Bakersfield Night Sky - November 1, 2014

Bakersfield Night Sky - November 1, 2014
By Nick Strobel

Like clockwork the New Moon began covering up the Sun last week right on time on the afternoon of October 23rd. The eclipse took place from 2:03 to 4:38 PM. At mid-eclipse at 3:25 PM the Moon covered up 36% of the Sun's surface. I set up my Solarscope outside my office door on the second floor of the Math-Science building. The Solarscope uses a small refractor telescope to project an image of the Sun about 4.5 inches across on a white screen that several people can see at once. I managed to coax some students walking to and from their math classes to tear their attention away from the cell phone and take a look at the projected image of the partially covered Sun. They all thought it was cool, hot, tight, awesome, or whatever is the current adjective for "great". Several faculty and staff got out to look as well.

Besides the nice effect of a chunk being taken out of the Sun by the Moon, what was even better was the huge sunspot group on the Sun's surface just below the black arc of the Moon's edge. The sunspot group was larger across than Jupiter and you could see it without any magnification but with a proper solar filter, of course. In fact it was the largest sunspot since November 1990! As a region of intense magnetic activity, the large sunspot group was associated with several major solar flares, including at least one that blacked out radio communication. The large sunspot group was still visible as that part of the Sun rotated out of view a week later.

Weather permitting, tonight is last of the free public star parties hosted by the Kern Astronomical Society this year. If it is not cloudy, observing will start at Panorama Park (near where Linden Ave meets Panorama Drive) shortly after sunset and go until about 9:30 PM or sooner depending on foot traffic. A map of the observing site is posted on the KAS website. Hopefully, clouds will not be a problem. The Moon will be a  Waxing Gibbous Phase high in the southern sky throughout the star party. The KAS telescopes do a nice job showing the rugged terrain of the Moon, especially near the day-night boundary where the shadows highlight the variation in elevation of the cratered surface. Mars will be low in the southwest just above the lid of the Teapot part of Sagittarius. By a little after 8 PM, it will probably be too low to see through the dusty haze we have near the horizon of the Bakersfield sky.

High above will be the cross-shape that is the central part of Cygnus the Swan. At the beak of the swan is the beautiful double-star Albireo. Without any optical aid, Albireo looks like a single star, but with a large pair of binoculars or a telescope you can see the star split into two stars of very distinctive colors, one a gold-orange color and the other a blue-green color. Both of the stars are about 380 light years away but there is some question if they are actually gravitationally bound to each other because they would be so far away from each other in space. If they are bound to each other, they would take at least 75,000 years to orbit each other. The gold-orange star of the pair, Albireo A, is actually two stars itself with such a close separation that it is difficult to split the two in most telescopes. They are definitely gravitationally bound to each other and take about 100 years to orbit each other. One star of Albireo A is an orange giant star about 50 Sun's across and putting out 950 times as much energy. The dimmer star of Albireo A is a blue-white hot star with a surface temperature over twice as hot as the Sun and a power output 100 times as much as the Sun.

To the right of Albireo as you face south will be the stars of Lyra with bright Vega at one end in the base of the harp and the parallelogram of dimmer stars making up the strings of the harp. At the far end of the parallelogram, opposite from Vega, is the classic planetary nebula called the Ring Nebula about 2000 light years away. The Ring Nebula is the remains of the outer layers of a dying red giant star like our Sun will become about 7 billion years from now. The outer layers puff outward to expose the hot compressed core, called a white dwarf. The ultraviolet light from the super-hot white dwarf makes the expanding gas glow for another several thousand years after they are puffed off the red giant. How well you can see the ring shape will depend on the quality of the sky at the time of the star party. The fuzzy blob is about 0.95 light years by 0.7 light years across. That narrowest dimension is still over 1100 times the distance between Pluto and the Sun. Much fainter gas-dust shells extend out about twice as far as the main part of the nebula. Those gas-dust shells were ejected during the early stages of the planetary nebula formation.

To the left of Albireo is a brighter planetary nebula, called Dumbbell Nebula, a name that gives you an idea of its shape. The Dumbbell Nebula is a bit closer than the Ring Nebula, just 1200 light years away, and it is larger across at 2 light years because it formed several thousand years before the Ring Nebula. Both its closer distance and larger size make it easier to spot than the Ring Nebula. The shape we see of a planetary nebula depends in part on the angle we view it from. In fact, the Ring Nebula from the side might look very much like the Dumbbell Nebula. For the Ring Nebula, one of its rounded lobes is pointed at us so we see a round shape.

Below the Moon will be bright, young star Fomalhaut slightly closer than Vega's 26-light year distance from us, or only 25.1 light years away. Fomalhaut is in the otherwise very dim constellation Pisces Austrinus. Fomalhaut seems to be part of a triple star system but the other two stars are very far from the bright star with the closest one being over 1350 times farther away than Pluto is from the Sun. However, Fomalhaut does have a much closer companion that is the first exoplanet directly imaged in ordinary visible light. Given the extremely imaginative name of "Fomalhaut b", it was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope and the discovery was announced six years ago. Fomalhaut b is much farther out from its star than Pluto is from the Sun, so Fomalhaut b takes about 1700 years to orbit its star. The exoplanet is too far away to be within Fomalhaut's habitable zone, so it is probably too chilly for any kind of life. Also, Fomalhaut's young age of "only" 449 million years makes it very unlikely that life would have gotten started on any exoplanet orbiting Fomalhaut, near or far.

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