Bakersfield Night Sky – April 7, 2012
By Nick Strobel
Next Saturday (April 14th) is the fifth annual Astronomy Day at Foothill High School starting at 2 PM with afternoon activities followed by stargazing through the Kern Astronomical Society's telescopes from 8 to 10 PM. It's all free! KAS members have been fundraising throughout the year to purchase supplies for workshops and prizes (including telescopes, binoculars, and books) for those who participate in the activities. There will be workshops on making your own planisphere, spectroscope, or planet globe, how to observe the Sun safely, all about deep sky objects, all about telescopes, a walk through the solar system (I'm doing that), and a chance to meet Johannes Kepler. Door prizes will be at 7:15. Telescopes will be set up behind (east of) the buildings. Several hundred people came last year to the free event and we're expecting even more this year. See the KAS website at www.kernastro.org for more information.
Venus has now passed the Pleiades but are still close enough to fit within the field of view of your binoculars. Venus will appear just above the Pleiades in the western sky after sunset. That should be a pretty sight! Quite a bit further down closer to the horizon will be Jupiter still shining brighter than any true star in the sky (only Venus, a planet, is brighter). At 8:30 PM (shown in the first star chart below), Venus, yellow-orange Aldebaran in Taurus, the belt stars of Orion, and Sirius at the nose of Canis Major (the big dog) will all be in a line with Venus at the far right almost due West and Sirius at the other end in the southwest.
High up in the southeast will be orange-red Mars at almost its closest approach to Regulus at the end of the Sickle of Leo. Mars has been moving retrograde (backward = westward) among the stars of Leo since mid-January as the Earth has overtaken Mars in our faster orbit. It wasn't particularly a close pass this time around so Mars has appeared a bit smaller in the telescope than past close passages but then again, astro-imaging technology has improved every year that the pictures of this more distant Mars from amateur telescopes have still been quite good. Mars will end its retrograde motion on April 15th. By 8:30 PM, Saturn and most of Virgo, including bright Spica a little to the right of Saturn, will be high up enough in the East to be visible. Further to the left (north) will be the bright star Arcturus at the kite-shaped Bootes. If you extend the arc of the Big Dipper's handle, you will get to Arcturus ("arc to Arcturus"). Arcturus is the second-brightest star that we can see from Bakersfield, only Sirius is brighter. The Waning Gibbous Moon will rise a bit before 9:30 PM. Mars will be up highest due South at 10:15 PM and Saturn will be up highest due South about 3 hours later at 1:30 AM.
Next Saturday at the free stargazing of Astronomy Day, Venus will be closer to the horns of Taurus and the Pleiades will be almost halfway between Venus and Jupiter. Mars and Saturn will be in about the same positions with respect to their respective constellations but their rise and transit (due South) times will be almost half an hour earlier than they are tonight. The Moon, of course, will have moved by a large amount in a week. It will be a quite thin waning cresent by then and rise at about 3:45 AM. So, no Moon for Astronomy Day but plenty of other solar system and deep sky objects (clusters, gas clouds, galaxies) to look at. During the day, the telescopes will be pointed at the Sun, with special-purpose solar filters of course, to see if there are any sunspots and there may even be one with an H-alpha filter that shuts out all but a very narrow band in the red region to look at prominences on the edge. Any prominences seen will be larger than the Earth. It turns out Hydrogen prefers a particular hop of its electron from one energy level to another as the electron moves around the proton in the nucleus. That particular hop produces light with a wavelength of 656.3 nanometers which is a red color. The H-alpha filter is tuned to that particular wavelength.
[Ed: an expanded version of the thoughts in the following two paragraphs appeared as a "Community Voices" letter on April 11, 2012.]
On a different note (or wavelength), you have probably read the letter in the newspaper from the Kern Community College District's chancellor and Bakersfield College's president or heard from other sources about upcoming deep cuts in state funding that will lead to deep cuts in what classes Bakersfield College can offer and the reduced number of students we can serve. While it is my hope that the college will cut into the non-instructional and administrative areas more than the direct instructional areas, the millions of dollars that will be lost in state funding next year will likely mean cuts into the core as well. Over the past several years Bakersfield College has trimmed course offerings to the bone. We're now trying to figure out how to make cuts into the core in a way that will still maintain the breadth of offerings the local area communities, including those outside the immediate Bakersfield area, want from their community college. We'll also need to have some breadth of offerings from which to grow again when the California economy recovers in a few years. Although Bakersfield College will be a changed institution at the end of the next couple (several?) years, some things will remain the same.
Bakersfield College is more than a place where I teach astronomy and run the planetarium. I see the college as a treasure for Kern County and one our communities greatly need. Lives are transformed by what happens there and it's not just the students' lives. As we approach our centennial next year, I hope we'll work together enabling Bakersfield College to transform future lives for another hundred years. With your advocacy of students (future tax payers and service providers!) to our local board of trustees and to our state legislators and through your support of Bakersfield College, we'll do so.
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