April 7, 2024

By Nick Strobel | 04/02/24
April 10 at 6 AM looking East -- close conjunction of Mars and Saturn

Tomorrow, April 8, is the Great North American Solar Eclipse—a total solar eclipse visible in a strip starting in southern Mexico, going through the middle of the eastern half of the U.S. from Texas to New York, and ending in the southeastern part of Canada. I’ve taken the advice from my previous column to travel to see totality. Kern County will see a partial solar eclipse. For Bakersfield, the partial solar eclipse will begin at 10:09 a.m., reach 45% max coverage at 11:13 a.m., and finish at 12:21 p.m. Yes, you definitely need special solar glasses or solar filters to view the partial solar eclipse! See my “Observing the Sun Safely” page on the William M Thomas Planetarium’s website.

Broadcasts of the total solar eclipse are available at NASA 2024 Live Eclipse site which will include telescope live feeds and a broadcast in Spanish. More options for viewing broadcasts of the April 2024 total solar eclipse are on the Planetarium's April Eclipse Viewing page.  During the few minutes of totality, observers will be able to see in an approximate line with the sun from east to west (left to right facing south): Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Jupiter, eclipsed sun, Venus, Saturn, and Mars. Below that line, Rigel will be visible and Capella will be visible above that line.

Jenna Samra is going to be leading a team in a high-flying airplane gathering infrared data of the sun’s corona during the eclipse. To get above the water vapor that blocks much of the infrared light, the plane will fly 46,000 feet above the ground. Also, flying at about 500 mph along the totality path will allow Samra’s team to get about another 1.5 minutes of totality than those on the ground. She hopes that she’ll be able to detect and measure emission lines from charged atoms that have had some of their electrons stripped away by the super-hot corona (the sun’s outer atmosphere that makes the wispy glow around the dark moon in totality). Those emission lines will enable her to determine properties of the corona such as the temperature and density and how the sun’s magnetic field guides the outflow of gas from the sun.

The next total solar eclipse with a totality path crossing the U.S. will be in August 2045. The moon’s umbra (total shadow) will make landfall in northern California and streak across the southern U.S. to Florida. Impatient people can travel to the one visible in August 2026 in Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Greenland, and the northern tip of Russia.

Except for the major exception of the solar eclipse, the April sky doesn’t have much happening as far as our solar system is concerned. Jupiter is the very bright “star” you see low in the west after sunset. The true star Sirius is also off in that direction but more southwest than west and Jupiter will be the brighter one of the two. By the end of April, we won’t be able to see Jupiter anymore. In the early morning, pre-dawn sky, Mars and Saturn are the planets to look for low in the east (Venus is no longer visible). In this morning’s (April 7) sky, Mars and Saturn were just two thumb-widths at arm’s length apart from each other on our sky. On Wednesday morning, April 10, they will be less than a pinky width apart from each other. Mars will be above Saturn and both will be the same brightness but different colors.

In astronomy research news, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration released a new image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. The Event Horizon Telescope is an array of radio telescopes that span the globe, so the resolution is equivalent to a single telescope the size of Earth. The new image shows the magnetic field lines going through the hot gas swirling into the black hole. As the electrons spiral around the magnetic field lines, they emit a type of radio energy called synchrotron radiation that can be used to map the strength and orientation of the magnetic field lines. Instead of a tangled mess of magnetic field, the magnetic field is stronger and more orderly than expected. The synchrotron radiation data seem to indicate that the black hole is spinning extremely fast and that its rotation axis is tipped away from us. More observations are needed to firm up the hypothesis.

Back home: the last show of the spring season at the William M Thomas Planetarium will be the premier of “Moon Base: The Next Step" on April 18. Over 50 years ago humans walked on the moon. In the next ten years, we will return to the moon but this time we’ll stay on the moon. The moon base will become our first staging post to travel to Mars and other places in the solar system. More details about the show are available on the Planetarium’s website.

Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website www.astronomynotes.com