Bakersfield Night Sky - January 18, 2014

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Bakersfield Night Sky - January 18, 2014
By Nick Strobel

The schedule for the spring evening shows is now posted on the William M Thomas Planetarium's website. Tickets go on sale for "Dynamic Earth" on January 23rd. Tickets can be purchased online or over the phone at the BC Ticket Office (395-4326) but physical, hardcopy tickets will still need to be picked up at the ticket office or be mailed to you. Tickets will not be available at the door because the show will very likely be sold out by then (if history is any guide). Other shows in the schedule are the ever-popular "Black Holes" in March and "Ice Worlds" in April.

In my previous column I gave a preview of major upcoming astronomy and space exploration events coming in 2014. I missed two important events. Thankfully, I did not get any critical messages about the oversight. In my previous column I talked about the two eclipses that will happen in October: the total lunar eclipse on October 8th and the partial solar eclipse on October 23rd. It turns out we won't have to wait ten months for an eclipse.

In the very early hours of April 15th we will get to experience another total lunar eclipse when the Full Moon will go through the southern half of the Earth's umbra shadow. The umbra shadow is the region in which the light source would be totally blocked, so it is the darkest part of a shadow. The umbral part of the eclipse begins at 10:58 PM our time on April 14th and totality goes from 12:07 AM to 1:24 AM on April 15th. The Moon will leave the umbra at 2:33 AM. Although the Moon will be in the darkest part of the Earth's shadow, the Moon will have a reddish color as sunlight bends through the Earth's atmosphere to reach the Moon and the bluer colors in the sunlight are scattered away. If the Earth did not have an atmosphere, the Moon would be completely black when it was entirely inside the umbra shadow. I have diagrams describing lunar eclipses and photos of some in my online astronomy book.

The other astronomy event is Bakersfield's own Astronomy Day put on by the Kern Astronomical Society. It will be on April 12th at Houchin Community Blood Bank, just two days before the lunar eclipse begins. It will be at Houchin's newest facility at 11515 Bolthouse Drive and it is FREE! Activities start at 11 AM and will go through 9 PM with star gazing but a real special treat will be the talk given by Alex Filippenko from 1 to 2 PM that you will definitely want to hear. Dr. Filippenko is an astronomy professor from UC Berkeley who was on the research team that discovered the universe is accelerating. His talk will be "Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe". He is an excellent, engaging speaker who has been voted UC Berkeley's top professor numerous times by the undergraduate students (most who are non-science majors) and he is a past-president of the premier astronomy education association, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, that brings science to the general public through the vehicle of astronomy. He has also recorded several series of lectures for the Teaching Company (aka The Great Courses). As I said, he is an excellent speaker.

Other activities at Astronomy Day include solar observing, learning about telescopes, black holes, a walk through the solar system (I'll lead that one), and more.

Well, I should also note another astronomy event that will take place this spring. It is the "rebooting" of the Cosmos series. Carl Sagan's original Cosmos series was broadcast way back in 1980 and it has been viewed by literally hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Although I had pretty much decided upon my career path in astronomy by then, Sagan's Cosmos sealed it and I was astonished by the amazing beauty of the universe we lived in and how we could discover our deep connection to the cosmos through the endeavor called science. I continue to use one episode from the series in my Physics of the Cosmos class today. Although the dress fashion is thirty-some years old, Sagan's explanation of the life cycles of the stars and from where all of the atoms beyond hydrogen and helium came is still very applicable today. Neil deGrasse Tyson will be the public face of the 2014 edition of Cosmos but two of Sagan's collaborators on the original series, Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow) and Steven Soter have been deeply involved in creating Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey that begins airing on March 9th on Fox and the National Geographic Channel. The trailer for the new Cosmos shows fancier special effects than what was possible back in 1980 but I hope that the 2014 edition will still be as transformational and as able to connect people to the universe as the original series.

In researching about the new Cosmos series, I watched Bill Moyers's recent interview of Tyson. One part of the interview echoed a major part of my previous column about the value of exploration. Moyers asked Tyson about the practical difference of finding about dark matter or dark energy. Tyson replied by harkening back to 1920 when people were surely asking why so much brain energy was being devoted to understanding what's in the middle of an atom. Isn't it such a waste of all that brilliance? Tyson noted that in that decade, quantum physics was discovered. He continued with the economic impact of that seemingly esoteric pursuit: "Perhaps if you were around asking me that similar question then, you would've questioned the whole enterprise. Yet today, a third of the GDP of the world is generated on the creation, storage, and retrieval of information. And the entire IT revolution cannot exist without an understanding of what's going on inside the atom. It is a quantum physics phenomenon. So you ask me, 'Of what value [is research into dark matter/dark energy]? ' I have no idea what value." In fifty years we'll have a much better idea and probably even more than a third of the world's GDP will be based on discoveries made from unlocking the secrets of dark matter and dark energy.

Now for what's up in the sky for the latter part of January. Venus has now disappeared from our evening sky so Jupiter reigns alone in our early evening sky. Jupiter will already be up when the Sun sets. You'll see it as the very bright star low in east shortly after sunset. A little later after it has climbed up higher in the sky, the sky will have darkened enough for you to see the stars of Gemini surrounding Jupiter---see the first star chart below. To the right (in the southeast) you will see the brilliant stars of Orion. Follow the line of Orion's belt stars down to the left to the brightest true star in the night sky, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. A little after 8 PM the Waning Gibbous Moon will rise and wash out much of the night sky. Jupiter and Sirius will be bright enough to still see them easily, though. By midnight Mars will be visible low in the east in the middle of Virgo. Mars is getting closer to Virgo's brightest star, Spica. As shown in the second star chart below, a skinnier gibbous Moon will pass between Mars and Spica on the night of January 22nd/23rd. The following night, Mars and Spica may just barely fit within the same field of view of your binoculars. Mars will the bright orange object at about the 11 o'clock position and Spica the bright star at the 5 o'clock position (see the inset of the second star chart below). By the end of the month, they will easily fit within the same field of view of your binoculars.

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