Bakersfield Night Sky - November 19, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - November 19, 2011
By Nick Strobel

Perhaps I spoke too soon about asteroid 2005 YU55 not causing much buzz in the media when it passed by last week as I had two news stations come out to the Planetarium to interview me about the asteroid. Fortunately, the reporters already knew that there was zero chance of the asteroid hitting the Earth so the stories could focus on the cool astronomy aspect of the thing. NASA used the large radio dishes at the Deep Space Network site at Goldstone (about 35 miles north of Barstow on the Ft. Irwin Military Base) to get radar images of the tumbling asteroid as it passed by us. Video of the fairly round asteroid is posted on the JPL site in their news section. Some amateur astronomers posted videos of their observations with regular telescopes on YouTube. One of the best YouTube videos of the asteroid shows a faint dot moving among the brighter stars in realtime. Of course, YouTube has all the good and the bad stuff, so on the same pages as the video of the asteroid you'll find links to uploaded videos by those using the asteroid to once again spread fear or talk about the end of the world. Some of the stuff is really "way out there" and I marvel at the creativity that goes into making those videos (where do they find the time?). If we could only harness that creativity (and time) to more productive uses in reality!

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), named Curiosity, should launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida next Friday (after Thanksgiving) weather permitting. The soonest MSL can launch on that day is 7:25 AM PST. This is a major NASA mission and so they have beefed up the MSL launch webpage. The webpage now includes links to watching the launch on your computer. You may have NASA TV as part of your television provider. Broadcast on TV or the internet begins at 5 AM PST on November 25th. See my previous column posted in the Night Sky section of the Planetarium website for more about MSL.

Venus continues its slow climb up away from the setting Sun but it is still pretty low in the southwest sky shortly after sunset. Mercury is now heading back toward the Sun. We can see it to the lower right of Venus in tonight's sky but by Thanksgiving it will probably be too close to the Sun to see it in the twilight glow. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving you may be able to spot a very thin Waxing Crescent Moon just to the right of Venus (the New Moon will be Nov. 24/25). Both should fit in the same field of view of your binoculars. By the following evening, the Moon will have moved to quite a bit to the left of Venus (over twice the field of view of your binoculars) and it will be a fatter crescent. See the first star chart below.

At sunset Jupiter is already about a quarter of the way up in the eastern sky just above the head of Cetus (the Sea Monster) but technically in the constellation Aries. Jupiter has been moving backward with respect to the stars, getting closer and closer to Pisces. It will start heading back on its usual eastward drift among the stars in mid-December. By 9 PM Jupiter will be two-thirds of the way up in sky, high in the southeast. Orion will have risen so look for its familiar belt stars made of three bright stars lined up close to each other on our sky. The second star chart below shows the 9 PM sky. To the right of the belt will be blue-white Rigel, a supergiant 860 light years away from us and shining with the light of 85,000 Suns. If placed in our solar system, Rigel would be almost as big as the orbit of Mercury and the temperature on the Earth would be over 6700º F. To the left of the belt is orange-red Betelgeuse, a supergiant 495 light years away. The size of Betelgeuse is hard to pin down because its outer layer is so tenuous and it has ejected material in its dying pulsations so the measured size depends on what wavelength of light you use. In ordinary visible light Betelgeuse is larger than Mars' orbit around the Sun but in long-wave infrared, it appears to be as big as the orbit of Jupiter. Sometime in the future it will go supernova and appear as bright as a gibbous Moon, so it will be easily visible in broad daylight. The core will collapse to make a neutron star, a core remnant with 1.5 to 2 times the mass of the Sun all crushed down to the size of most of Bakersfield. Unfortunately, we don't know when it will go supernova (and don't believe any internet site that predicts a particular year) but we do know that we are much too far away from it to be harmed by the supernova explosion. Following the line of the belt stars upward will get you to the lovely star cluster, the Pleiades, in the shoulder of Taurus the Bull.

Mars rises around 12:20 AM. It has moved eastward past Regulus at the end of the Sickle of Leo and is heading toward the bottom center of Leo. A thinning Waning Crescent Moon will be visible below the stars of Leo after 2 AM early Sunday morning. By that time the brilliant stars of Orion will be due South. See the third chart below. An upcoming astronomical event to put on your calendar is a total eclipse of the Moon in the pre-dawn sky of December 10th. Details will be in my next column.

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. Visit the Dark Sky International website for more info.
Nick Strobel
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website