Bakersfield Night Sky - January 5, 2013

Photo of Planetarium

By Nick Strobel

During my Christmas break, I was driving north on the Mayan calendar new baktun and driving back south on our Gregorian calendar new year. The world kept on going in normal fashion with the start of each: good times with family and friends and frustration over the same Washington gridlock.

I haven't heard what is going to be the next end-of-the-world craze fanned by social media, but that is another thing I'm sure will develop soon. However, let's stick with reality.

What space missions will we be hearing about in 2013 and what sort of astronomical events are going to take place?

The latest update in the Landsat series of earth-observing satellites will launch in February. It will join two other aging Landsat satellites to monitor and study the human impact on the resources of a planet with seven billion people and counting.

February might also see the launch of the IRIS mission that will study how solar material moves, gathers energy, and heats up as it travels through the sun's lower atmosphere.

Tracking how material and energy move through this region is a crucial part of understanding the dynamics of the sun. With that understanding, we will be able to explain what causes the ejection of solar material including the huge eruptions called coronal mass ejections that can damage our satellites and power grid.

Associated with IRIS is the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition in which teams from colleges and universities design, build, and test optical instruments to answer questions about the Sun or use sunlight to investigate some science question about the Earth. Although at first glance it looks like the competition has a narrow goal of spectroscopy of the Sun, the real goal is to train future scientists and engineers in how to solve problems as a team by working on a real-world science question.

Most of the students who participate will probably not go into space science, but the experience gained and techniques developed from the competition will be invaluable in whatever future science and engineering problems we'll need them to solve for us.

Reading any newspaper shows that we're certainly going to need a lot of home-grown expertise in STEM fields for the future challenges in this county and state and, heck, in our inter-connected world. For the first time, Bakersfield College will participate in the competition and we're starting in a big way with not just one team but three teams.

The teams have received NASA mini-grants to build the spectrographs within the set budget of the mini-grant but the students are going to need help in travel costs to the competition judging event in May.

If you or your company would like to encourage these future Bakersfield scientists and engineers, please contact the Bakersfield College Foundation with whatever financial help you would like to provide (it'll even be tax-deductible).

The International Space Station will have new crews in March and May. During the later part of the year we will see the launch of at least two science satellites from other countries.

The European Space Agency's Gaia mission to catalog the positions, motions and other characteristics of a billion stars in our sector of the galaxy will launch in October. India will have a robotic mission to Mars launching in November. NASA's own mission to Mars called MAVEN will also launch in November.

MAVEN will study Mars' upper atmosphere to find out how Mars' atmosphere is leaking away now and what all happened in the past to make it have such a thin atmosphere.

The Mars rover Curiosity will reach its primary target site this year, a three-mile-high layered mound called Mount Sharp, and probe the older layers at its base before climbing up the mound to reach the younger layers above. The other Mars rover, Opportunity, still going strong after 9 years, will continue to explore the large crater Endeavour.

Sometime this year China is expected to send a robotic mission to the Moon. Unfortunately, China is always very secretive about the future details of its space missions but it is sure to trumpet any successes.

Another expected event this year will be an announcement from the Kepler team of the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting in its star's habitable zone.

Kepler finds exoplanets by looking for slight drops in a star's brightness as the exoplanet crosses in front of it. It is the first mission capable of finding Earth-sized planets.

Though the discovery of an “Earth twin” will be big news, it won't be that much of a surprise since Kepler has already proved (1) that it can find planets even smaller than the Earth; (2) that there are indeed rocky planets, and (3) that there are exoplanets in stars habitable zones, so it is just a matter of time when it will find a small rocky planet the size of Earth in a star's habitable zone.

As of now the different exoplanet hunting teams have found eight or nine confirmed exoplanets in their stars' habitable zones, but there are many more candidates in the Kepler pipeline alone that have not yet been confirmed.

The calculation of the habitable zone boundaries does not take into account the effect of planet atmospheres because we do not know the composition and thickness of those exoplanets' atmospheres. Such calculations show that the Earth's temperature would be far below the freezing point of water but the natural greenhouse warming due to our atmosphere has kept our planet comfortably above freezing.

A little greenhouse effect is good but a little too much is bad for humans as my daughters will experience when they have families.

I'm not going to say more about that now because I know that that one aside will generate enough harsh comments on the Californian website's comment section as it is.

A number of special events will grace our skies this year.

The Quadrantid (aka Bootids) meteor shower peaked last night. Later this month on the 21st, a Waxing Gibbous Moon will pass very close to Jupiter - about a fingerwidth at arm's length apart from each other. The Moon and Jupiter won't be this close on our sky again for another thirteen years.

Mercury will be our “evening star” in the middle of February.

Comet PANSTARRS should be bright enough to see without a telescope in the evening during the middle of March. Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter will have a dance switching positions in the evening sky the last week of May.

There will be sensational stories about a “superMoon” in June and the Perseid meteor shower should put on another good show with the Moon setting during the evening hours at the peak on August 12th.

In mid-November, the recently discovered Comet ISON should be quite a sight.

In December, Venus will be our super-bright evening star. In the mid-December, the Geminid meteor shower will be a bit washed out by an almost full Moon.

In tonight's evening sky, Jupiter is the main attraction - but as shown in the first star chart below, the bright stars of Orion and Canis Major will provide some competition for your attention.

Jupiter will already be up in the east next to the head of Taurus before the Sun sets. Jupiter will be due south at about 9:15 PM and Orion will be due south at about 10:30 PM.

A few hours later, the Waning Crescent Moon will be visible in the East among the stars of Virgo starting at about 1:45 AM and Saturn will be first visible about half an hour after that. Venus is falling toward the Sun in our early morning sky and it is now visible starting at just 40 minutes before sunrise and that will shrink to just 15 minutes before sunrise by the end of the month (see the second star chart below).

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.