Bakersfield Night Sky - September 2, 2017

Bakersfield Night Sky - September 2, 2017

By Nick Strobel

This is my first column after the great American solar eclipse, so here's a brief report of how it went. The skies above Wyoming were gloriously clear and my group watched the entire solar eclipse from first contact (moon just beginning to cover the sun) through totality and fourth contact (last part of moon uncovering the sun). I posted a link to a video of the sequence of images on the William M Thomas Planetarium's website. No image or video can do a total solar eclipse justice since the human eye has a much wider dynamic range than any camera. 

You can try to capture what the eye can see by blending together images of the eclipse taken at different exposure settings. My attempt at that is posted in the solar eclipse section of my online Astronomy Notes textbook. If you ever get the chance to observe a total solar eclipse, take it! Experiencing the dark shadow of the moon approach you at supersonic speeds, seeing the sky grow dark enough for the stars to come out within just a few seconds, looking at the sun with a huge black hole punched in the middle of it, and seeing the mysterious wispy glowing light of the corona around that black hole is an experience that strikes you at an instinctual, emotional, and intellectual level all at once. I've tried to describe it with words like “magnificently awesome” and “numinous” but my creative writing skills are not up to the task. I'm reminded of a scene from the movie “Contact” when the character played by Jodie Foster marvels at one particularly beautiful stop on her interstellar journey, “No words can describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet!”

Similar clear views of totality (and responses of wonderment) were experienced coast to coast despite predictions just the day before of clouds over just about all of the eastern half of the path of totality. The Eclipse Megamovie Project has collected images from amateur photographers all along the totality path. Since the moon's shadow took ninety minutes to travel across the country, the Eclipse Megamovie team hopes that the images collected all along the totality path will show how the corona changes over time. In addition, images of “the diamond ring effect” at different locations in the path of totality will enable the team to measure the sun's size with better precision. The diamond ring effect happens when sunlight pokes through a single valley on one side of the moon to produce a flash of light that joins the fainter light of the corona, creating something that looks like a ring with an enormous diamond on it. 

Finally, the eclipse Eclipse Megamovie Project will be repeated on April 8, 2024 for the next total solar eclipse to go through the United States.  That one will sweep through Mexico, the eastern half of the United States, and the far eastern end of Canada. Comparison with the 2017 solar eclipse will show how the corona has changed over a period of seven years. The next total solar eclipse visible in California will be August 12, 2045. Redding and Red Bluff will be on either side of the center line for that one. If you want to see a total solar eclipse before 2024, then you'll need to make sure your passport if up to date.

As science educators, my wife and I were both greatly disappointed at the decision made by many of the K8 schools to keep their students inside during the eclipse. At least the high schools allowed their students to safely view the sun and have their teachers take advantage of this teachable moment outside instead of watching a computer screen. At least one of the BC science faculty had their students out to view the partial eclipse. 

Now for the future events! The fall schedule of shows at the William M Thomas Planetarium is now posted. The first show is coming up in just a couple of weeks: Dawn of the Space Age on Thursday, September 21 at 7:30 PM Tickets are available from the BC Ticket Office and online from Vallitix

Before that, on September 15, the Cassini mission exploring Saturn will end as the Cassini spacecraft plunges into Saturn's atmosphere at 5 AM Pacific Time. The Cassini team is purposely ending the mission in this way while there is still fuel to control the spacecraft and to prevent Cassini from colliding with either Enceladus or Titan in the far off future. These two moons of Saturn have the environments for life and we do not want to risk contaminating these worlds with Earth microbes that might have survived the seven-year trip to and thirteen-year exploration of Saturn. Based on experiments done on the International Space Station, we know some microbes and microbe spores are able to survive many years in space. Larger multi-cellular animals called tardigrades are also able to survive exposure to space. 

In tonight's sky Jupiter and Saturn are visible in the western half of the evening sky and the waxing gibbous moon in the southeast is three nights from full phase (see the second star chart below). Jupiter is closing in on the bright star Spica and Saturn is above the curving body of Scorpius. A more interesting sight is for those of you who are up before sunrise. Rising a couple of hours before the sun, Venus will be the bright morning star in the middle of the dim zodiac constellation of Cancer, the crab (see the first star chart below). Closer to sunrise, you'll see Mercury and Mars forming a tight triangle with the bright star, Regulus, on the right side of Leo. They are close enough together to fit within the same field of view of your binoculars. Over the next several mornings you'll see Mercury get brighter and closer to Regulus.

Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website