Bakersfield Night Sky – March 20, 2010
By Nick Strobel
Our evening skies are now a bit more interesting with four planets gracing our skies. In the early evening sky look for Venus very low in the west up to about 45 minutes after sunset. Closer to the sunset position will be Mercury, though you'll probably need to wait a few days to see it as it moves swiftly to catch up to Venus. Both of them will be brighter than any star in our night sky. Their positions for the end of the month are shown in the inset of the first chart below. The visibility time will increase to about 50 minutes after sunset by month's end and Mercury will have joined Venus. Mars is still pretty bright in the eastern sky below the two bright stars of Gemini but it is fading. It is slightly brighter than any of the stars in Orion in the south to the right of Mars. The first chart shows the spring constellation, Leo that Mars will reach in about two months. To find Leo, find the Big Dipper in the northeast sky and go southward (toward the right) of the bowl part and look for a backward question mark on the sky---that is "the Sickle" part of Leo and corresponds to the head and chest of the lion. Below the tail end of Leo is Saturn on the upper end of Virgo. You should be able to see Saturn starting at about 8 PM. It will be as bright as any of the stars in Orion.
The waxing Moon will pass by Mars and Saturn at the end of the month. It is full on the 29th. Tonight the Waxing Crescent Moon marks the spring equinox by passing just left of the Pleiades at the shoulder of Taurus (a nice view in binoculars!). In my previous column I noted that the waxing crescent Moon wouldn't pass through the Pleiades again until 2023. A chart for that was included in the Planetarium's version of that column.
March 20th marks the first day of spring so the Sun sets directly in the west and it will be setting further to the northwest as the weeks go by up to June 21st (the beginning of the season of summer). The Sun is on the celestial equator (the equinox point) so people on the Earth's equator would see it directly overhead at noon. People farther north will be able to see the noon Sun directly overhead as the weeks go by up to when...? Yes, June 21st when those on the Tropic of Cancer will see the noon Sun directly overhead.
By the end of the month you will be able to see the two largest planets of the solar system at the same time. Very bright Jupiter will be very low in the eastern sky about 20 minutes before sunrise---see the second chart below. Behind you will be Saturn low in the west. High in the east will be the constellations we see in the summer evening skies: Cygnus, Aquila and Lyra. To the south will be Sagittarius and Scorpius.
The third annual Kern County Astronomy Day is coming up---Saturday, April 17th at Foothill High School starting at 2 PM with star gazing at 8 PM. The Kern Astronomical Society puts on this free event with the help of the Foothill High School Astronomy Club. (You did notice that I said FREE!) See www.kernastro.org for more details.
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