Bakersfield Night Sky - October 19, 2013

Bakersfield Night Sky - October 19, 2013
By Nick Strobel

During the partial government shutdown it was difficult to learn about what new discoveries have been made since a number of my news feeds tie into NASA sites in one way or the other. NASA has been deemed one of those federal government agencies, along with a host of others that have been listed in the pages of this newspaper, that are "non essential", so many of the websites had "gone dark" or at least were not updated during the shutdown.

One of the things I wanted to check on was the Juno spacecraft that I talked about in my previous column. It flew by the Earth on October 9th in order to get a big gravity boost to fling it outward to Jupiter, arriving there in July 2016. Well, the flyby did happen and the spacecraft was tracked by ground stations but posting of the movie Juno was to make of the Earth-Moon system during the flyby hasn't happened, even on the mission's homepage at the Southwest Research Institute. The movie was to be the first to show Earth spinning on its axis from a distance. Juno did record the movie but was able to make only some of the planned measurements due to some hardware problems that NASA engineers are still trying to figure out. There were no thrusters that needed to be fired as it flew by the Earth, so the hardware problems did not affect the flyby trajectory. After traveling almost a billion miles so far, it was only two kilometers off of its intended path. As part of the flyby there was also a coordinated effort with amateur radio operators to say "Hi" to Juno in a morse code that could be picked up by the radio & plasma wave experiment, called Waves, if enough people participated. We expect to see more results posted from the flyby this coming week.

One good piece of news is that the next Mars orbiter mission called MAVEN (for "Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN") will launch in November despite the federal government shutdown. If it had missed its launch window of November 18th to December 7th, the mission would have had to wait until 2016. Because spacecraft spend most of their flight time coasting from one planet to the next (they don't have unlimited fuel supply like you see in science fiction films), we have to wait until just the right alignment of the planets happens so that the Earth is in the right position at launch and the planet will be at the proper point in its orbit at exactly the right time to greet the spacecraft when it reaches the planet's orbit. MAVEN was granted the exemption from the shutdown because it will act as the new communications relay between the Mars rovers and Earth. The other relays are Mars Odyssey, launched in 2001, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, that are both past their nominal mission lifetime. 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. To find out about MAVEN from a non-NASA website, see the mission website at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In tonight's evening sky, Venus continues to dominate the western sky after sunset until a little after 8 PM. If you know right where to look with binoculars you might be able to spot Mercury and Saturn but they are very low in the sky and set within half an hour after sunset. Venus is still in Scorpius but it has moved past the red-orange star at the heart of Scorpius, the supergiant Antares. The Moon rises up soon after sunset at one day after Full Moon, so in the early evening you'll be able to see the two brightest nighttime objects on opposite sides of the sky. By the night of the Bakersfield College Centennial Gala on Friday, the Moon will be almost at Third Quarter phase rising at about 11 PM in the constellation of Gemini. Tonight as the almost full Moon is rising shortly after sunset, look high overhead for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle: Deneb at the tail of Cygnus the swan, Vega at the base of Lyra the little harp, and Altair at the neck of Aquila the eagle. See the second star chart below for the evening sky.

Jupiter is now getting high enough in the east to see a little before midnight. It continues to inch ever so slowly past the stars of Gemini. It is just past the diagonal line that make up the twin named Pollux at the left side of Gemini. Mars is high enough to see easily in the east by about 3:15 AM. It has moved past the bright star, Regulus, which is at the end of the backward question mark ("the Sickle") part of Leo. By the time Mars is rising, Jupiter will be high up in the southeastern sky with Gemini. Two weekends ago, the Kern Astronomical Society had a dark sky weekend camping trip at Panamint Springs, just west of Death Valley. Mars was to the right of Regulus at that time but the extra dark sky right next to Mars was the subject of special attention because that was where Comet ISON was supposed to be. Several club members managed to catch a glimpse of Comet ISON just a little left of Mars at that time. I say a "glimpse" because it was just barely visible in even the large telescopes they brought for the weekend. Hard to believe that that faint fuzzy thing has been causing quite a sensation in the astronomy news media. Maybe it will still amount to something by Thanksgiving. The brightness changes of comets coming from the Oort Cloud for the first time are even harder to predict than when the Democrats and Republicans will come up with a budget deal. At the beginning of the month, Comet ISON passed very close to Mars and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Curiosity rover were tasked to observe it so we might have a better idea of what to expect from the comet in late November. Now that the shutdown is over, we can look forward to seeing the results of their observations of Comet ISON soon.

In the pre-dawn hours you will be able to see the brilliant stars of the winter sky: the stars of Orion with Taurus above him and Canis Major and Canis Minor to the right of Orion. Orion will already be due south by 4:45 AM. The first star chart below shows the sky for a little later than that at 5:30 AM when Jupiter is high overhead almost due south and Mars is a third of the way up in the eastern sky.

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