Bakersfield Night Sky - February 7, 2015

Bakersfield Night Sky - February 7, 2015
By Nick Strobel

Thanks to an increase of Chevron's annual support of Bakersfield College's STEM program, the William M Thomas Planetarium will be offering additional shows during the school year. This enhancement includes two new shows this spring semester, both with a geology theme. A special Chevron-sponsored evening on March 5th will bring "Supervolcanoes" to the dome. Get tickets from the Bakersfield College Ticket Office website. Supervolcanoes are huge volcanic eruptions that are extremely rare with a global impact lasting many years. Narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, the Supervolcanoes show describes eruptions that release many thousands of times more energy, lava, and ash than Mt St Helens did in 1980 or Mt Pinitubo did in 1991. One example is the eruption of Toba 74,000 years ago and another is the series of mega-eruptions in Siberia that led to the "Great Dying" at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago, when over 70% of the species on land and over 90% of the species in the oceans went extinct. A possible future eruption could happen within one of our most popular national parks, Yellowstone. Yellowstone has a caldera over 50 miles across in which we find the geysers such as Old Faithful, hot springs, and Yellowstone River and Falls. 

Later in March will be the popular Black Holes show. On April 16th, we'll have another Chevron-funded geology-theme show "Earthquake" produced by the California Academy of Sciences. Narrated by Benjamin Bratt the show will begin with a scientific visualization of the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. The show will look at other places on the Earth where the crustal plates bump into each other with accurate scientific visualizations of what's happening below the surface. The show will end with a look at the modern building strategies used to keep us safe. The following week will be a look at our atmosphere with "Dynamic Earth". All shows include a tour of the evening sky using the Goto Chronos star projector. See the William M Thomas Planetarium's website for more about the shows and links to purchasing tickets online through Vallitix.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft launched last Saturday to begin its three-year mission to measure soil moisture and the freeze-thaw state of all regions of land on the globe. The SMAP mission will improve our understanding of all of the intricacies of how water moves about the globe and is taken up in the soil and in the plants we eat or feed the animals we eat. SMAP's measurements will enable us to understand the processes that link the terrestrial water, energy, and carbon cycles; enhance weather and regional climate forecasting skills; and develop improved flood prediction and drought monitoring capabilities. 

One nice SMAP article I read used the analogy of cogs in a fine watch to describe the connection between soil moisture and the fundamental Earth cycles of energy and carbon. Some cogs might be very tiny but are still essential to smooth running of the system. Soil moisture is a tiny cog that links the water cycle to the energy cycle and the carbon cycle. Evaporating soil moisture is the main way that land releases the solar energy it absorbed during the day. In fact evaporation of soil moisture gets rid of almost half of the solar energy hitting the land.

Soil moisture is what enables plants to grow. Plants take in water through their roots and use it for photosynthesis. Some water is released in photosynthesis as plants "transpire" (sweat) onto their leaves and that water evaporates. Plants also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. That absorption of carbon dioxide by plants is pretty much the only natural way for carbon to be removed from the atmosphere over the land in the short term. The tiny cog of soil moisture is what enables plants to do this.

SMAP is the last of the five NASA Earth science missions launched in the past year. All of the Earth science missions will give us a global perspective of many of the cycles that make the current Earth such a nice place for humans to live. Not only do we get a global perspective from space, the space missions also give us a uniform, calibrated data set and we can see how the entire system changes over time. 

In today's changing climate, some cycles are spinning faster or wobbling more than they used to. Now, I'm going to go a bit further than what the U.S. Senate was willing to go with my statement that humans are playing the major role in changing those cycles. On NPR I heard one feedback comment from a listener about a story on the changing climate that denied any role of humans in the changing climate with a belief I've heard expressed in other circles in the past few years. The belief is that only God knows the reasons for the changing climate and that only God can change the climate. That strikes me as just a bit medieval.

Just a few centuries ago the world's population was just a few hundred million but at the beginning of the 21st century, there are seven BILLION people on this planet and it will be nine billion by 2050. Seven billion of any large organism can have an effect on the surface biosphere of Earth. If that large organism is a post-industrial revolution human, then the effect will be much greater, since we consume a disproportionately large amount of resources than do other organisms on this planet. 

In answer to "only God knows", it is my belief that our curiosity about our home planet and the cosmos and the ability to rationally figure out how it works is a God-given gift. Furthermore, that gift of curiosity and rational, abstract reasoning ability is given to us because we are tasked with taking care of the planet. The gift is given so that we CAN take care of it.

Scientists with a religious or spiritual sensibility strive to understand the world God said was good as a way to worship the world's creator: to love God and to love all those who God loves. When we pollute the Earth or mess up the natural balances God created for all to have clean, abundant water and food through our ignorance or greed, we violate core principles in many of the world's faiths (called "commandments" in the scriptures). In order to figure out how we can live responsibly within this creation, we have developed ways to figure out many of the rules of nature, created by God, that make this wonderful world such a nice place to live for us and those generations that follow us.

Switching gears to the opposite end of space exploration: it looks like the much-heralded discovery last March of gravitational waves from the first fraction of a second after the start of the expansion of the universe did not pan out. The results from the most thorough, complete study of the interstellar dust in the Milky Way show that what the BICEP2 team thought was the signal of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background from the early years of the universe can be explained as being due to microwave emission from the interstellar dust in our galaxy contaminating cosmic microwave background. There may be a signal of gravitational waves from the super-early epoch in the universe's history called "Inflation" but it is a much lower level than originally thought. 

For the March 2014 announcement, the BICEP2 team used an older, less accurate model of the galaxy's dust distribution. The ground-based BICEP2 experiment collected data on one patch of the cosmic microwave background at only one microwave frequency. They had to make some assumptions on the nature of the contamination effect of the Milky Way's dust. The ESA Planck satellite collected data of the entire cosmic microwave background at nine microwave channels so the Planck team could separate out the microwave emission of the Milky Way's interstellar dust from the microwave emission coming from the early universe. Although the cosmic microwave background is from a time 380,000 years after the Big Bang, it does have information encoded in it about much earlier times (including the first fraction of a second) if we're clever enough in teasing it out.

The analysis of the Planck data and the BICEP2 data shows that the earlier assumptions of the BICEP2 team were wrong. The BICEP2 team did know that their March 2014 result had to be confirmed by other research teams as part of the error-correction process of science. But still, Darn! No Nobel Prize.

The early evening sky is going to belong to Venus and Mars in February. Tonight you'll see them low in the southwest sky shortly after sunset. Venus will be the first one visible because it is over a hundred times brighter than orange-red Mars. Mars will be about half a fist width at arm's length to the upper right of Venus. Over the next couple of weeks Venus will draw ever closer to Mars until the 21st when they'll be within a pinky width at arm's length apart. Mars may be lost in Venus' glare at that time, so you might need binoculars to see Mars next to Venus.

Jupiter was at opposition yesterday so it was directly opposite to Sun, rising at sunset. Tonight just one night later, Jupiter will still rise at sunset. Depending on how close you are to the mountains to the east of us, you'll probably have to wait until about half an hour after sunset to see it. Jupiter will be up all night long between the stars of Cancer and Leo. The Waning Gibbous Moon will rise shortly before 10 PM tonight and after the midnight on the night of February 10th/11th when it will be at Third (Last) Quarter phase.

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