Bakersfield Night Sky - August 5, 2017

Bakersfield Night Sky - August 5, 2017

By Nick Strobel

The great American eclipse of 2017 is now two weeks away. On August 21, the new moon will come exactly between Earth and the sun and its shadow will sweep across the United States from the Oregon coast to the South Carolina coast. The narrow strip of total solar eclipse will be just 68 miles wide. Those outside of that narrow strip will see the sun partially covered by the moon.

For us in Bakersfield, a maximum of 67% of the sun will be covered at 10:20 AM The moon begins covering the sun at 9:04 AM and finishes covering the sun at 11:43 AM Take proper precautions to view the sun safely as the moon slides across its surface. See the “Observe the Sun Safely”. The Delano, Holloway-Gonzales, and Arvin Kern Library branches received solar viewing glasses. Contact them to find out how they will distribute them.

Although all the motels near the path of totality are booked, those willing to pitch a tent or drive their RV can still find a viewing place. If you're thinking about traveling, be sure to get to your spot no later than August 20. Places out west will be more available but you'll probably want to avoid Glendo, Wyoming and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

A recent eclipse news story talked about the two solar eclipses that astronaut Buzz Aldrin saw in space. One was when he and Jim Lovell maneuvered their Gemini XII spacecraft to get the moon to block the sun for an eight-second eclipse in November 1966 and another with Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Prior to going into orbit around the moon, they went behind the moon. They managed to get one good image of the solar corona glowing on one side of the black moon. Being so close to the moon, the moon appeared much larger than the sun, so it wasn't possible to see the solar corona all the way around the moon like we see from Earth's surface. Aldrin will be somewhere in Idaho.

Tomorrow, August 6, marks the fifth anniversary of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity landing in Gale Crater on Mars. Curiosity continues its exploration as it heads up the slopes of Mount Sharp. Last week I read of a news story that connects Mars and the solar eclipse. A team led by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University will sending more than 50 high-altitude balloons up into the stratosphere to livestream the solar eclipse on August 21. An experiment on 34 of the balloons called MicroStrat will simulate life's ability to survive Mars-like conditions.

Each balloon team will be provided two small metal cards with harmless but tough bacteria dried onto their surfaces. One metal card will go up into the stratosphere and the other will stay on the ground. After the flight, comparisons will be made between the two metal cards to see the consequences of Mars-like conditions on microbes.

The surface air pressure on Mars is about 100 times less than Earth's and there's no ultraviolet shielding from an ozone layer. Conditions in our stratosphere are more like those on Mars's surface. During the eclipse, the conditions will be even more Mars-like: even colder temperature and the moon will block some of the ultraviolet light to drop the ultraviolet levels to what Mars has at its farther distance from the sun. See for more about this project and links to the livestream. 

Tonight the Summer Triangle will be high up in the evening sky. The Summer Triangle is made of the brightest stars in three constellations, Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Deneb is at the tail of Cygnus. Cygnus looks like a cross flying down the length of the faint glow the Milky Way. Vega is at the side of Lyra. Four faint stars making a small slanted rectangle next to Vega make up the strings of Lyra. Altair is in the middle of the neck of the eagle Aquila. Two fainter stars are on either side of Altair to make an easy-to-see line.

Jupiter blazes away among the stars of Virgo in the southwest in the evening. In the south above the stars of Scorpius is Saturn. Both planets have spacecraft orbiting them in eccentric polar orbits that carry them within a few thousand miles of the cloud tops. The one orbiting Saturn, Cassini, has about one month left before it crashes into Saturn. In its dives between the rings and the cloud tops, Cassini has performed flawlessly and returned amazing data that the Cassini team will be analyzing for years to come. 

The night of August 11-12 is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Meteor showers are the result of 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 and hit our atmosphere at 37 miles per second. Meteors that are not part of meteor showers are small rocks chipped off of asteroids.

Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website