Bakersfield Night Sky - July 18, 2021

Bakersfield Night Sky — July 18, 2021
By Nick Strobel

Hopefully, by the time this appears in print, the Hubble Space Telescope will be working again. It was quite possible that the switch over to the back up systems was to happen this past week in response to the problem with the payload computer (the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter—CU/SDF) which sends and formats commands and data. The rest of the telescope and science instruments are working fine but the CU/SDF is the critical link between sending commands to and getting data from those science instruments. 

The servicing mission in 2009 was the last one possible for Hubble. That mission included a swap out of the previous module that included the CU/SDF. At the time, we were hoping to get a few more years out of Hubble. Well, we got an additional 600,000 observations over the next twelve years to rack up over 1.5 million observations during its 31-year lifetime. So far. Please, so far!

Space tourism took a big step last weekend with the successful launch of four people to the edge of space by Virgin Galactic, including the company's owner, Sir Richard Branson. They got up to almost 54 miles above the surface, clearing the 50-mile threshold to be considered astronauts by the United States. 

Defining where space begins is actually an arbitrary boundary because Earth's atmosphere extends out to about 600 miles, though at least 90% of Earth's atmosphere gas is found in the bottom 10 miles troposphere where our weather happens. The point where there's not enough gas to support a flying vessel at suborbital speeds is about 100 kilometers (62 miles). The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) which keeps track of international standards and records in astronautics and aeronautics uses the 100 kilometer figure for the space boundary. NASA Mission Control sets the boundary at 76 miles because below that is where atmospheric drag becomes noticeable for circular orbits. However, NASA, along with the FAA, the US Air Force, and NOAA will grant astronaut wings to those getting above 50 miles which agrees with the 2018 analysis of 43,000 spacecraft orbits by Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. That analysis included satellites with very elliptical orbits. The International Space Station orbits at about 250 miles above the surface and the Hubble Space Telescope orbits 340 miles above the surface.

Virgin Galactic is hoping to start launching customers to space in 2022 for “just” $250,000. I've thought about selling my house to purchase a ticket but since my wife proofreads my columns before I send them to the Californian, I must clarify that it was a fleeting thought that shall not be entertained again. I swear!

Jeff Bezos of Amazon fortune is scheduled to launch himself to space on July 20 via his space company, Blue Origin. He's charging a bit more for the first seat on Blue Origin's New Shepherd spacecraft—$23 million. Just a tad outside of my price range. I wonder, though, would you get a discount if you sign up for Amazon Prime?

The rest of us mere mortals will have to content ourselves with viewing the beautiful night sky from the surface. In the evening, you'll see brilliant Venus low in the west after sunset, easily outshining every other star. When the sky gets a little darker, you'll see the stars of Leo come out above Venus. Mars will be below Venus (see the star chart below). By the evening of July 29, Venus will be below the middle of Leo and Mars will be right next to Leo's brightest star at the base of the Sickle, Regulus. Regulus will be the brighter one of the pair and they'll be about a pinky width at arm's length apart from each other. 

The moon was at first quarter phase yesterday. It will be at full phase on July 23 and reach third (or last) quarter on July 31. Tonight the moon will be among the stars of Libra. To the east (left) of it, the stars of Scorpio make their distinctive curve in the southern sky. Further east is the Teapot part of Sagittarius with its spout just below the direction to the center of the Milky Way. Because we're looking toward the center of our home galaxy during July, all sorts of globular clusters, open clusters, emission nebulae and planetary nebulae are there for the viewing with a good pair of binoculars or a telescope.

Saturn becomes visible at about 9:20 PM in the middle of Capricornus. Brighter Jupiter, at the edge of the dim stars of Aquarius, is visible after 10:30 PM On the night of July 24, a waning gibbous (one day past full phase), will be equidistant between the two giant planets. Over the following months, Jupiter and Saturn will rise earlier and earlier, so hopefully, we'll be able to view them when the Kern Astronomical Society starts up its public star parties again in September.

The more people we can get vaccinated, the less evolutionary playground we give the COVID-19 virus to innovate and make new variants, so check out for the clinic closest to you and please continue wearing a mask when with large groups in enclosed spaces!

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

Late July 2021 at 10:30 PM looking south-southeast and inset at 8:15 PM looking west