Bakersfield Night Sky - April 19, 2014

Bakersfield Night Sky - April 19, 2014
By Nick Strobel

Astronomy Day was well-attended even though last Sunday's paper showed there was a number of competing activities occurring throughout town. A large crowd gathered to hear Alex Filippenko introduce the fundamentals of cosmology (the study of the nature and origin of the universe and how it changes over time) and how something called "dark energy" explains the increasing speed of the expansion of the space between galaxies and galaxy clusters. People drove out to the new Houchin Community Blood Bank center on the far west side of town to attend the workshops and look through the Kern Astronomical Society telescopes. Special thanks to Carol Powers for organizing the event and "herding all the cats" of the presenters, facilitators, and media.

Tomorrow is Easter, among the latest possible Easter dates. Since our school spring breaks are tied to the date of Easter in the Western Church (i.e., Roman Catholic and Protestant), I'll use that definition of Easter. It happens on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon for that year which is usually the full moon as astronomers determine it after March 20th. The calculations are based on observations from Jerusalem instead of from Greenwich. There have been several attempts in the past to fix the date of Easter like Christmas is fixed on December 25th for the Western Church. Reading through the history of these attempts on the World Council of Churches website leaves me still a bit baffled why the various church bodies cannot agree on it. It looks like Easter will continue to move about with dates between March 22nd to April 25th and our school spring breaks will continue to shift about with it.

This year's spring break was a special one because we had a total lunar eclipse in it and for our time zone, the Full Moon was high up in the southern sky when it happened. High level thin clouds above Bakersfield made the lunar eclipse a bit fuzzy but I still managed to get some nice pictures. One is shown below.

Solar eclipses usually follow or come before a lunar eclipse. This time the solar eclipse will be an annular one and only a tiny section of Antarctica will be able to see it on April 27th. Those in Australia and Indonesia will just see a partial solar eclipse. We're out of luck here in the United States. The next lunar eclipse will be in the early morning hours of October 8th. It too will be a total lunar eclipse with the Full Moon fully in the darkest part of the Earth's shadow, the umbra.

Tonight you will see Jupiter up high in the southwestern sky just after sunset and it reflects so much sunlight that it will be the first star-like object you'll see. It is still between the twins of Gemini. Mars is already up at sunset, so look for the bright orange-red "star" up in the east-southeast among the stars of Virgo. Tonight Mars is about as bright as the brightest true star, Sirius. Over the next few months Mars will grow dimmer since we have now passed by it in our faster, smaller orbit around the Sun. We were closest to Mars on Monday, April 14th. Mars continues moving retrograde, nearing the star Porrima at the right (west) side of Virgo. Mars will be directly under Porrima at the end of the month and will continue a little beyond it in May. At 9:30 PM, you might be able to spot Saturn rising low in the east among the dim stars of Libra. Your proximity to the mountains will determine how near 9:30 PM you'll be able to spot Saturn. Up and to the left (north) of Mars is the bright yellow-orange star, Arcturus at the end of Bootes. If you extend the arc formed by the handle of the Big Dipper, you will first get to Arcturus and then extending the arc further, you'll get to Mars. The bright blue-white star below Mars is Spica on the east side of Virgo.

The Waning Gibbous Moon will rise about 12:45 AM among the stars of Sagittarius. Bright Venus will rise among the dim stars of Aquarius at about 5 AM on Easter morning. At that time Mars will be almost setting in the west and Saturn will be low in the southwest. The Moon will be high in the south. High above Venus will be the stars of Cygnus and Lyra. The Waning Crescent Moon will pass next to Venus the mornings of April 25th and 26th---a nice picture for you early risers! In the early morning hours of April 22nd, the Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak but it is usually a "weak" shower with fewer than 20 meteors per hour visible under very dark skies before dawn. A much stronger shower is being predicted near the end of May. More about that in a future 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