Bakersfield Night Sky - June 19, 2010

Bakersfield Night Sky - June 19, 2010
By Nick Strobel

Last weekend I finally finished updating all of the chapters in my textbook for the astronomy courses after a number of all-day followed by l-o-n-g night sessions so I treated myself to some dark skies at Yosemite. The last half of this week I have been at a conference in Sacramento with representatives from the United Methodist churches in California and Nevada and this afternoon I'll be heading back home. Being out of town means that today's column is going to be a bit shorter than usual but I hope you will still find it worthwhile reading!

Venus still blazes as our  "evening star" in the west. Venus is now right next to the Beehive Cluster at the heart of Cancer—a nice sight in binoculars! A Waxing Gibbous Moon is going to wash out a number of the stars in the southwest but you should still be able to pick out Mars and Saturn. Mars has now moved well to the left of Regulus at the end of the sickle of Leo in the west after its close conjunction in the first part of this month. It will catch up to Saturn on the west edge of Virgo by the first of August. Venus will pass Saturn in the second week of August.

The star charts I have included in the past several columns have been of the evening sky but this time I think the early morning sky should get a chance. Jupiter rises at about 1:15 AM and is easily visible in the east about a third of the way up in the sky by 3 AM. I recall seeing it dominate the eastern sky in one of my late night breaks of textbook updating at about that time. If I was thinking clearly (and my eyes weren't so scratchy) I would have brought out the binoculars to look for Uranus right next to Jupiter. (I'll probably get scolded by my wife for staying up so late so I hope she doesn't read this paragraph.) The star chart shows the early morning sky about an hour before sunrise. Jupiter and Uranus are about 1 degree apart so they will easily fit in the same field of view of your binoculars. Uranus will be to the upper right of Jupiter (at about the 1:30 position if you have an analog clock dial centered on Jupiter). Are you able to see the blue-green color of Uranus? Both Jupiter and Uranus are below one end of dim Pisces. You'll have an easier time picking out the Great Square of Pegasus higher up in the east. However, in the early morning, the "Great Square" will be oriented at a 45 degree angle---call it the "Great Diamond"? To the right of Jupiter about a 30 degrees turn toward the southeast you should be able to see the bright star Fomalhaut. Fomalhaut is at the mouth of Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish. Fomalhaut has a large planet orbiting it that we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope in the visible wavelength band—the first direct image of a planet in the band of energy we can see with our eyes. Fomalhaut is a young system, at most just a few hundred million years old (in astronomy, that's young!). The planet we can see with Hubble is almost three times farther away from its star than Pluto is from our Sun. There may be other planets in closer but it will be hard to find them with the bright glare of Fomalhaut swamping their feeble reflection of starlight.

In a couple of days, on June 21st, the Sun will be at its northern-most position with respect to the stars. This is the June solstice and officially marks the beginning of our season of summer (or winter for those south of the equator). If you want to celebrate the time of solstice, set your clock for 4:28 AM but I won't join you. I'll be enjoying my comfy bed.

Want to see more of the stars at night and save energy? Shield your lights so that the light only goes down toward the ground. Visit the Dark Sky International website for more info.
Nick Strobel
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website