Bakersfield Night Sky - January 7, 2012

Bakersfield Night Sky - January 7, 2012
By Nick Strobel

Happy New Year! A sure sign of my age is that I can't believe how fast time has flown on by. I can remember all the worries that accompanied the turning of the calendar to the year 2000 and how that was going to bring about the downfall of civilization. Well, now 2012 is here and there are the same sorts of worries as we head toward the winter solstice in December. Added to that is a presidential election along with the congressional elections and I'm sure we're going to hear a whole bunch more apocalyptic sort of things being said regardless of who wins. When my students ask about the 2012 end-of-the year stuff, I tell them that they do need to finish their college studies because the world, including human civilization, will continue on just fine after December 21st. Also, I point them to my webpage about answers to the 2012 hype posted on the Planetarium's website. One nice thing about astronomy is that you get some perspective with the bigger picture.

Last year saw a number of launches of new spacecraft that will explore the solar system and beyond. A couple of those missions are reaching their destination this year. The GRAIL mission to map the gravity field of the Moon arrived on the first day of this year. It uses two spacecraft in very precisely-determined orbits to find the slight gravity lumps as one spacecraft moves slightly ahead or behind the other when they pass over a place of slightly greater mass than the uniform average. The two spacecraft use a part of the microwave band (the Ka-band) to very accurately measure the distances between them. GRAIL also has the MoonKam—a camera whose image targets will be chosen by middle school students as part of the Sally Ride Science foundation in collaboration with undergraduate students at the UC San Diego. The Mars Science Laboratory rover named Curiosity will land on Mars on August 6th. It will be by far the largest and most sophisticated craft to have landed on Mars.

Just one space exploration mission is scheduled for launch this year: NuSTAR which will launch in March 2012. It will be the first telescope to focus and image the sky at very high energy X-rays and have more than 100 times greater sensitivity than previous spacecraft that have observed at those very short wavelengths (much shorter than what Chandra and XMM Newton are observing now). It is going to explore black holes and the newly-created elements from recent supernovae. The year 2012 is going to be the year of non-government spacecraft. The Dragon space capsule from SpaceX will be the first private company vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. That should happen in February. The Cygnus capsule from Orbital Sciences Corp. will dock with ISS in May. The drop test of the Dream Chaser space plane from Sierra Nevada Corp. will happen during the summer. The Dream Chaser will be lofted to a high altitude by Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo airplane and then dropped to test how it glides to a landing at either Edwards Air Force Base or White Sands Missile Range. Virgin Galactic plans to start flying space tourists on sub-orbital rides this year at the bargain basement prices of just $200,000 each. The non-profit Planetary Society will test its LightSail-1 craft that will use a large solar sail to propel a spacecraft on sunlight alone. Sunlight pushing on 32 square meters of mylar will provide the propulsion for the small spacecraft attached to the solar sail. The non-governmental Planetary Society is the largest space interest group in the world. It is dedicated to exploring the solar system and seeking life beyond Earth. LightSail-1 will test the solar sail mechanics and the Planetary Society hopes to follow it with larger versions for interplanetary missions. The year 2012 will also be the year when the Chinese become their own spacefaring country using all their own equipment when Chinese astronauts fly to their space lab, Tiangong-1. The space lab was launched in 2011 and robotic spacecraft docked with it later in the year.

The first major astronomical event this year will be an annular solar eclipse on May 20, 2012. In such an eclipse the New Moon is lined up with the Sun but it is too far away from the Earth to totally cover up the Sun so there will be an annulus of the Sun visible around the dark Moon. There is enough sunlight reaching the location on the Earth that it does not get dark. Eureka, Redding, Chico, Reno, and Carson City will be able to see the annular eclipse with the Moon covering the central 93.6% of the Sun in the late afternoon. In Bakersfield we will see 87% of the Sun covered and the Moon will be definitely above the center of the Sun. The next major astronomy event will be the partial lunar eclipse two weeks later on the early morning of June 4th. We will see the bottom part of the Moon pass through the umbra (darkest part) of the Earth's shadow. The following day will be the very rare transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. The next Venus transit will be in December of 2117. The last major astronomical event will be the total solar eclipse on November 13th/14th but you'll need to be in northern Australia or in the south Pacific to see it. Hotels and cruise ships are already filling up for that one.

Of more immediate concern is brilliant Venus and Jupiter in our evening sky tonight. At 6 PM Venus will be low in the southwest on the eastern edge of Capricornus and Jupiter will be due South just left of the faint stars of Pisces. See the first star chart below for this view. Over these next several weeks you will see Venus catch up to Jupiter for their mid-March conjunction. Both Jupiter and Venus will be the brightest "stars" in the night sky, far brighter than the stars of Orion that will be rising in the east at 6 PM this evening. The almost full Waxing Gibbous Moon will be just left of Orion at the feet of Gemini. Mars will become visible in the east at about 10:30 PM. It will be south of Denebola at the tail of Leo (see the second chart below). Saturn will become visible in the east at about 1:30 AM to the lower left of Spica in Virgo. Mercury may be just barely visible against the glare of the pre-dawn twilight early Sunday morning about half an hour before sunrise but the following mornings will probably be too difficult to see Mercury. The third chart below shows the view half an hour before sunrise.

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