Bakersfield Night Sky - March 17, 2012

Bakersfield Night Sky - March 17, 2012
By Nick Strobel

Next month's evening show at the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College will be "Two Small Pieces of Glass". It is about telescopes: how they extend our eyesight to see extremely faint things and/or energy from objects outside the visible light band (narrow range of colors detectable by our eyes), the history of the telescope from before Galileo's day to today's research, the effect of the atmosphere on what we see, and current problems in astronomy research that need really large telescope to gather the needed data. Tickets will be available only at the BC Ticket Office.

Next week, on March 22nd the NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) satellite should launch. The mission will use advanced optics and detectors, allowing astronomers to observe the high-energy X-ray sky with much greater sensitivity and clarity than any mission flown to-date. In order to detect X-rays from celestial objects, we need to get well above the shielding effect of our atmosphere. X-rays are blocked by our atmosphere many tens of miles above the surface (good thing too or the X-rays would kill life on the surface). NuSTAR will advance our understanding of how structure in the universe forms and evolves. It will observe some of the hottest, densest and most energetic objects in the universe, including black holes, their high-speed particle jets, ultra-dense neutron stars, supernova remnants, and our sun. The satellite was developed during better economic times. All of NASA expenses amount to just half of one cent for every dollar spent by the federal government. Unfortunately, investment in space exploration is viewed by many as a luxury that we cannot do in hard budget times. However, because of the technology spin-offs that are created from developing ways to explore space, every dollar spent on NASA projects leads to between $6 and $7 back into other areas of the economy from those spin-offs. Furthermore, because pushing the envelope of space exploration requires inventing new things, investment in space exploration creates innovations in science and technology that would bring our economy back into the forefront—since the 1800s, the countries who have embraced innovations in science and technology have led the world in the strength of their economy. Besides the direct economic impacts, innovations in space exploration also lead to improvements in a nation's culture and hopes as a spirit of innovation pervades other aspects of our thought (e.g., "if we solved that very difficult problem, well, maybe we can solve this other very difficult problem").

You don't need a telescope to see the brilliant pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the southwestern sky this evening—see the first chart below. A few days ago they were very close to each other like two shining eyes looking down on us. (To further prove my nerdishness, the sight reminded me of the "Night Terrors" episode in the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Counselor Troi has nightmares of two distant lights talking to her. You would be even more of a nerd than me if you recalled that episode without having to look it up. Sigh!) The two beacons are still close enough to fit within the same field of view of your binoculars. Venus is now the upper point of the pair and they will drift apart as Venus moves towards its greatest distance from the Sun on our sky ("greatest elongation") on March 26th and Jupiter draws closer to the Sun on our sky. Above the Venus-Jupiter pair you'll find the gorgeous Pleiades star cluster in the shoulder of Taurus. To the left of the Pleiades at the top of the one of the points of the "V" making Taurus' head is the yellow-orange eye of Taurus, Aldebaran. Aldebaran is in the last stages of its life so its outer layers have puffed outward to form a giant star about 44 times the diameter of the Sun. If placed in our solar system, Aldebaran would extend out a little more than half-way to the orbit of Mercury. Our Sun will become like Aldebaran several billion years in the future.

To the left of Taurus is winter constellation Orion with the three belt stars lined up in a row at his middle. The three belt stars form a line that, when extended to the left, hits the brightest star in our night sky, Sirius in Canis Major (the big dog = one of Orion's hunting dogs). Sirius is so bright because it is the closest star we can see in the night sky from Bakersfield without a telescope (to see the closest star, Alpha Centauri, you would need to be in the lower half of Mexico or further south) and also because Sirius is putting out 26 times the energy of the Sun.

Turning further left facing East you will find the bright orange-red planet, Mars. Mars will be due east at 7:30 PM. Mars is now below the middle of Leo and it is about half-way in its retrograde loop (backward) path closing in on the bright star Regulus at the end of the Sickle part of Leo—see the second chart below. Mars is now almost 9 degrees away from Regulus and by month's end it will be just 5.5 degrees from Regulus—see the third chart below. In the second week of April Mars and Regulus will be close enough that the two should fit within the same field of view of your binoculars. As Jupiter and Venus are setting at about 10 PM, look toward the East to see Saturn coming up. In a couple of days, spring will officially be here as the Sun crosses the Celestial Equator heading northward.

The Waxing Crescent Moon will provide some nice pictures as it passes by Jupiter on March 25th and Venus the following night. On that night you might just barely get the Moon and the Pleiades in the same view of your binoculars. The Moon will be at First Quarter (so it looks half lit with the lit side on the right) in Gemini on the Pollux side on March 30th. On April 3rd the bright Waxing Gibbous Moon will be below Mars, washing out most of the stars of Leo. Mars should be bright enough to still be visible with that gibbous Moon. The GRAIL mission has now begun science operations mapping the gravity field of the Moon. The twin spacecraft arrived at the Moon in January and spent the next couple of months fine-tuning their orbits and checking out the equipment needed for the super-precise measurements of the spacecraft motions with respect to each other. Mapping the gravity field will enable us to probe the Moon's interior and find out about the Moon's and Earth's formation. GRAIL will spend 82 days in its science phase of the mission. After that we'll see what is the funding situation.

For April put on your calendar the free Astronomy Day at Foothill High School on April 14th. The free event is put on by the Kern Astronomical Society with help from Foothill's astronomy club. Also in April is the start of the monthly public star parties at Russo's Bookstore in the MarketPlace on Saturday, April 28th. The free monthly star parties at Russo's will be on the fourth Saturday of the month from about sunset to 10 PM, April to October.

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