Bakersfield Night Sky – February 6, 2010
By Nick Strobel
Although I had pretty much written off Jupiter in my previous column because it sets so soon, I was perhaps a bit too hasty as it has one more nice show before it disappears behind the Sun at the end of the month. Lovers can look to the west-southwest just a few minutes after sunset to see if they can spot Venus, Jupiter, and a very thin Waxing Crescent Moon on February 14th. It will require binoculars! Look about one binocular field up and to the left of where the Sun set within a few minutes after sunset. Venus will appear first, then dimmer Jupiter above Venus and then sweep about one binocular field to the right to see if you can spot the Moon. The inset of the first attached star chart shows this view. If the west-southwest sky is clear, it will be a sight almost as beautiful as your beloved’s eyes. Two days later (on the 16th), Venus will pull up alongside Jupiter and they will be about half a degree apart from each other. Venus will be climbing up away from the Sun in our evening sky for the next several months.
The two bright planets set soon after sunset so Mars in Cancer is still the main evening planet. This evening (Feb 6th) it will be about half a binocular-width north of the Beehive Cluster in the middle of Cancer. No binoculars are required to see bright orange Mars but you may need them to pick out the Beehive Cluster if the light pollution is bad. Use the first star chart to help you find it. We are now far enough along in the year that you should be able to spot Leo and all of the Big Dipper of Ursa Major up in the early evening sky. From the bowl of the Big Dipper, go south and look for a backward question mark (“The Sickle”) on the sky. That is the head and chest of the lion. The bright star, Regulus, at the base of Sickle is at the chest of Leo. Regulus will be due East and it will be the brightest star directly below Mars at about 8 PM.
Saturn will be rising in the east about 9:30 PM tonight. It will be on the west side of Virgo. In the early morning a Waning Crescent Moon will be just to the right of orange-red Antares, the “rival of Ares (Mars)”, at the heart of Scorpius. Antares and the Moon will rise at about 3 AM on February 7th. Three hours later at about 30 minutes before sunrise, look to the southeast to see bright Mercury near the horizon. A very thin crescent Moon will be to the right of Mercury on February 11th on its way to its Valentine appearance mentioned at the top of this column. The second chart below shows the pre-dawn sky for early February.
If all goes according to plan, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) should launch on the 9th. SDO will study the Sun to find out how solar activity is created and how Space Weather comes from that activity. With SDO scientists are hoping to understand and finally predict the solar variations that affect life on Earth as well as our technological systems, especially our satellites. Energetic eruptions from the Sun can damage those satellites and the most powerful eruptions can knock out parts of our fragile power transmission grid.
February 18th is the premier of Ice Worlds at the William M Thomas Planetarium. You must get your tickets ahead of time from the BC Ticket Office. Next month will be the premier of IBEX. Select the links on the show titles to get more details about these new shows. Ice Worlds explores the Earth's polar ice caps and other icy places in our solar system. The IBEX show is about the NASA mission to explore the boundary of the solar system, at the edge of the bubble formed by the charged particles flowing outward from the Sun at a million miles per hour.
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