Local Lifestyle

Friday, Mar 15 2013 04:27 PM

NICK STROBEL: Don't miss shows in skies, on dome at planetarium

By The Bakersfield Californian

Tickets went on sale Friday for the William M. Thomas Planetarium's last show of the spring semester, the ever-popular "Black Holes" on April 18. Since tickets can now be purchased online, if you want to see the show, then buy your ticket today from the link posted on the planetarium's website at bakersfieldcollege.edu/planetarium.

This week, the Student Government Association at Bakersfield College sponsored a blood drive, which was a huge success. If you weren't able to donate then and would like some stars with your blood donation, then come to the Houchin Community Blood Bank star party sponsored by the Kern Astronomical Society on Monday.

The blood drive will be at Houchin's new facility at 11515 Bolthouse Drive (west of Buena Vista Road and south of White Lane across from St. John's Lutheran Church). The blood drive is from 5 to 7 p.m. with stargazing through the KAS telescopes continuing until 8 p.m. One pint per person please or you may be seeing stars without the telescopes!

Comet-watching as spring begins

Wednesday marks the official start of the season of spring with the vernal equinox. The spring equinox for the northern hemisphere is when the sun crosses the celestial equator (projection of the Earth's equator onto the sky) heading northward. Since the equinox happens when the sun reaches a particular point with respect to the celestial equator, we have that nailed down very precisely: 4:02 a.m. Pacific Daylight-Saving Time.

For the rest of the spring season the sun will move further and further north of the celestial equator, getting higher and higher at midday with each passing day and the amount of daylight will grow ever longer up to the June solstice.

As I write this, Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) is becoming visible for us in the Northern Hemisphere. As shown in the attached star chart, it is very low in the west just after sunset. To the naked eye, it will look like a faint jet contrail with the tail pointing away from the sun. Its orbit is nearly at a right angle with respect to the Earth's orbit so those in the Southern Hemisphere have been able to see it approach the sun and we'll see it when it is at perihelion (closest point to the sun) and then moving on out away from the sun.

Perhaps by then the comet's dust tail will become more prominent and distinct from the ion tail. The comet will, of course, be much better through a good pair of binoculars or the KAS telescopes at the KAS star party/blood drive.

If you would like to see views of the comet's orbit from various vantage points just outside the Earth's orbit, go to the Comet PanSTARRS Orbit page on the planetarium's website. On that page, you will see how the comet's orbit is oriented with the Earth's position at the time it passes near the sun and why we in the Northern Hemisphere have to wait until near its perihelion passage and afterward for us to have a good view of the comet.

In the night sky

Tonight the waxing crescent moon will be below the Pleiades star cluster that is at the shoulder of Taurus -- see the attached star chart.

Tomorrow night, the moon will be just below very bright Jupiter -- a nice view through binoculars. On the night of the KAS star party, the moon will be one day before first-quarter phase at Taurus' horn. The moon will be full on the night of March 26/27.

Jupiter is already high up in the southwest at sunset just right of the west horn of Taurus. By the end of the month it will have moved eastward so that it is just left of the west horn. Jupiter takes almost 12 years to orbit the sun, so it does appear to drift slowly with respect to the stars, roughly one zodiac constellation per year. Saturn rises up in the east just before 11 p.m. It is near the western tip of Libra and it is undergoing retrograde motion, or slowly moving westward back toward Virgo over the next few months.

In tonight's sky, Saturn and Libra will be in the south at around 4 a.m. A star chart for that time is given in the Night Sky section of the planetarium's website.

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