Bakersfield Night Sky - June 7, 2014

Bakersfield Night Sky - June 7, 2014
By Nick Strobel

Tonight is the free public star party at Panorama Park near where Linden Ave meets Panorama Drive (just west of Greenlawn Mortuary/Cemetery) from 8 to 10 PM, depending on weather. The Kern Astronomical Society will have telescopes set out to look at the Moon, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, star clusters, and other interesting objects. Tonight the Sun sets at about 8:10 PM, so the beginning of the star party time block will be getting the telescopes into position. The sky belongs to everybody and there are a lot of beautiful things up there to see, so the KAS members will be happy to show you what's up there free of charge. Here are some things to check out in tonight's star party.

Shortly after sunset, you can look for Mercury very low in the west. Thirty minutes after sunset, it will be just half a fist-width at arm's length above the horizon, so it will probably be too low to see even through the KAS telescopes. Jupiter will be the very bright "star" higher up in the west. It is now on the left (east) side of Gemini. Up and to the right of Jupiter will be the two brightest stars of Gemini, Pollux and Castor, at the heads of the twins. Through the KAS telescopes you'll see the bands of Jupiter's clouds and three of the largest moons: Ganymede on one side and Europa and Callisto on the other side. Io is there too but you have to look at Jupiter itself since Io will be passing in front of Jupiter. You might be able to spot the shadow of Io on Jupiter's cloudtops.

At 9 PM, the sky will finally be dark enough to see enough of the stars to pick out many of the constellations. In the southwest, will be the backward question mark (sickle) part of Leo with blue-white hot Regulus at its base. Regulus is actually a system of four stars but we see just the brightest of the four without a telescope. A binary system (two stars orbiting each other) orbits Regulus at a distance of about 100 times Pluto's distance from the Sun. The two stars of the binary are both smaller and cooler than the Sun. A very faint dead star called a white dwarf orbits very close to Regulus at about the same distance Mercury orbits the Sun. A white dwarf is the exposed core of a dead star that is no longer undergoing nuclear fusion, so it is slowly cooling off. All that will be left of our Sun about 7 billion years from now will be a white dwarf about the size of the Earth.

Almost due South will be orange-red Mars at the right (west) side of Virgo, just below the double star Porrima. Porrima's stars are twins each hotter than the Sun and take about 169 years to orbit each other. Just a little left of Mars will be the Waxing Gibbous Moon, just a couple days past the first quarter phase. Near the day-night boundary of the Moon, the craters will be especially noticeable because the shadows are longer. A little farther to the left of the Moon will be bright Spica at the left side of Virgo. Spica is actually a binary system with both stars much hotter than the Sun orbiting each other at just a third of the distance between Mercury and the Sun. In fact, there's evidence of three very faint stellar companions orbiting the bright binary pair. Single stars like our Sun with no companion stars are in the minority in the Galaxy.

We used to think that planets could only orbit single stars but the Kepler mission found that stable planet orbits are possible in binary star systems and even complex systems such as quadruple stars. Maybe there are planets orbiting Regulus and Spica and maybe even in their habitable zones. However, because the hotter stars live shorter lives than cooler stars like the Sun, complex multi-cellular life probably won't have time to develop on planets orbiting those stars. On the Earth it took about three billion years for complex life to develop after life got started. Maybe life can be a bit more efficient and shave a billion or so years off that development time but big, hot stars like Regulus and Spica have lifetimes measured in just tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years.

Back to the sky: Mars and Spica form the base of a skinny triangle with yellow-orange Arcturus at the top vertex. It appears to be just a single star but it is a dying star, now bloated outward to be a giant star about 25 times the diameter of the Sun. Placed in our solar system, it would reach about a third of the way out to Mercury's orbit. You can also find Arcturus by extending the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper stars (of the Ursa Major constellation). Arcturus will be the first bright star you come to on that extended arc and then straight down will be Spica.

To the left of Spica will be yellow-white Saturn among the dim stars of Libra in the southwest. Saturn will be brighter than Spica. You will definitely want to check out Saturn in the KAS telescopes. Saturn is presenting its rings to us very well this year. First-time viewers and long-time viewers always enjoy looking at the ringed planet and its attendant moons.

Between Jupiter and Regulus is the Beehive Star Cluster near the heart of Cancer. Rising in the east will be the bowtie shape of the central part of Hercules. The left part of the bowtie has a keystone shape and along one side of that keystone is the globular star cluster, M13. Both the Beehive and M13 are nice sights through the KAS telescopes. A little further north will be the bright white star, Vega in Lyra and blue-hot Deneb at the tail of Cygnus the Swan. There are additional beautiful things to look at through the KAS telescopes but I want to save a little space in this column for three space exploration items.

The SpaceX company unveiled its new Dragon V2 space capsule that will hold up to 7 people. It's going to be more like the rocket crafts we saw in science fiction films growing up in which the craft does a precision-guided soft landing on land rather than dropping from orbit and parachuting somewhere into the ocean or on land. The rocket engine chamber is made in a 3D printer out of the super-alloy, Inconel. Go to the SpaceX website to see the Dragon V2 up close including the inside with swing-down flat-panel touch screens for the controls. Very twenty-first century!

As I write this, I'm watching a live stream of the Earth passing beneath the International Space Station. Follow the link see it. That webpage will also show you a map of the Earth with the ISS's position updated every few seconds. The ISS cruises along at over 17,100 miles per hour at an altitude of about 270 miles. The camera is usually pointed straight down but sometimes it is pointed more sideways so you can see the edge of the Earth with the thin blue layer of the stratosphere of our atmosphere. All of our weather happens in the troposphere layer below that. There's not that much that separates the surface of the Earth from the vacuum of space!

The final space exploration item is the testing of the supersonic parachute system that will be used to land very large payloads, including people, on Mars. As only NASA can, they have come up with a catchy name for the system that just flows ever so effortlessly off the tongue: "Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator". Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so NASA engineers will need to test their system at about 120,000 feet altitude on the Earth. A rocket will boost the test hardware to Mach 4 and then the decelerator will be super-rapidly inflated to slow the hardware enough to deploy the supersonic parachute. The testing window will be in the first half of this month starting June 3rd, so perhaps it has already happened by the time this column appears in print. Go to Jet Propulsion Laboratory website for more about the LDSD.

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