Bakersfield Night Sky - June 16, 2012

Bakersfield Night Sky - June 16, 2012
By Nick Strobel

I hope you were able to view the Venus transit during the afternoon of June 5th. Unless there are great advances in medical technology that greatly extend our lifetimes, that will be the last Venus transit you will ever see. The next one will be in 2117. I know that a number of people understood the rarity of this event and took advantage the Venus transit party put on by the Kern Astronomical Society at Russo's Books. It was a great success. I was in Hawaii to view the entire event and if you ever have a couple of hours to spare, I can show you the over hundred pictures I took of the transit. For the first part of the transit I viewed it from the top of Mauna Kea. By the time Venus was at the point of moving off of the Sun, the Sun would have gone behind a cloudbank so our group went back on down to the hotel where we were staying to watch it from the beach. (Yes, I know it is a tough life and I appreciate your sympathy.) While in Hawaii I was amazed at how bright the stars were against a black sky even in town. With having world-class observatories on the top of Mauna Kea, the people on the Big Island, at least, are very conscious of using shielded lighting to keep the skies dark (and saving energy as well). I also spent a few days on Maui and the skies there, too, were nice and dark making the stars nice and bright.

Venus is now visible low in the east just before sunrise. As shown in the first chart below, Venus will be below Jupiter. Jupiter becomes first visible about an hour before sunrise. Together the two will be the two very bright "stars" low in the east for the rest of the month. Over the rest of this month and through the first week of July, Venus will draw closer and closer to Jupiter but Venus will not pass Jupiter before Venus moves back toward the Sun. In tomorrow morning's (Sunday's) pre-dawn sky, a very thin Waning Crescent Moon will be between Venus and Jupiter. It will be close enough to Jupiter that they both will easily fit within the same field of view of your binoculars—a pretty sight! In the middle of the eastern sky will be the Great Square of Pegasus, the flying horse. Those of you with dark skies, try looking for the faint fuzzy patch of the Andromeda Galaxy to the left of Great Square. It is the closest large galaxy to our galaxy, the Milky Way. We now know with certainty that the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way. Nothing to be concerned about, though, as the collision will happen four billion years from now. Because stars in a galaxy are so far apart from each other, it is very, very unlikely that the Earth will notice any change in its orbit around the Sun. The night sky will certainly be brighter from two galaxies' stars. Over the following three billion years, the two galaxies will merge to form a large elliptical galaxy. Earth and the rest of the planets will continue orbiting the Sun.

Back to the present-day: in the pre-dawn hours look high up overhead for the swan, Cygnus, with bright Deneb at its tail and the little harp, Lyra, with bright Vega at its base. Lower in the southwest will be the eagle, Aquila, with bright Altair at its neck. Deneb, Vega, and Altair form the Summer Triangle.

This evening's sky holds a special treat of spotting Mercury low in the west up to an hour or so after sunset. As shown in the second chart below, Mercury will be between the two Gemini twins. On the first full day of summer (June 21st) look for a very thin Waxing Crescent Moon to the left of Mercury. (The summer solstice is at 4:09 PM on June 20th this year.) Higher in the southwest will be Mars to the left of the stars of Leo. You can find Leo by first locating the Big Dipper group of stars in the northern sky. The two end stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper point you to the north star, Polaris. If you follow a line from the two pointer stars in the other direction (southward or below the bowl), you will come to a backwards question mark formation of stars. That is the Sickle group of stars that also is the head and front of Leo. In the evening, the Sickle will be more or less on its side with respect to the horizon. On June 25th a much fatter crescent Moon will be below Mars. First Quarter Moon will be on June 26th.

Using the other end of the Big Dipper, extend the arc of the handle to the bright star nearly overhead called Arcturus, that is at the end of the kite-shaped Bootes. As you face Arcturus, go straight down to the bright star of Virgo, Spica. On the way down to Spica, you'll come across the planet Saturn. Saturn and Spica will form a nice pair of bright stars with Saturn the upper one. The Waxing Gibbous Moon will be just right of Spica on June 27th. The Moon will be full on July 3rd. The Summer Triangle stars will be visible in the eastern sky by about 9 PM with bright Vega the upper point of the triangle about a third of the way up in the sky by that time—see the third chart below. Also check out all of these objects and more in the telescopes set up for you by the Kern Astronomical Society next Saturday (June 23rd) at Russo's Books. The free public star party starts at dusk after sunset and goes until about 10 PM.

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