Bakersfield Night Sky - May 5, 2018

Bakersfield Night Sky - May 5, 2018
By Nick Strobel

If everything went according to plan, we should have witnessed the first interplanetary mission launch from the west coast this morning. The Mars InSight mission was scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 4:05 AM Pacific Time. If some glitch prevented launch this morning, NASA will have until June 8 to launch it. InSight will be a lander (not a rover) designed to probe the interior of Mars, the first mission to do so. It will arrive at Mars in late November and operate over a little more than 1 Mars year or 728 Earth days.

InSight will probe the interior of Mars the same way geologists probe the interior of Earth: use a seismometer, heat probe, and careful measurements of the wobble of its rotation. The seismometer will measure vibrations from any marsquakes that might still be happening as well as from meteorite impacts. The heat probe will bore down about 16 feet into the ground to measure how well heat conducts at different depths. That 16 feet will be enough to tell us how heat flows inside Mars and whether or not Mars really is formed of the same material as Earth and its moon. A radio science experiment will measure the wobble of Mars' spin by very precise tracking of InSight's location on Mars. How much Mars' interior sloshes about will tell us about its composition and how much is still molten. If you compare how a raw egg spins on your countertop with how a hard boiled egg spins, you'll see that the sloshing liquid in the raw egg really affects how it spins. All three instruments working together will give us the best insight into Mars' interior. By the way, “InSight” stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport” and, yes, the “e” of exploration is ignored and just the “I” and “S” are uppercase (cutting edge missions get to bend the rules of acronyms).

Last week the Gaia team released a HUGE trove of data on the positions and brightnesses for almost 1.7 billion stars, 1.3 billion of which we also have distances to give a 3D map of a significant chunk of the Milky Way. Previous  surveys had numbers that measured just a few million—Gaia's database is about 1000 times larger. Over 7 million of the stars have their full 3D velocities measured as well, so we can map out the dynamics of the galaxy. The data release also includes objects at the extremes of distance: over 14,000 asteroids in our solar system and more than 500,000 quasars far outside the galaxy, billions of light years away. This and future data releases through 2022 will keep astronomers happy for the next several decades (at least) as they mine the database (and making astronomers happy is a good and right thing to do).

In tonight's sky the waning gibbous moon rises a little after 1 AM right next to Mars among the stars of Sagittarius. Before the moon washes out much of the sky, enjoy the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, on nearly opposite sides of the sky. Venus will be the first star-like object you see after sunset. It'll be that bright thing in the western sky. It is now next to the right horn of Taurus. By the latter part of the month it will have reached the feet of Gemini. At 9 PM, Jupiter will be the same altitude as Venus but off in the southeast among the dim stars of Libra.

By 12:15 AM, Saturn will be high enough to see above the lid of the Teacup part of Sagittarius. The Eta Aquariid meteor shower peaks in the early morning but that gibbous moon is going wash all but the brightest meteors. On the evening of May 17, look for a thin waxing crescent moon near Venus. Two nights later will be the free public KAS star party at Barnes & Noble.

If you want to listen to some heavenly music, then come to the CSUB University Singers & Chamber Singers choir concert on Tuesday, May 8, at 7:30 PM at First Congregational Church on the corner of Real Rd and Stockdale. I sing with the tenors in University Singers and the music will be beautiful.

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 for how.

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