Bakersfield Night Sky - April 2, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - April 2, 2011
By Nick Strobel

Mercury and Jupiter are now too close to the Sun in the early evening sky to see. Jupiter will pass behind the Sun on April 6th and Mercury will go between us and the Sun on April 9th. The MESSENGER spacecraft successfully entered orbit around Mercury on March 17th but it took almost a couple of weeks before images were returned as everything was checked out and positioned for the orbiter mission to begin science operations. Turn around and face toward the East and you'll see Saturn rising in Virgo and below the tail end of Leo, the star Denebola (see the first star chart below). By 8:45 PM, if you draw a line straight down from Denebola to Saturn and continue down, you'll see Virgo's brightest star Spica. Saturn will be brighter than Spica. A small turn northward will have you face the second brightest star in the sky, Arcturus in Bootes. It will be almost the same height above the horizon as Saturn. Another way to find that bright star is to extend the arc of the Big Dipper's handle to the first bright star you come to ("arc to Arcturus"). You can then continue that arc but more in a straight line to Spica ("spike to Spica").

The first star chart shows the sky at 9 PM. That will be in the middle of the stargazing time the following Saturday (April 9th) at Foothill High School for Astronomy Day (more about that below). The inset shows what you may be able to see through one of the telescopes pointed toward Saturn between 8 and 10 PM on April 9th.

In the coming week you will see a nice thin Waxing Crescent Moon fatten as it climbs up away from the Sun in our evening sky in the West. On April 6th it will be to the right of the Pleiades cluster in Taurus and on April 7th it will to the right of the "V" that makes Taurus' head with the bright star Aldebaran at its eye. A Waxing Gibbous Moon will pass under Leo and Virgo the following week. This evening Saturn will be the only planet visible until about 4:45 AM when ultra-bright Venus rises in the east. Venus will be in the middle of the dim stars of Aquarius (see the second chart below).

Astronomy Day is the free annual event put on by the Kern Astronomical Society (KAS) with help from Foothill's astronomy club on April 9th from 2 to 10 PM. This year it is also part of Global Astronomy Month. Many of the free activities, designed for all ages (elementary school to retirees), will take place in Foothill High School's Gym with observing of the Sun (safely!) just outside the Gym from 2:30 to 5:30 PM. Free door prizes will be given away starting at 7:15 PM and free star gazing with the telescopes will begin at 8 PM. Foothill High School is at 501 Park Drive on the east side of town between Park Dr and Morning Dr (Hwy 184) and Pioneer Dr and Breckenridge/Mills Dr. I and another KAS member will do a walking tour of the solar system on the Foothill field on the east side. Be prepared to walk for that one because I will have set up a true scale model that uses almost the full length of the campus!

Saturn and the waxing crescent Moon will be the "stars" of the evening sights. It is appropos that Saturn will be one of the main sights since one of the NASA engineers, Carson Mittelsteadt, who has worked on the Cassini mission that continues operations around Saturn, will be the guest speaker at Astronomy Day. Carson Mittelsteadt also works on the Mars projects so he should have the latest on the Mars Science Laboratory mission that will be launching in November. I have also heard that Galileo, the first one to use a telescope for astronomy, will be visiting us at Astronomy Day.

Free door prizes include four telescopes ranging from 4.5 to 8 inches in diameter, lots of books, toys, kits, models, globes, and two pair of binoculars. KAS members have donated all of the items with the hope that the item and the Astronomy Day event will spark future scientists to find out more about how our world and universe work. Last year, KAS gave away about $600 worth of door prizes.

Other free activities at Astronomy Day will include choosing and using a telescope (if you want the real "low down" on what telescope to get, go to this workshop!), motions of the heavens, constructing star maps for your own use, safely observing the Sun, and deep sky objects (gas clouds, star clusters, galaxies, etc.). Now, did I mention that all of this is free?

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