September 4, 2022

Early to mid-September at midnight looking east-southeast

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Three Saturdays from now, on September 24, will be the Dark Sky Festival at Sequoia and Kings National Parks. There will be events happening during the day starting at 10 AM, including a keynote presentation by Kate Gunderson, a mechanical and aerospace engineer now in training to be an astronaut. At night will be star parties in two locations. The Kern Astronomical Society will be hosting the more popular one at the Wuksachi Lodge back parking lot and another group will host a smaller one at the Grant Grove Visitor Center. Both will take place from 9 to 11 PM New Moon will be on Sunday, so the sky is going to be filled with stars, nebulae, clusters, and galaxies on a very dark sky. See for the schedule.

Tonight is one day past first quarter phase, so the moon will be high in the southern sky shortly after sunset. This coming Friday night on September 9/10, it will be a full moon rising in the east at about sunset. The outer planets are now visible before midnight. Saturn rises with the stars at the east end of Capricornus before sunset, so we'll see it in the southeast by the time the sky gets dark enough to see the stars at 8:45 PM Jupiter will be just becoming visible at that time as it rises with the stars of Pisces. However, you may have a hard time finding the dim stars of Pisces, so look for bright Jupiter below the east end of the Great Square of Pegasus. Mars becomes visible rising the east with the stars of Taurus by about midnight. For the first couple weeks of September, Mars will be within 5 degrees (about a half a fist-width at arm's length) of orange Aldebaran at the eye of Taurus.

A waxing gibbous moon will pass under Saturn between the nights of September 7 and 8. At full phase. the moon will be between Jupiter and Saturn. Saturn might be a bit washed out but Jupiter will still be easily visible. Jupiter reaches opposition later this month when Earth passes between the sun and Jupiter, so Jupiter is now especially bright.  

Mars will be the subject of this month's evening public show at the Planetarium. On September 22, the William M Thomas Planetarium will show “Destination Mars: The New Frontier” that describes the work being done to make the dream of getting humans to Mars a reality. Tickets will go on sale on September 5.

One of the steps for getting to Mars, is NASA's Artemis program that is aiming to return humans to the moon in 2024 or 2025. Artemis I is a 42-day mission that will test the huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft on top. The SLS is the largest rocket in the world. Although its physical dimensions are slightly smaller than the Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon over fifty years ago, at 8.8 million pounds of thrust, SLS will produce over 1 million more pounds of thrust than could the Saturn V. 

SLS will need all that extra power because the Orion spacecraft will be significantly larger than was the Apollo service module. Apollo was able to support a crew of three for up to fourteen days. Orion will support a crew of four for up to 21 days at the start and eventually up to 42 days.  The Apollo program sent humans to the moon for up to a few days and then returned them to Earth. The Artemis program will build a base at the south pole of the moon as well as the Gateway space station that will be the transfer point between the moon and Earth. There are water ice deposits in the perpetual shadows areas of deep craters at the south pole. 

While the Apollo mission was primarily designed as a Cold War competition between two political systems, Artemis's focus is on lunar science and learning how to build a long-term presence on the moon using as much lunar material as possible, instead of relying solely on materials transported from Earth. That knowledge will enable us to go to Mars a decade or so later.

Artemis I is uncrewed and it will test all of the technology to launch, track, maneuver, and recover all of the equipment. It will also carry ten CubeSats, four of which will explore the moon up close, three will investigate the radiation environment, one will continue on to an asteroid, and two are technology demonstrations. CubeSats are about the size of a small microwave oven. See for about Artemis I. Artemis II launches sometime next year with a crew who will orbit the moon on a path that will take them farther away from Earth than any of the Apollo missions. Artemis III will land humans on the moon in 2024 or 2025. 

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