Bakersfield Night Sky – January 2, 2010
By Nick Strobel
Although Jupiter is still the brightest thing in the evening sky (next to the Moon), it sets fairly early—at about 8:15 PM at the beginning of the month and at about 7:45 PM in mid-January. Mercury has now left the evening sky and is passing between us and the Sun. The nights are going to belong to Mars this month. Bright orange Mars rises a bit after 7:30 PM at the beginning of the month and is high up in the south at around 2:30 AM. The first star chart shows Mars between dim Cancer and the brighter Leo and just above the Waning Gibbous Moon on January 2nd. Over the next couple of months you will see Mars move backward ("retrograde") through Cancer. We will catch up to Mars in our faster orbit by the end of this month and Mars will grow brighter until then. As we catch up to Mars and pass it, it appears to move backward for the same reason why a slower-moving car you pass on the highway appears to move backward relative to the distant background. At around midnight you will be able to see Saturn low in the east in Virgo (see the second chart). Saturn will be high in the southeast at dawn. By mid-month we will be able to see Mercury low in the southeast just before dawn.
January 3rd marks our closest distance to the Sun at 91.4 million miles—the "perihelion" point of its orbit. However, the temperatures are coolest for us at this time of year because the northern hemisphere is tipped away from the Sun so the Sun's rays hit our part of the Earth at more glancing angle than during the spring + summer. Even with being tipped away from the Sun, Kern County is still closest to the Sun at perihelion. The seasonal temperature changes have only to do with sunlight angles and length of daylight, not the distance between your part of the Earth and the Sun. There! You've now had your astronomy lesson for the month!
The spring schedule for the Planetarium will be posted on the Planetarium's website in the first full week of January. Because of tight budgets at the college, the public evening shows will take place on the third Thursday of the month starting February 18th and going through April 15th. A new show called "Ice Worlds" will be included in the spring line-up.
In this time of resolutions for the new year, I hope you'll include smiling at one more person per day than you usually do. Have a great 2010!
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