, like Ellensburg, that number drops to a few hundred. No wonder someone has been losing sleep. Learn more about the star count at http://goo.gl/nt8d80.

Wednesday: The bright star Spica is less than a half a fist to the lower right of the moon at 9:00 p.m. in the southeastern sky.

Thursday: It is often said that Earth is a water world because about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. What would it look like if all that water on the surface were gathered up into a ball? That “ball” would be about 700 km in diameter, less than half the diameter of the Moon. The Astronomy Picture of the day shows us right here https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120515.html.

Friday: Saturn is one and a half fists above the southeastern horizon at 5:00 a.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 https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/planner.cfm.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

What's up in the Ellensburg, WA sky for the week of April 15, 2023

Saturday: This week is International Dark Sky Week. Check out the schedule of events at https://idsw.darksky.org/, including many presentations that are broadcast live so you can interact with the presenter. But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore our obligation to minimize stray light for the next 51 weeks. Lights that are aimed upward illuminate the atmosphere and obscure dim objects. Having too much light shining where it shouldn’t is considered light pollution. And just like other forms of pollution, light pollution can be hazardous to our health and the health of other animals. That’s right. Harmful. Watch this National Geographic video for more information: https://youtu.be/V_A78zDBwYE.

Sunday: The waning crescent moon is just above the east-southeastern horizon at 5:30 a.m. Saturn is a half a fist held upright and at arm’s length to the upper right of the moon.

Monday: “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 above the southeastern horizon at 9:00 p.m.

Tuesday: At 9:00 p.m., very bright Venus is two and a half fists above the western horizon and Mars is five fists above the west-southwestern horizon.

Wednesday: There is an annular solar eclipse in Southeast Asia and Australia in the middle of the day April 20 local time but about 9:00 tonight Pacific Daylight Time. In this case “annular” does not mean yearly occurrence. Annular refers to the ring shape of the Sun. The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun. But it will be relatively far from the Earth meaning it will not appear large enough to fully block the Sun. If you want to read about the eclipse, see a simulation, or watch a live stream, go to https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/solar/2023-april-20. This is one of my favorite astronomy websites.

Thursday: Do people think you have a magnetic personality? The star Cor Caroli understands how you feel. Cor Caroli has one of the strongest magnetic fields among main sequence stars similar to our Sun. This strong magnetic field is thought to produce large sunspots that cause the brightness of Cor Caroli to vary. Cor Caroli is nearly straight overhead at midnight.

Friday: Remember the old saying: April showers bring… meteors. The Lyrid meteor shower peaks this week, with the peak of the peak occurring tonight and tomorrow night before midnight. The meteors appear to come from a point to the right of the bright bluish star Vega in the constellation Lyra the lyre. This point is about three fists above the east-northeast horizon at midnight tonight and close to straight overhead near dawn. The best time to observe the shower is between 11:00 p.m. and moonrise at about 3:00 a.m. Typically, this is one of the least interesting major meteor showers of the year, with 10-20 bright, fast meteors per hour. However, it is also one of the most unpredictable. As recently as 1982, there were 90 meteors visible during a single hour. In addition, the Lyrid meteor shower has historical interest because it was one of the first ones observed. Chinese records say “stars fell like rain” in the shower of 687 B.C. 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. For more information, go to http://earthsky.org/?p=158735.

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.