Bakersfield Night Sky - January 2, 2016

Bakersfield Night Sky - January 2, 2016
By Nick Strobel

Happy New Year and Happy Perihelion Day! Today at 3 PM the Earth will be at its closest distance to the Sun, a mere 91.4 million miles. Six months later, on Independence Day the Earth will be at its farthest distance of 94.5 million miles, making the Earth's orbit eccentricity be a nearly circular value of 0.0167 (orbit eccentricities range between 0 for a circle and 1 for a parabolic orbit). Venus' and Neptune's orbits are more circular than the Earth's but all of the planets' orbits are nearly perfect circles which is why it was so hard for us to figure out that their orbits were actually elliptical (thanks to Johannes Kepler with help from Tycho Brahe). 

Next week, the spring schedule of planetarium shows will be posted on the William M Thomas Planetarium's website.

In tonight's sky, the planets won't become visible until about 11 PM with Jupiter. Although, Mercury is above the horizon shortly after sunset at the beginning of the year, it will probably be lost in the Bakersfield haze layer at less than a fist width at arm's length in the southwest. Orion will be rising at sunset and by 7:30 PM, the brilliant star of Canis Major, Sirius, should be up high enough in the east to see.

At 6 AM, Jupiter will be high in the south. By then Saturn will be up high enough to see low in the southeast above the orange-red heart of Scorpius, the star Antares. However, the thing you'll notice first in the southeast is super-bright Venus at the head of Scorpius. Venus is closing in on Saturn and by next Saturday morning, your pinky at arm's length should be able to cover up both of them. In between Venus and Jupiter early tomorrow morning, a Waning Crescent Moon will make a triangle with orange-red Mars and the blue-white star Spica at the base. On the morning of January 6th, a much thinner crescent Moon will be just above the Venus-Saturn pair. 

The attached star chart also shows the position of Comet Catalina on several mornings. Binoculars will probably be needed to view it. The comet passes closest to Earth on January 12th at 66.9 million miles. Tomorrow night at 11 PM to 2 AM, those with clear skies might be able to spot some meteors from the Quadrantid meteor shower. They appear to radiate out of a point between Bootes and Draco.

In 2016 notable sky events will include two solar eclipses and one close conjunction of the two brightest planets. On March 9, those in part of central Indonesia, southern Borneo and the Pacific Ocean will be able to view a total solar eclipse that will last up to four minutes in some locations. On August 27th will be a very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter low in the west shortly after sunset. A few days later on September 1st, those in central Africa, Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean will see an annular solar eclipse lasting up to 3 minutes in some locations. Links to maps of the eclipse paths and lengths are available on NASA's Eclipse Website .

In space exploration news, the Earth-observing Jason-3 mission is scheduled to launch on January 17th. Jason 3 will measure ocean surface topography to aid in ocean circulation and climate change research. Its predecessor Jason-2 has been keeping track of the development of this year's El Nino. Details about it are available at . On February 12th, Japan will launch the Astro-H X-ray observatory. Astro-H will observe the X-ray universe, studying objects such as supernova explosions, supermassive black holes, and galaxy clusters. A month later, on March 14th, the European Space Agency will launch its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander for a seven-month trip to Mars, arriving in October. The mission will make improved measurements of trace gases in the Martian atmosphere, such as methane, which could be an indicator of biological activity. The Schiaparelli lander is primarily designed to test critical controlled landing technology for future landers. Schiaparelli is expected to survive on the surface of Mars for a short time by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A starting point overview of both crafts with links to further details is available at the European Space Agency website. The planned launch of the NASA InSight mission to Mars in March has been postponed due to a leaky instrument that couldn't be fixed in time for this launch window. They will have to wait 26 months for the next launch window when the Earth and Mars are properly positioned in their orbits.

On July 4th, the Juno spacecraft will go into a polar orbit around Jupiter for twenty months. The polar orbit will enable Juno to map all of Jupiter's atmosphere. Juno will determine the interior structure of Jupiter by precisely measuring the gravity field. Juno will also be able to finally determine how much water is in Jupiter's atmosphere, which will tell us not only about the formation of Jupiter but the rest of the solar system, including Earth, as well. More information about Juno is posted at the Mission Juno website.

Finally, on September 3rd, the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will launch on a several-year mission to asteroid Bennu. It will arrive in 2018 to collect surface samples for return to Earth in 2023. Deputy Principal Investigator Edward Beshore describes why a sample-return mission is so valuable: "By bringing this material back to Earth, we can do a far more thorough analysis than we can with instruments on a spacecraft, because of practical limits on the size, mass, and energy consumption of what can be flown. We will also set aside returned materials for future generations to study with instruments and capabilities we can't even imagine now."

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.

Enjoy watching the sky!

Nick Strobel
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website