August 20, 2023

Bakersfield night sky in late-August at 8:30PM looking south

Saturday, August 20, 2023

Well, the astronomy outreach about the Perseids was obviously successful because the observing site our local astronomy club, the Kern Astronomical Society, uses for observing was packed for the peak night! The Perseids put on a good show. The next local astronomy event to put on your calendars is the Dark Sky Festival at Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks on September 9.

There will be a keynote address by Dr. Cameron Hummels, the Director of Astrophysics Outreach at Caltech, and educational presentations on astronomy and astronomy-related topics. The main event will be the star parties at Potwisha in the Foothills, Wuksachi near Lodgepole, and Big Stump in Grant Grove. The most popular one is the one hosted by the Kern Astronomical Society at Wuksachi from 9 to 11 p.m. KAS members will have their own telescopes plus club telescopes out for people to see Saturn and near the end of the night, possibly Jupiter. Telescopes will also be pointed at beautiful globular and open clusters, as well as objects that require a dark sky to see well: nebulae and galaxies. On that night the moon will be a very thin waning crescent, rising around 3 a.m., well after the star party is over. The festival schedule will be posted on the Sequoia Park Conservatory's Dark Sky Festival page.

Tonight the moon will be a waxing crescent about 5 days old, that is 5 days past new phase. It will be in Virgo, close to the bright star Spica but just barely too far apart to fit both within the field of view of standard binoculars. A slight shift to the left from the moon will bring Spica into the view of your binoculars. Four days later, on August 24, the moon will be very close to another bright star, red-orange Antares, at the heart of Scorpius. The moon will be a waxing gibbous by then and the moon will actually pass in front of (or occult) Antares between 6:47 and 7:38 p.m. Now, on that date, sunset will be about 7:34 p.m., so we’ll be able to see just the tail end of the event when Antares appears from behind the lit side of the moon. Those farther east—Colorado and beyond will be able to see the entire occultation.

On August 30, we’ll have the second full moon of the month, which can be referred to as a “blue moon” in one definition of a “blue moon”. More importantly, this full moon will be the closest full moon of the year at just 221,413 miles away—a “supermoon”. It will appear about 8% larger than the average full moon and 14% larger than when the full moon is at its farthest distance from us.

The supermoon will be on the left (east) side of Aquarius and on the right (west) side of Aquarius will be Saturn. Saturn will be at opposition (directly opposite the sun on our sky) on August 26, so a few nights later on August 30, it will rise slightly before sunset. 

One last moon event I’ll mention is the annular solar eclipse on October 14. Even though it’s still a month-and-a-half away, advanced planning is required because the path of a solar eclipse is a narrow one and usually far away from wherever you are. This one won’t be so far though. The path of totality is across the western U.S. from southern Oregon to northern Nevada to southern Utah to the middle of New Mexico to southern Texas. The path continues to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, parts of Central America, and the northern end of South America. 

With an annular solar eclipse, the moon and sun are exactly lined up, but the moon is too far from Earth to totally cover up the sun and there is an annulus of the sun’s surface appearing around the dark moon. In a total solar eclipse, all of the sun’s surface is blocked and one gets to see the much fainter corona-outer atmosphere of the sun appearing around the dark moon. For this annular solar eclipse, at most 91% of the sun will be covered up, so those in the path of the annular solar eclipse will still need to use special solar filters to avoid eye damage. For us in Bakersfield, we’ll see a partial solar eclipse with about 75% of the sun covered.

I’ve put together the fall schedule of shows at the William M Thomas Planetarium. Mars One Thousand One (Mars 1K1) will be shown on September 21, Black Holes on October 19, Dynamic Earth on November 16, and Season of Light on November 30 and December 7. Tickets will be available from Vallitix. The Bakersfield College website has undergone a massive overhaul, so there may be a delay in getting all of the information posted on the planetarium’s website.

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