Bakersfield Night Sky - February 5, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - February 5, 2011
By Nick Strobel

In the evening sky, bright Jupiter continues drifting eastward (toward the left if facing Jupiter in the southwest) with respect to the stars of Pisces. Jupiter is now almost lined up with the left side of the Great Square of Pegasus. In our light-polluted skies, you will probably have an easier time finding the Great Square than the dim stars of Pisces. A very thin Waxing Crescent Moon is below the right side of the Great Square tonight and tomorrow night (Feb 6th) it will be just 6 degrees away from Jupiter (half a clenched fist at arm's length)---a nice pairing in the southwest sky! On February 10th, the Moon will be First Quarter with the daylit side facing to the right and in the constellation Aries.

At 8:30 PM tonight, Orion will be due south with the meridian going right down its middle. The belt stars will point down to the very bright star, Sirius, in Canis Major. Directly overhead (the zenith) will be the pentagon shape of Auriga, with the bright star Capella at one of the points of the pentagon. Leo will be rising in the east. Look for the sickle (backward question mark) with the medium-bright star Regulus at the bottom end. At about 10:30 PM you will see Saturn rising in the east in the middle of Virgo. The Cassini spacecraft continues to orbit Saturn and fly by its moons on its second extension of its mission. It will fly by Saturn's largest moon, Titan, on February 18th. This second extension is scheduled to last through September 2017, just a few months after Saturn's solstice. On Earth our solstices are six months apart (in December and June) but on Saturn the solstices are about 14.7 Earth years apart because of Saturn's much larger orbit. When Saturn is due south at 4:30 AM, Venus will be coming up in the east. Venus will be above the lid part of the Teapot of Sagittarius (see the second chart below). A Waning Gibbous Moon will pass below Saturn on the 22nd. By that date Venus will have moved to being on the far left side of Sagittarius. A Waning Crescent Moon will catch up to Venus at the end of the month.

On Valentine's Day at 8:36 PM Pacific Time, the Stardust-NExT spacecraft will fly by Comet Tempel 1. Tempel 1 is in the direction of Sagittarius in mid-February. The strange capitalization of the letters stands for the Next Exploration of Tempel 1, because this comet is the one we smashed a 370-kilogram copper projectile onto in July 2005 as part of the Deep Impact mission. Stardust-NExT will see what the comet looks like 6 years later. At the time of the fly-by, Tempel 1 will be below our horizon, so you will have to make do with watching the encounter on the web.

Speaking of the Planetarium: tickets are selling fast for its spring line-up of shows. On February 24th is "Two Small Pieces of Glass". After a tour of the evening sky, the show will trace the history of the telescope from Galileo to the Hubble Space Telescope to the future. The show explores the many major discoveries made by astronomers throughout the last 400 years as well as the major questions we want to answer in the future---questions that today's elementary school children will be answering.

On March 17th is "Ice Worlds". After a tour of the evening sky, the show will travel to the Arctic and Antarctica to examine how the ecosystems that live and thrive there and see how their survival is connected to our here in California. Beyond Earth, we'll see how the existence of water ice shapes landscapes and natural systems on other planets and moons in our solar system, including Mars, Titan, and Enceladus.

On April 14th is the ever-popular "Black Holes" show that we show in the fall and in the spring because it's so cool. After a tour of the evening sky, the show will explore the formation of a black hole when a massive star dies (our Sun will not turn into a black hole). Then the show explores the warping of spacetime and progresses on to the formation of the first black holes billions of years ago that would become the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies today, including our own. The show ends with the first-ever visualization of a trip inside a black hole---the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, about 27,000 light years from Earth.

The spring show season ends with "How Big? How Far?" on May 5th. After a tour of the evening sky, we'll fly to the Sun and then proceed outward flying to each of the planets to find out how long it would take in the world's fastest spacecraft and see how the planets compare to our home planet. Near the end of the show we'll travel to the next star system, Alpha Centauri, and see what the night sky looks like from there and at the end of the show we will fly up outside of our Galaxy and take a look at it from above to see where all of the stars we see at night are located in the Galaxy.

Tickets for all of the shows must be purchased ahead of time from the BC Ticket Office. Tickets are $6.50/adults and $4.50/seniors and children 5-12 years old. Doors open at 7 PM and are locked at the start of the shows at 7:30 PM. I hope to see you there!

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