Bakersfield Night Sky - August 18, 2012

Bakersfield Night Sky - August 18, 2012
By Nick Strobel

The Mars Science Laboratory, aka "Curiosity" arrived safely on Mars' surface on August 5th at 10:31:45 PM just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) northeast of the center of its landing ellipse after traveling 352 million miles for 36 weeks. Traveling from LAX to London Heathrow airport with the same precision would require one to land to within 1.25 inches of the exact position on the runway and to within a tenth of a second of the expected time. Pretty darn good!

I was in Tucson at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific conference during the landing. All of the attendees gathered around a flat panel TV connected to an iPad receiving the NASA TV feed over the internet. We saw the high-fives in the JPL Mission Control room as the various items in the entry-descent-landing sequence happened just as planned followed by the huge cheers and hugs as the safe landing was confirmed and we got back the first quick pictures. We cheered too! What an excellent example of American ingenuity at work.

This past week the Mars Science Laboratory team gave Curiosity a "brain transplant", uploading a new version of the software optimized for driving around Mars and investigating the rocks with its suite of instruments. Curiosity's flight software contained all of the information it needed for landing on the surface. Those capabilities are not needed anymore. What it needs now is special image processing tools to check for obstacles and how to use the tools at the end of its robotic arm. While all this software upgrading was going on, Curiosity was sending back great pictures of its surroundings.

Here at home, the fall schedule of evening shows at the planetarium is now set. All shows are on a Thursday evening starting at 7:30 PM with the doors opening at 7 PM. The hour-long shows are $6.50/adult and $4.50/seniors+children and tickets must be purchased ahead of time from the BC Ticket Office—they will not be sold at the door. Here's the schedule:

  • September 20: Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity. Tickets go on sale August 23rd.
  • October 18: Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth's Climate Engine—new show! Tickets go on sale September 21.
  • November 29 + December 6: Season of Light (show ends 8:45). Tickets go on sale November 1 for both shows.

The new show "Dynamic Earth" is from the creators of the ever-popular "Black Holes" show and Liam Neeson narrates this new show as well. "Dynamic Earth" explores the inner workings of Earth's climate system. With visualizations based on satellite monitoring data and advanced supercomputer simulations, this cutting-edge production follows a trail of energy that flows from the Sun into the interlocking systems that shape our climate: the atmosphere, oceans, and the biosphere. Audiences will ride along on swirling ocean and wind currents, dive into the heart of a monster hurricane, come face-to-face with sharks and gigantic whales, and fly into roiling volcanoes.

A new citizen-science project is starting up called "Moon Mappers". In the coming decade or so (depending on budgets, of course), rovers may roam across the Moon and perhaps humans may join them. In preparation for their explorations, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is gathering high resolution images (and other data) that allow us to plot out areas with scientifically interesting features. Unfortunately, the hundreds of gigabytes of data (sometimes per day!) coming back from this mission can't be analyzed by computers—human eyes and human brains are needed to distinguish craters, boulders, oddly textured terrain, and other features that decorate the lunar surface. The Moon Mappers project at CosmoQuest invites you to be a part of these explorations.

In Bakersfield be sure to check out the evening sky on August 21st. Mars and Saturn and the bright star, Spica, will make a triangle in the west shortly after sunset with Mars at the left point. The triangle will probably just barely be too large to fit within your binoculars. A thin Waxing Crescent Moon just left of Spica will expand the triangle to a gorgeous quadrilateral as shown in the attached chart. The following Saturday (August 25th) is the free public star party hosted by the Kern Astronomical Society at Russo's Books in the Marketplace. By then the Moon will be a couple of days past first quarter so more than half of the Moon will appear to be lit by the Sun (i.e., more than half of the Moon's daylit side will be facing us). The free star party begins shortly after sunset and goes until about 10 PM. The Moon, Mars, Saturn, and other objects such as star clusters and double stars will be on the list of things to check out through the KAS telescopes. See the KAS website for a map to the location.

In the pre-dawn sky, Venus and Jupiter will shine brighter than all of the stars. Venus will be below Jupiter in the east. Look for them in the east starting around 4 AM which is when Venus should be high enough to see easily. Jupiter will rise around 1 AM. Venus is in between the Gemini twins and Jupiter is in between the two horns of Taurus. After 5:15 AM, you might be able to pick out Mercury at the center of Cancer. Mercury will fall quickly toward the Sun on our sky in the last week of August. A star chart for the early morning sky is posted in the Night Sky section of the Planetarium's website.

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