Bakersfield Night Sky - October 1, 2011

Bakersfield Night Sky - October 1, 2011
By Nick Strobel

As I write this, no claim of injury or property damage has arisen as a result of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite's (UARS) fall to Earth on the night of September 23rd (Pacific Time). Most of the debris probably landed in the Pacific Ocean far off the U.S. coast. UARS was launched in 1991 to measure the different chemical components of the upper atmosphere, particularly the depletion of the ozone layer in the stratosphere by the man-made chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Lasting about 12 years longer than its mission design, UARS was able to show that CFCs take about 5 years to rise from the lower atmosphere, where we are, on up to the stratosphere, where the ozone layer is, and that the ozone layer is beginning to recover as a result of the international ban on CFCs. That's good news since life on the surface of the Earth would not be possible without the ozone layer. The satellite ceased operations in 2005 and over the next six years, the very tiny drag from the very high layer of the Earth's atmosphere where UARS was, the thermosphere, slowly accumulated to bring the satellite back to Earth's surface.

I'll end this discussion of UARS with a little background on the atmosphere to complete this science lesson. The layer closest to the ground is the troposphere. It extends up to about 10 miles and it is where our weather happens because of convection and greenhouse heating. The stratosphere extends from about 10 miles to about 30 or so miles. The ozone layer is in the stratosphere. Then comes the mesophere extending on up to about 50 or so miles. From 50 or so miles to around 300 or so miles is the thermosphere. Here celestial X-rays knock electrons out of atoms in the atmosphere to create the ionosphere, a layer important to radio communication. Finally above 300 or so miles is the exosphere. All these altitude numbers are approximate because fluctuations in solar energy and particles can make the atmosphere puffier than other times. UARS originally orbited 375 miles above the surface but its orbit had decayed to 110 miles (well in the thermosphere) by the middle of September when it came to the attention of the mass media.

Farther from home, there's some trouble with the Kepler mission that is hunting for exoplanets orbiting other stars. It has found almost 1300 other possible planets (as of the last data release in the early part of this year) by looking for slight dips in a star's brightness as the exoplanet crosses in front of (transits) the star. The amount of the drop in a star's brightness depends on the size of the planet. The trouble is that the solar-type stars were assumed to be as calm as the Sun when the mission timeline of 3.5 years was set. It turns out that the majority of the 156,000 stars Kepler is looking at non-stop fluctuate quite a bit more than our Sun. In order to tease out the dimmings due to transiting planets from those due to the intrinsic variability of the stars themselves, more observations are needed. Well, that's extra time and that means extra money. Despite its huge successes in finding planets, the Kepler mission might not get the money it needs because of budget cuts and the cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Here at home, the Bakersfield evening sky is now graced with ultra-bright Jupiter in the east. Currently in the constellation of Aries, Jupiter is slowly creeping backward (westward) toward Pisces—see the first star chart below. By 9 PM you should be able to spot it blazing away low in the east. It will be high due South around 2:30 AM. Earlier in the evening at dusk look for a Waxing Crescent Moon low in the southwest. As twilight fades, you may be able to see the bright red star Antares below the Moon. Antares is at the heart of Scorpius and Antares should fit in the same field of view of your binoculars as the Moon. Those two will be setting at about the same time as Jupiter is rising.

Above Jupiter will be the two brightest stars of Aries, Hamal and Sheratan. Farther up you may be able to see the two horizontal strings of stars that make up Andromeda, though the top string might be too faint to see with the light pollution. Up and to the left of Andromeda is the tilted "W" of Cassiopeia in the northeast. The Moon will be at First Quarter on October 3rd and a bright Waxing Gibbous on October 8th, the night of the free public star party at Russo's Bookstore in the MarketPlace put on by the Kern Astronomical Society. On October 11th, when the Moon is full, Jupiter may be the only star-like thing you see in the Moon's vicinity. The Moon on October 8th and 11th is also shown on the first star chart.

At 2:30 AM, Mars will be visible in the middle of Cancer passing through the Beehive Cluster (M44). That should be a nice view through binoculars. The pre-dawn sky also sports the constellations we associate with the winter evenings: Orion almost halfway up in the southeast sky at 3 AM; below Orion is Canis Major with the very bright star Sirius (only Jupiter and the Moon are brighter than Sirius in the night sky) at its nose or neck depending on how you connect the dots; above Orion is Taurus with orange Aldebaran at its eye and the beautiful Pleiades Cluster at its shoulder; to the left of Taurus is Auriga with bright yellow-white Capella at one corner; and to the left of Orion is Gemini with Pollux and Castor at the heads of the twins. The second star chart below shows the 3 AM sky. The other planets (Venus, Saturn, & Mercury) are now too close to the Sun for us to see.

A final thing to end this column has nothing to do with astronomy but I hope you'll like this brainstorm anyway. Reflecting on the frustration produced by the antics of our elected national leaders this past summer and being the husband of a high school science teacher, I think we need something like NCLB for our Congress. This would be No "Citizen" Left Behind. We ordinary citizens could set up governing standards that both parties would have to strive for and eventually get to the "proficient" level of by, say, 2014. Congress would be evaluated on how many significant and positive pieces of legislation are passed by both houses every year. No congressman or party could blame the other (or the executive or judicial branches) for being an obstacle as the whole Congress is being evaluated in No Citizen Left Behind. Perhaps we could have benchmark assessments of X number of compromises with the "other side" to reach a conclusion in the first year followed by an increasing number of compromises in the following years in order to achieve the increasing number of significant and positive pieces of legislation that are required in succeeding years. The number capturing all of this would be the "Adult Governing Index" (AGI), or if you find that too distasteful because it could be confused with the AGI on your tax form, we could call it the Maturity Governing Index (MGI). Sanctions for no improvement in the AGI or MGI (and thereby causing more ordinary citizens to fall behind) would be forced cuts in campaign contributions across the board to individuals, parties, PACs, etc. (though the increased effort in honest legislative activity will require a decrease in the time spent fundraising anyway) or reductions in pay for them and their staff or both. Yes, this brainstorm is a bit tongue-in-cheek but as we head into an election season where over $5 billion will be spent, do you wonder if all that money could be better spent solving our problems rather more of the same?

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