Bakersfield Night Sky - March 5, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - March 5, 2011
By Nick Strobel

Jupiter has been the lone planet in the early evening sky for the past couple of months but starting tonight you will be able to see Mercury join it low in the west shortly after sunset but you'll probably need to use binoculars to spot it touching the horizon. With your binoculars you may also be able to see a very thin Waxing Crescent Moon. The Moon will be up and to the right of Mercury. Tomorrow night, a slightly fatter crescent Moon will be next to Jupiter. That should be a pretty sight to capture with your camera. As the Sun catches up to Jupiter, we will see Mercury get close enough to Jupiter on our sky so that they both will fit in the same field of view of a typical pair of binoculars from March 12th through the 18th. At their closest approach on March 15th, the two planets will be just two degrees apart (about the distance between your knuckles held at arm's length) with Mercury slightly above and to the right of Jupiter. Jupiter will still be the brighter planet but Mercury will still be quite bright as well. These next few weeks will be the best viewing of Mercury for us in 2011. See the third star chart below for Jupiter and Mercury viewing.

March 18th marks the end of Mercury's binocular pairing with Jupiter and it also marks the beginning of a long-term companion from Earth---the MESSENGER spacecraft (short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging). This NASA mission will be the first orbiter mission to Mercury. These past few years, MESSENGER has been swinging by the Earth, Venus and Mercury to try to reduce its speed so that Mercury's weak gravity can capture it from the clutches of the Sun's much stronger gravity. The last mission to Mercury was over thirty years ago, so Mercury is overdue for some close-up study. Being very dense and having the oldest surface, Mercury is a key part of figuring out how the planets formed and evolved. To find out more about this mission, go to the MESSENGER website mentioned above.

Tonight Jupiter will set at about 7:45 PM and during its close pairing with Mercury it will set at about 7:20 PM. About an hour after Jupiter sets, you will be able to see the other giant of the solar system rise in the East—Saturn in the middle of Virgo. Saturn has been moving retrograde with respect to the stars since the beginning of February. Wait another hour to see Virgo's bright star, Spica rise up almost straight down from Saturn. At about the same altitude above the eastern horizon as Saturn will be the bright star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes that looks like a kite on its side—see the first star chart below. Arcturus will be brighter than Saturn. You can find Arcturus by extending the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper until you reach Arcturus. Above Virgo in the east will be Leo with its familiar sickle-shaped front. The almost full Moon passes below Leo on March 18th and is near Saturn at Full phase the following night. On March 20th the Waning Gibbous Moon will be very close to Spica, slightly to the right of the star.

At about 5 AM you will see super-bright Venus rise in the east. It has now moved well east of Sagittarius and is now on the right edge of Capricornus. The early morning sky sports the constellations Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila, the brightest stars of each are Deneb, Vega, and Altair, respectively. Those three stars form the Summer Triangle that is high in our evening sky during the late summer. See the second star chart below.

To end today's column, I should probably give a little explanation about the scheduling of the William M Thomas Planetarium shows that are now already sold out for this spring. The one complaint I hear about the Planetarium shows is why cannot there be MORE of them? To answer that, please consider these facts about the Planetarium:

  1. The evening shows are done by me on a volunteer (unpaid) basis.
  2. I am the sole staff member of the Planetarium. Most of my job duties are teaching astronomy classes with 20% of the job duties devoted to the school field trips during the mornings. Bakersfield College has zero funds for any additional staff or training of staff.
  3. Money raised from ticket sales and Planetarium rentals goes into the college's general fund that is used for any purpose the college sees fit. The money does NOT go into a fund strictly for the Planetarium or the science department---no such fund exists (though people can donate to the BC Foundation with an earmark for the Planetarium).

The entire schedule of shows for the coming semester are posted on the William M Thomas Planetarium's website at least one week before the semester begins and tickets for the entire semester's shows are available at that time as well. The fall semester at Bakersfield College begins the fourth week of August and the spring semester begins the Tuesday after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

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