Bakersfield Night Sky - June 2, 2018

Bakersfield Night Sky - June 2, 2018
By Nick Strobel

The leading astronomy news coming through my news feed this past week had to do with two extremely large telescope projects, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope. The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will be built at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The GMT will made of six 8.4-meter mirrors surrounding a central 8.4-meter mirror to act as a 24.5-meter diameter telescope. The Thirty Meter Telescope will be built at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii and it will be made of 492 small, 1.4-meter hexagonal pieces, each individually adjustable.

These two telescope projects have been in the works for nearly two decades but they would probably already have been built if the two organizations had worked together to secure funding. Well, it looks like the GMT and the TMT organizations have finally realized that their kindergarten teachers were correct and that it's better to work together. They approved a joint plan that will allow astronomers from any institution to use the telescopes, instead of just ones from institutions that had provided funding for the individual projects. The GMT and TMT teams hope that they'll be able to get the entire U.S. research astronomy community behind both projects if they can show how each telescope will complement the other: the GMT will be able to view the southern sky and the TMT the northern sky with a bit of overlap.

On the same day that the GMT and TMT organizations agreed to work together, another large telescope project, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), got a boost in funding from the U.S. House of Representatives.  Representative John Culberson, chair of the appropriations sub-panel on commerce, justice, and science got his committee to agree to nearly triple the amount the National Science Foundation (NSF) had asked for the LSST as a way to speed up the project and lock in costs. The LSST has a 8.4-meter mirror and it will use a 3.2-gigapixel digital camera to survey the entire sky in only three days and do this surveying for ten years. It will gather 15 terabytes of imaging data every night. It will do this from a location on the Cerro Pachon ridge in north-central Chile.

Besides the impressive statistics of the LSST, what caught my attention was Culberson's statement that seems to show that at least some people in Congress “get it” about the proper role of science in decision-making. He said that he thinks “it's critical to protect NSF—and the space program and scientific inquiry in general—from political pressure from either the right or the left. Science should never be politicized. Scientists should always follow the facts, and as a policymaker, I need accurate, unbiased data to make good decisions.” Yes! One thing I tell my students is that in the end mother nature has the final veto power on whatever ideas or beliefs we have about how the physical world should work. Even with our cultural and political biases, science does make us confront the real world—reality kicks back.

One last astronomy news item is about a pulsar-brown dwarf system 6500 light years away. A pulsar is the core remnant of a massive star that died in an explosive death called a supernova. The core remnant is an ultra-compact ball of neutrons just several miles across and produces a beam of radio waves from its magnetic poles. We see the pulsar flash very quickly because it is spinning very fast and the radio beam flashes over us like a lighthouse beam does for ships at sea. A brown dwarf is a failed star—intermediate between a large planet and a small star.

In the system of this news item, the pulsar and brown dwarf are very close together, orbiting each other in just nine hours. The pulsar is blasting out a wind of charged particles that is whittling away the brown dwarf to create a region of plasma around the brown dwarf. Much like water waves can concentrate sunlight into rippling patterns on the shoreline, this plasma can do the same thing with the pulsar's radio beams. Even better, is that this plasma lensing enables us to see differences between the north and south magnetic poles that are just a few miles apart from a distance of 6500 light years. That's like resolving a flea on the surface of Pluto from Earth. That goes down in my book as “pretty darn good!”

In our evening sky Venus is nearing the stars at the heads of Gemini, Pollux and Castor. On June 10, all three will be lined up and equidistant from each other with Venus the bright one on the left. Jupiter continues to retrograde backwards and is now at the top of the balance scales of Libra. Tonight you'll see Mars and the waxing gibbous moon rising together shortly after midnight. On June 16, a thin waxing crescent moon will be visible after sunset in the west near Venus with the Beehive Cluster at the heart of Cancer almost exactly midway between them.

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