Bakersfield Night Sky - April 16, 2016

Bakersfield Night Sky - April 16, 2016
By Nick Strobel

The first of the monthly free KAS public star parties is tonight (if the weather is clear) at Panorama Park at 8 to 10 PM near where Linden Ave intersects Panorama Drive. The monthly free public star parties occur on the Saturday closest to the First Quarter Moon from April to October. We might be able to spot Mercury low in the west. It will be only 8 degrees above a flat horizon at 8 PM, so it might be lost in the Bakersfield haze. Much easier to see will be Jupiter blazing brighter than any star in the southeast. With the KAS telescopes, you'll be able to see the bands of Jupiter and the four Galilean moons (Callisto, Io, Europa, Ganymede in order of east to west in the telescope). 

Some other objects to check out in the KAS telescopes are the star clusters: the Pleiades at the shoulder of Taurus, the Hyades that make up most of the nose of Taurus, M41 near Sirius, the bright star at the nose of Canis Major, and the Beehive at the center of Cancer. The Orion Nebula in the middle of the Orion's sword hanging below Orion's belt stars is another nice sight. With high magnification you might be able to pick out the four Trapezium stars that make the nebula light up. Further east take a look at the gorgeous globular cluster M13 in Hercules. See the KAS website for a map of the star party location and dates of future public star parties.

The Waxing Gibbous Moon, three days past First Quarter, will be right next to Regulus, the bright star at the end of The Sickle part of Leo. The following night the Moon will be right below Jupiter but Jupiter is still bright enough to see against the bright Moon. That should make a pretty photograph!

Unfortunately, Mars and Saturn will rise too late to see them during April's star party but they'll be visible in the last half of May's free public star party. Tonight, Mars will become visible at about 11:15 PM near the bright orange-red heart of Scorpius, Antares. Saturn will visible after midnight below the stars of Ophiuchus.

Tickets are still available for the last Planetarium show of the spring season, The Dynamic Earth, on April 28th. Made by the producers of the Black Holes show, it includes several supercomputer simulations of some of the processes that keep the Earth's climate such a pleasant place for us to live and protect the Earth from becoming like Venus. Venus suffers under a huge greenhouse effect that has made Venus be hellishly hot---hot enough to melt lead! More about Dynamic Earth is posted on the William M Thomas Planetarium's website

The week before The Dynamic Earth show, on April 21st, I will be one of the speakers for the Renegade Talks. The Renegade Talks are FREE brief talks about big ideas held once a year in BC's Simonsen Performing Arts Center. Two faculty colleagues, Helen Acosta and Joe Saldivar, and two excellent student speakers, Melanie Cohen and Tiffiny Cohen, are also in the line-up of speakers. We'll also intersperse the speakers with quick oral interpretations of poetry performed by BC students. The Renegade Talks will begin at 7 PM with the doors opening for seating at 6:15 PM. This free event should be over by about 8:15 PM.

At this month's KAS meeting, JPL scientist Bonnie Buratti talked about the New Horizons encounter with Pluto last July. In the Q/A afterwards, she was asked about Planet Nine, the super-Earth/mini-Neptune proposed to exist beyond (way beyond!) Pluto by the "killer of Pluto" Mike Brown and his Cal Tech colleague Konstantin Batygin (see my February 6th column for more details). She was, let's say, "very skeptical" of the proposal. One club member agreed with something to the effect that although he liked Mike Brown, he thought the claim was a bit outrageous. 

Now I know that the person knows the process of the scientific method, but as a science teacher I was struck by the first part of his sentence: "although he liked Mike Brown" because the scientific method was developed precisely to remove human bias from how we judge claims about the physical world and how it works. A proposal should not be judged on whether we like the scientist or his/her politics but on the merits of the proposal itself. For an extraordinary claim like Planet Nine, did the scientists first try to explain the effect using more a more ordinary, well-established cause, do the scientists make a testable prediction, and does the hypothesis predict the presence of other objects or effects that were not originally part of the development of the hypothesis? Yes, to all three tests of the claim. Also, if the prediction can be tested using currently available technology (here, already-built big telescopes), that's another point in its favor. Therefore, the proposal is worth taking the time and effort to test. All at the KAS meeting agreed to that, even if a bit grudgingly. Now, if only we voters would use the scientific method in how we decide who to vote for in the primary and general elections!

One last astronomy news item is the claim that two supernovae exploded relatively nearby 1.5 million and 2.3 million years ago. This comes from a detailed analysis of iron-60 isotopes in ocean crust in various places around the globe and the discovery of a nearby small cluster of only low-mass stars. Since all clusters start off with a wide range of masses and the higher mass stars die before the lower mass stars, this star cluster has been around long enough for the higher mass stars to have died in spectacular supernovae fashion. These supernovae were both only 300 light years away which would be in our backyard, astronomically speaking. The "kill zone" of a supernova is about 50 to 100 light years. Within that distance the radiation from the explosion is intense enough to damage or destroy the ozone layer and other nasty climate effects that could threaten life on Earth. 

Three different articles from three different science teams in the April 7th issue of Nature talk about the evidence for the two supernovae that exploded when our distant ancestors Homo Erectus were wandering the African plains. The supernovae would have been about as bright as the Full Moon for a month or so. Obviously, the supernovae were too far away to cause any damage to the Earth because we're here!

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. See the DarkSky website for how.

Nick Strobel
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website