Bakersfield Night Sky - August 6, 2016

Bakersfield Night Sky - August 6, 2016

By Nick Strobel

This weekend is the Dark Sky Festival at Sequoia National Park. With the moon in a waxing crescent phase, it won't be up long to brighten the sky and a thin crescent moon doesn't put out much light anyway. The Kern Astronomical Society will have telescopes set up at Wuksachi Lodge for observing the stars, nebulae, and galaxies tonight. 

Events include presentations by astronauts, kids' activities, model rocket building, special Crystal Cave tours, nature walks, photography presentations, musical performances, and more. The skies of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are truly dark, so you'll be able to see thousands of stars and the Milky Way. The cost to attend the Dark Sky Festival is just the park entrance fee.

A couple of weeks ago I was at another national park with dark skies as well. The North Cascades National Park is over 90% designated wilderness area and the nearest towns are small, so there's not much light pollution to worry about. Stars were bright and profusely sprinkled across the sky and the Milky Way was high overhead when my wife and I went stargazing. Fortunately, there were no wildfires going on while we were there. Last year, a wildfire came very close to burning down one of the beautiful visitor centers in the park. Gorgeous mountains with the highest number of glaciers in a national park in the lower 48 (even more than Glacier National Park) and there is no entrance fee. 

Next Saturday, on August 13th, the Kern Astronomical Society will host a free public star party at Panorama Park near where Linden Avenue meets Panorama Drive. A map is posted on the KAS website. Two nights before is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower but we should still see some bright meteors during the star party, even with the city lights and a waxing gibbous moon. Hopefully, the skies will be clear of smoke!

Meteor showers are the result of the earth running into the dust trail left behind by a comet as it orbits the sun. Most of the pieces are the size of fine grains of sand and travel at several tens of miles per second before burning up a few tens of miles above the surface. The Perseids are from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Other meteors are small rocks chipped off of asteroids through impacts and eventually get pulled in by earth's gravity. 

Speaking of incoming space debris, one of the shows this fall at the William M Thomas Planetarium will be “Incoming!” It is about the debris left over from the formation of the solar system, some of which can strike the Earth. The debris doesn't have to be that big to have a significant effect. The Chelyabinsk asteroid that airburst over Russia three years ago was only about 17 meters across. It produced an explosion equivalent to 500 kilotons of TNT 20 to 30 kilometers above the surface, knocking out windows for many kilometers around and causing many injuries. The asteroid 2012 DA14 that passed by the Earth several hours later would have released the energy equivalent to 2.4 megatons of TNT had it struck the earth.

Narrated by George Takei, “Incoming!” explores the past, present, and future of our solar system and the discoveries we have made sending spacecraft to visit asteroids and comets. “Incoming!” will show what impacts of asteroids and comets can teach us and how scientific advances may allow us to find and track cosmic threats before they reach planet Earth. My Astronomy Notes website also has a detailed description of the nasty effects of an asteroid or comet impact on the earth and how we'll go about deflecting the object if we find it in time.

The recently discovered near-Earth companion (“quasi-satellite”) called 2016 HO3 is between 40 and 100 meters in size. It will not impact the Earth. Its orbit around the sun is nearly the same as ours but a complex gravity interplay between the earth and sun keep the asteroid near the earth between 38 and 100 times the distance of the moon and will do so for at least the next few centuries. See JPL's NEO website for more details about Earth's quasi-satellite.

Another new presentation at the Planetarium will be a show I'll put together about Mars in conjunction with the Cerro Author presentation at Bakersfield College. This year's Cerro Author is Andy Weir who will talk about his book, “The Martian” that was made into a popular movie starring Matt Damon. More details to come in a future column and on the BC website!

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. See the Dark Sky website for more info.


Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website