Bakersfield Night Sky - January 15, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - January 15, 2011
By Nick Strobel

After giving a brief view of what's up in tonight's sky, I want to give you an overview of major events this year in our sky and in space. Probably would have been better to do that in the first article of the year but ...

In the evening sky, bright Jupiter will be in the southwest to the lower-left of the Great Square of Pegasus. It is actually next to western loop of Pisces but those stars are so faint that I use the more easily seen Great Square of Pegasus to give Jupiter's position. Those with binoculars will be able see the small green ball of Uranus to the lower-right of Jupiter. The two planets have finished their back-and-forth drawing close then moving away from each other and then drawing close again. The next time they will be really close to each other as they've been these past several months will be 2038. Further down below the two, closer to the horizon, will be the bright star, Fomalhaut. High in the southeast will be the Waxing Crescent Moon above Orion and the head of Taurus. It will be due south about 8:40 PM. It will be full on the morning of January 19th. The first chart below shows the Moon's position against the backdrop of winter constellations, Orion, Gemini, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Auriga, and Taurus in the east and southeast.

About ten minutes after midnight you will begin to see Saturn rising in the east. It is in the middle of Virgo, above the bright star, Spica that rises 40 minutes after Saturn. An outstretched hand and a half held at arms length to the left of Saturn in the east at the same height as Saturn is the second brightest star in our sky, Arcturus (of the stars, only Sirius in Canis Major is brighter). By the end of January Saturn will be rising around 11 PM. In the early morning extremely bright Venus will be visible in the east after 4 AM and to its lower right will be the bright red heart of Scorpius, the star Antares (though you'll need to wait until 4:30 AM to see it rise)---see the second chart. At about 6:15 AM you will be able to see Mercury rising in the southeast. It will be brighter than Antares. By month's end Mercury will be visible only about 15 minutes before sunrise. A Waning Crescent Moon will pass close to these pre-dawn objects the last few days of January.

What are some highlights coming up in the night sky this year? For meteor showers, the Eta Aquarids that peak on May 6th, the Delta Aquarid that peak on July 29th, and the Orionids that peak on October 21st should be good this year since a bright Moon won't spoil them. The more famous ones such as the Perseids in August and Leonids in November will have a bright Moon to contend with. The only other noteworthy event will be the total lunar eclipse in the pre-dawn hour of December 10th.

2011 will be an eventful year for solar system exploration. For spacecraft arrivals, in chronological order we'll see: On March 18th, the MESSENGER spacecraft will become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. The mission is expected to last one Earth year (over four Mercury years!). Previous missions to Mercury have been only flybys: three in March 1974 to March 1975 by Mariner 10 and three in January 2008 to September 2009 by MESSENGER. In July the Dawn spacecraft will begin orbiting the large asteroid Vesta. It will explore Vesta for about one Earth year and then head on over to the largest asteroid, the dwarf planet, Ceres, arriving in 2015. In September the GRAIL spacecraft will launch and arrive at the Moon to precisely map its gravity field. For spacecraft launches, in chronological order we'll see: In August the Juno spacecraft will begin a five-year trek to Jupiter. In November the Mars Science Laboratory (now named "Curiosity") will launch on a 8-month voyage to Mars. It is a rover over twice as big as the very successful Mars Exploration Rovers and is expected to last one Mars year (about 23 Earth months). In this list I've ignored the three new missions that will begin exploring the Earth from orbit: Aquarius that will explore how our oceans respond to climate change and the water cycle starting in April; Glory that will measure aerosol and black carbon properties and the solar energy input---these are keys to understanding the Earth's energy balance and climate change (launches in February), and NPOESS Preparatory Project that will extend key measurements for climate change monitoring and global biological productivity (launches in October). Select the weblinks to explore more about these missions.

Because of all of the events going on this year, NASA is celebrating the "Year of the Solar System". But since an Earth year is "oh so overdone" and this being NASA, they are using a Martian year as their time block. There will be a number of events planned to celebrate it and a lot of great material produced for K12 teachers to use in their classrooms (all tied to the science standards, of course). Also, the William M Thomas Planetarium will be having their spring slate of shows for the general public: Two Small Pieces of Glass on February 24th, Ice Worlds on March 17th, Black Holes on April 14th, and How Big? How Far? on May 5th. Get tickets ahead of time from the BC Ticket Office. Go to the Planetarium's website for more about the shows since I'm sure I'm now over my space limit for this column!

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