Bakersfield Night Sky – May 15, 2010
By Nick Strobel
The first "star" you will see in the sky after sunset today will be Venus high in the west. When the sky gets darker you may be able to see that it is between the two horns of Taurus. A thin Waxing Crescent Moon will be to the lower right of Venus. The following night, the sliver of Moon will be fatter and to the upper left of Venus---see the second chart below. Venus is moving slightly more than one degree per day (about the width of your thumb held at arm's length per day) and will reach the middle of Gemini by the end of the month. Mars higher in the southwest is moving about half as fast (a thumb width every two days) on its way toward a rendezvous with Regulus at the end of the sickle part of Leo in the first week of June. Further left of Mars is Saturn is still below the bright star Denebola at the tip of the tail of Leo. Saturn will stop its retrograde motion at the end of the month.
The first chart below shows the five objects of about the same brightness in a line in the southern sky: Pollux in Gemini (in the west) to Mars to Regulus to Saturn to Spica in Virgo in the east. The first chart is the view when facing southwest at about 9:30 PM looking almost straight up toward the highest point in the sky called the "zenith". If you bent back further you would have the view of the Big Dipper (in Ursa Major) right side up shown on the chart with the arc extending from the handle toward the very bright star Arcturus in Bootes. (If you're not that flexible, then turn around to face north-northeast and turn the chart upside down.) The two end stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper will point you to the North Star (Polaris).
Early morning risers will be able to see very bright Jupiter in the east starting about an hour before sunrise. It will be the brightest thing in east in the pre-dawn sky. If you have less light-polluted skies you may be able to see that it is below one end of Pisces which is itself below the brighter "Great Square" of Pegasus. The third chart below shows this view.
Today and tomorrow (May 15th and 16th) is the Open House of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about an hour and 45 minutes south of us in Pasadena. JPL is the NASA center responsible for the a lot of the solar system missions including the Mars Rovers and Cassini at Saturn and the Voyagers a few decades ago. The open house is free and you get to talk to the actual scientists and engineers who designed the robotic crafts. They have a number things especially for the kids including a place where the kids can lie down and have a small prototype six-wheeled robot roll over them (trust me, the kids love it!). One word of warning, the event is very popular with thousands of people roaming the JPL campus.
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