Bakersfield Night Sky - May 7, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - May 7, 2011
By Nick Strobel

Early morning observers will have great views this month as Venus and Jupiter blaze away low in the eastern sky while the smaller planets Mercury and Mars dance about them. The first chart below shows the motions of the four planets 30 minutes before sunrise over the next several mornings. The top inset shows when Venus and Jupiter will be very close together, appearing as almost one super-bright object on May 11th. The following morning, May 12th, will be the closest grouping of all four of the planets. All four will probably be too far apart to fit in the same field of view of your binoculars but the right three (Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury) will fit. Look for them below the Great Square of Pegasus (though, it will look more like a diamond since it will be tipped by 45 degrees as it is rising up in the east).

This evening Saturn continues its lonely vigil as the sole planet in the evening sky. It will already be above the horizon on the right part of Virgo in the southeast by the time the Sun sets and due south by about 9:30 PM (see the second chart below). Saturn is continuing to drift backward with respect to the stars getting ever closer to the star Porrima in Virgo. Saturn will end its retrograde drift in early June. Saturn will not be totally alone—a thin Waxing Crescent Moon will be high in the west at sunset below the bright stars of Gemini, Pollux and Castor, and it will set at about midnight.

Next weekend (May 14th and 15th) is the Open House of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about an hour and 45 minutes south of us in Pasadena. JPL is the NASA center responsible for most of the solar system missions including the Mars Rovers and Cassini at Saturn and the Voyagers a few decades ago. JPL also has a number of Earth-observing science satellites and a new one called Aquarius is scheduled to launch on June 9th. Aquarius will be the first mission that will give us a global view of the salinity of the sea (amount of salt dissolved in a given volume of water), a crucial view in figuring out how the water cycle, ocean circulation and climate affect each other. The JPL Open House is free and you get to talk to the actual scientists and engineers who designed the robotic crafts. They have a number things especially for the kids including a place where the kids can lie down and have a small prototype six-wheeled robot roll over them (trust me, the kids love it!). One word of warning, the event is very popular with thousands of people roaming the JPL campus.

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