Bakersfield Night Sky - March 19, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - March 19, 2011
By Nick Strobel

Mercury has now passed Jupiter in the southwest in the early evening sky and continues to climb upward away from the Sun on our sky---see the third chart below. Mercury will be farthest from the Sun on our sky on March 22nd. I'm careful to say "on our sky" because Mercury was actually closest to the Sun in its orbit (at perihelion) three days ago on March 16th. The following late afternoon, on March 17th at 6 PM marked the beginning of Mercury's first satellite—the MESSENGER spacecraft. As I write this the MESSENGER team of scientists and engineers is still preparing for the 15-minute rocket burn that starts at 5:45 PM on March 17th so that MESSENGER can drop into orbit around Mercury after traveling 4.9 BILLION miles for almost 7 years (the MESSENGER website has a countdown clock and mileage counter updated every second with all those interesting stats). At its farthest from Earth, Mercury is only 198 million miles and it would take only a few months to get there in a more direct route. However, it would require such a large change in its energy to go from Earth to an orbit around Mercury that it is cost-prohibitive. Therefore, NASA used a more round-about way to get there. Because Mercury is a key part of figuring out how the planets formed and evolved, the scientists and engineers directly involved in the mission, as well as their families and the many technology companies who contributed parts to the spacecraft have been willing to wait patiently for the real exploration of Mercury to begin.

Now before people start yelling about the cost of exploring some "dumb old cratered rock", let's remember that the cost of a mission like MESSENGER from initial concept to completion is equal to making a single Hollywood movie and NASA's entire budget including the space shuttle and space station programs is about half of one PERCENT of the entire federal budget. NASA is an easy target for budget cuts because it has been so good at publicizing what it has accomplished, new discoveries made, and what new missions it is planning that people think it amounts to a significant chunk of the federal budget. The reality is much, much lower and the technological advancements developed to explore the planets pay dividends to our economy more than seven times over in commercial applications ("spinoffs") in our everyday lives.

Yow! I guess I'm feeling a bit sensitive about budget cuts and charges of waste because of the $400 million dollar cut that will be coming to the California Community College system this coming fiscal year under the best of budget scenarios. This despite the fact that the dollars spent on each community college student is less than any other area of per-student spending in education (K12 to UC) according to the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), the non-partisan office providing a neutral analysis of fiscal and other policy issues for the state Legislature. And even the most expensive area of education spending is less than a fourth of the amount spent per person to keep people locked up in our prisons. Now I realize the importance of our correctional institutions but surely there's something wrong in our priorities when we spend less on transforming people's lives for the better than locking them away.

Well, you didn't start reading this column to hear me rant about where your tax dollars go, so where was I... ah, yes, planets! Mercury and Jupiter are low in the west just after sunset and Jupiter will be lost in the glare of the Sun after March 25th. A Full Moon will rise tonight as the Sun is going down. The Moon will be in Virgo and it will rise about 45 minutes before Saturn does. By 7:45 PM, Saturn should be high enough above the eastern horizon to be visible (unless you live on the west side of a mountain slope)---see the first chart below. The Moon will pass under Saturn during the daylit morning hours of March 20th, so by Sunday evening, the Moon will rise for us after Saturn does. Saturn may still be bright enough for you to see against the glare of the moonlight. At the end of the month, a thin Waning Crescent Moon will pass by the super-bright Venus in the early-predawn sky---see the second chart below. Look for both of them in among the dim stars of Aquarius in the east about an hour before sunrise. Like Mercury, Venus moves fairly quickly among the stars. At the time of my previous column, Venus was on the far right side of Capricornus and tomorrow morning (on the 20th) it will be on the far left side of Capricornus. Later on Sunday (on the 20th), the Sun crosses the Celestial Equator heading north to mark the beginning of the season of spring—the spring equinox at 4:21 PM to be more precise.

From March 22nd to April 4th, you can help measure the amount of light pollution as part of Globe at Night 2011. This campaign will use the stars of Leo to gauge the amount of light pollution. Go out at any time between 8 and 10 PM during the campaign and see which of the fainter stars you can see in the Leo direction and then post your results on the Globe at Night website. You may need to enter the longitude and latitude for your location (Bakersfield is 119º W longitude, 35.4º N latitude) but the web app may be able to automatically find your location. The whole thing takes less than ten minutes to do (less if you use the smartphone app) but please give your eyes at least five minutes to adjust to the dark. The first star chart below shows the eastern sky at 9 PM to show you where Leo is with respect to the other constellations and it shows stars down to 4th magnitude (the higher the magnitude, the dimmer the star).

Last, but certainly not least, is the fast approaching Astronomy Day, a free event put on by the Kern Astronomical Society with the help of the students at Foothill High School on Saturday, April 9th. As part of Global Astronomy Month, there will be free workshops for all ages on choosing and using a telescope, motions of the heavens, constructing star maps for your own use, safely observing the Sun, deep sky objects (gas clouds, star clusters, galaxies, etc.), walk of the solar system, and more! In addition, KAS has been raising money and gathering different items for free door prizes. There will be free star gazing with the KAS telescopes in the Foothill High School east field. 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