Bakersfield Night Sky - March 19, 2016

Bakersfield Night Sky - March 19, 2016
By Nick Strobel

Happy Vernal Equinox Day! Our season of spring officially starts at 9:30 PM today when the Sun crosses the Celestial Equator heading north. The Sun's daily arc across the sky will climb ever higher, so the Sun's energy will strike our part of the Earth at more direct angle to increase the cooking power of the Sun. As the height of the daily arc increases, the length of daylight will also increase, so the cooking time will increase. Sounds like a recipe for hotter days ahead!

The Nature Festival at Wind Wolves Preserve is today and tomorrow. Our local astronomy club, the Kern Astronomical Society, will have telescopes with solar filters set up at the Nature Festival for safely observing the Sun from 10 am to 5 pm today but not tomorrow. Wind Wolves is only an hour and ten minutes from the center of Bakersfield and the scenery there can be quite spectacular when the wild flowers are out and the hills are green. The Nature Festival is free!

Tickets for the two evening planetarium shows at the William M Thomas Planetarium are now on sale. On April 7th will be the "Earthquake" show starting at 7:30 pm with a tour of the night sky using the Goto Chronos projector followed by the full-dome film "Earthquake". On April 28th will be "Dynamic Earth" about the Earth's climate system. It will also have a tour of the night sky. The full-dome film "Dynamic Earth" includes some specially-made scientific simulations created on supercomputers of the processes that work together to make Earth be such a nice place to live. There are also contrasts made with our closest neighbor, Venus, which is more than two times as hot as it would be without an atmosphere because of a runaway greenhouse effect

The Dynamic Earth show was originally scheduled for April 21st, the day before Earth Day, but it had to be changed because I will be one of the speakers for BC's "Renegade Talks" on April 21st. Renegade Talks are like TED talks but each talk is a bit shorter, just 8 to 12 minutes long. With five or six speakers for the evening, we should have you in and out in about an hour and hopefully leaving with your mind filled with intriguing ideas and your heart filled with inspiring stories. 

The most recent images of Pluto beamed back by the New Horizons spacecraft are of a section that looks like someone bit into a section of the dwarf planet. On the far western side of Pluto is a heavily-cratered highland plateau region called Vega Terra that is right next to a nearly crater-free plain called Piri Planitia. The boundary between the two regions is a cliff wall. The highland region is rich in methane ice while the lower smooth plain is more enriched in water ice. The large number of craters in Vega Terra tells us that it is significantly older than Piri Planitia. 

The New Horizons science team led by Alan Stern thinks that the methane ice is sublimating into the atmosphere. As that happens erosion happens along the cliff wall, causing them to retreat and expose the underlying bedrock of water ice. Yes, "bedrock" made of water ice. Pluto is so cold that water ice is harder than the rocks on Earth. 

We will continue to get data beamed back to us from the outward bound New Horizons until October to December of this year. New Horizons is now about 3.26 billion miles from the Sun, so it takes the radio waves beamed from New Horizons 4 hours 53 minutes to reach us. 

At about the time we stop receiving the data download from New Horizons, Mars will be welcoming another visitor from the Earth when the ESA ExoMars mission arrives. The Trace Gas Orbiter part of ExoMars will look for gases that could be produced by biological processes, particularly methane and its degradation products. However, since methane can also be produced through geological processes, it won't prove that martian life exists if it finds methane. 

The Schiaparelli part of ExoMars is a lander that will test the landing systems for future ESA landers and rovers. It turns out that Schiaparelli will land close to where NASA's Opportunity rover is now located. Opportunity has been exploring a large crater called Endeavour Crater since late August 2011. The landing ellipse for Schiaparelli is northwest of Endeavour Crater and just west of Opportunity's landing site. That means that Opportunity might be able to spot Schiaparelli dropping from the sky. The Opportunity team will try to look for it. What a cool picture that would be!

The Moon will be full on the night of March 22nd/23rd. Easter 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. Therefore, next Sunday will be Easter. For us in the Central Valley that means this week or next week will be spring break (some schools have spring break during Holy Week and others have it after Easter). Education-wise it would be better to have a fixed week for spring break instead of having it float around the calendar with Easter but there's a nearly zero chance of Central Valley school boards agreeing to that.

There will be a penumbral lunar eclipse when the Moon is full in the wee hours of March 23rd from 2:39 to 6:55 AM but you'll be hard pressed to see any difference in the Moon's appearance. The Moon will miss the umbra part of the Earth's shadow, so there will be only a very slight dimming of the Moon and your eyes will adjust to the slight dimming so that you won't notice it. 

The night before the Moon is full, on the 21st, the Waxing Gibbous Moon will be just below Jupiter. Jupiter is bright enough to be seen even next to a bright gibbous Moon but a lot of the rest of the surrounding stars will be washed out. Jupiter will already be easily visible in the east at sunset and will be halfway up in the sky by 9 PM below the tail end of Leo. 

With the time change, Mars will be up shortly after 1 AM instead of midnight. It is now at the head of Scorpius. Saturn rises about 50 minutes later in between Scorpius and Ophiuchus. Venus and Mercury are now too close to the Sun to see them before sunrise.

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