Bakersfield Night Sky – August 17, 2013
By Nick Strobel
School begins in a couple of days for the K12 schools. Some teachers have already been signing up their classes for fieldtrips to the William M Thomas Planetarium. Bakersfield College's fall semester begins a week later than usual and we are gearing up for great celebrations of its centennial year, the first of which will be the Centennial Ball on October 25th. Two Small Pieces of Glass starts off the fall's shows on September 19th, followed by "Dawn of the Space Age" on October 17th, "Black Holes" on November 21st, and our holiday show "Season of Light" on December 5th and 12th. The ever-popular Black Holes show sold out within 10 minutes last spring!
In the more immediate future, the Kern Astronomical Society is holding its free monthly public star party at Russo's Books in the Marketplace TONIGHT. Viewing begins at 8 PM and ends at 10 PM or so depending on foot traffic. Even with the city lights, a lot of people have been able to "Oo!" and "Ah!" at the objects visible with the KAS telescopes such as the Moon, bright planets like Venus and Saturn, star clusters, and compact nebulae. The first star chart below is centered on the direction of the Moon at 9 PM---south-southeast. The Moon is at Waxing Gibbous phase with Full Phase coming three nights later on August 20th. Tonight the Moon is among the stars of Sagittarius which is also toward the central bulge of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. A number of nebulae and star clusters are in the direction of the central bulge but the bright Moon will wash them out. To the right of Sagittarius is Scorpius, the scorpion, with the bright red supergiant, Antares, at its heart. Of all the constellations, Scorpius is the easiest one for me to pick out the shape of its character in the usual dot-to-dot of constellation mapping. The next easiest is Cygnus, the swan, with bright Deneb at its tail. The central part of Cygnus is sometimes called the Northern Cross with Deneb at the top of the cross and the beak of the swan Albireo at the base of the cross. Albireo is actually a double star whose components have a brilliant contrast of gold and blue colors. Cygnus flies right down the center line of the Milky Way band so you can use Cygnus to find where the Milky Way is supposed to be. Deneb is also one point of the Summer Triangle and Vega in Lyra almost at zenith at 9 PM and Altair in Aquila make up the other points (vertices for you mathematicians). Just to the west of the zenith is the bow-tie (or butterfly) shape of Hercules. You might get one of the KAS members to point their telescope toward the gorgeous globular cluster, M13, in Hercules.
In the western sky you will see the triangle made of the bright star Arcturus of Bootes at the top, Spica of Virgo at the bottom right, and Saturn at lower left (see the second chart below). Over the following months, the triangle base of Saturn-Spica will lengthen as Saturn drifts toward Libra. Tonight Saturn will set after the free KAS star party is over. The first "star" you'll see in the evening sky is actually the planet Venus low in the west after sunset. Being an inner planet in our solar system it moves pretty quickly. Tonight it is at the right (west) edge of Virgo. By the end of August Venus will be less than a fist-width at arm's length away from Spica and it pass Saturn in the middle of September. Through the KAS telescopes you'll see that Venus is in a gibbous phase as it swings around the Sun slowly catching up to the Earth. You'll need to arrive at the star party before 9 PM to see Venus.
Early morning observers will see the almost-as-bright Jupiter rising up around 3:15 AM between the twins of Gemini. About an hour later Mars will become visible. Mars is about as far away from Pollux of Gemini as Pollux is from Castor so they will make an easy-to-spot arc low in the east shortly before sunrise---see the third chart below. The Curiosity rover celebrated its one-Earth year anniversary on Mars earlier in the month. It still has over 310 days to go for one martian year. Jet Propulsion Laboratory created a nice television show for the one-year anniversary that looked at the engineering elements leading up to landing and the excellent science done since then. The top discovery so far is that Mars definitely had all of the chemical ingredients and nice environment, including neutral pH water for life to arise in the past. The landing site has a greater richness and diversity of soil and rock types than was expected. On the way to Mars, the radiation detectors measured radiation levels greater than the career limits for astronauts. That is critical information as we make plans for eventually sending people to Mars. Curiosity is now heading toward the large mountain called Mount Sharp. It should get there by the first part of next year unless some other fantastic geologic discovery begs for detailed exploration like the Glenelg and Yellowknife Bay regions did for the first several months of the mission. It is about 8 kilometers from Mt Sharp and it can travel up to about 100 meters a day. Well, my calculation says that should take about 80 days and this is just August, so it looks like there will definitely be some "sight seeing" along the way.
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. See www.darksky.org for how.
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website www.astronomynotes.com