Late March at 6 AM looking southeast

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Tickets go on sale tomorrow for the showing of “MARS One Thousand One” at the William M Thomas Planetarium that will be presented on April 21 at 7:30 PM While it's no longer required to be masked indoors at BC, with the vaccination rate at just 54% in Kern County, you may consider wearing a mask inside the closed space of the Planetarium, especially if you have or are living with someone with a compromised immune system. 

MARS One Thousand One” is the story of one possible mission to Mars. Space reporter Miles O'Brien guides you through the first human mission to Mars — a daring 1000-day mission to fly an international crew to the red planet and return them safely to Earth. MARS 1K1 is a bit longer than the other full-dome films we show at the Planetarium, so the entire presentation, with the tour of the evening night sky using the Goto Chronos star projector that we do with every presentation, will run from 7:30 to 9:00 PM The doors open at 7 PM and are locked when the show begins at 7:30 PM Go to the Planetarium's website at to get the links for information about buying tickets at the BC Ticket Office or online through Vallitix.

Almost 50 years ago was the ending of the human exploration of the moon with the Apollo 16 and 17 missions taking place in 1972. NASA's Artemis program might get humans walking around on the moon in the next three to four years. Mars would be at least ten years after that. The Apollo missions brought back over 800 pounds of rocks and soil for detailed analysis of the composition and geologic history of the moon. In an example of foresight uncommon today, NASA set aside a small amount of the samples for future research 50 years later, with the assumption that future generations of scientists and engineers would have developed more sophisticated analysis techniques and technology. 

The Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis (ANGSA) project at the Johnson Space Center is now working on samples from fifty years ago. An unsealed core sample was opened in 2019 (fifty years after Apollo 11) and this year, the team is examining a pristine, vacuum sealed core sample from Apollo 17. The ANGSA team has been working for a few weeks to very carefully pierce the inner seal of the core sample and slowly gather any lunar gases still inside the sample. Modern mass spectrometry technology will be brought to bear on the tiny amount of gas expected to be inside the sample. The mass spectrometer can precisely determine the mass of unknown molecules and use that data to precisely identify them. The collected gas can be divided into smaller portions and shared with more research teams than what we could do decades ago. The rocks and soil from the core sample will be carefully removed in the next few months.

The techniques used in the ANGSA project will be used to analyze the samples returned by the Artemis missions. Three members of the ARES group, Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher, and Juliane Gross created a great video about the processing of lunar samples in the Apollo Lunar Laboratory and the ANGSA project. It is posted on their YouTube channel.

In a column a couple of years ago, I reported about the possible detection of a black hole relatively nearby in the star system called HR 6819 just 1000 light years away. HR 6819 is a binary system with two bright blue stars much hotter and more massive than the sun. One of the stars appeared to have a 40-day wobble indicating the presence of an unseen companion. The size of the wobble was too large to be made by any other compact object besides a black hole. The discovery was announced in a peer-reviewed journal because the evidence was strong enough and the logic based on the evidence was sound enough to publish it. 

The authors of the paper knew, however, that the discovery was tentative and it would have to be independently confirmed in the second part of the peer review process. The original discovery team and skeptics of the claim joined forces to use the exquisite imaging and spectroscopy equipment at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope facility in Chile. They found that the two blue stars are much closer together than originally thought, so the 40-day wobble could be explained by just the two stars alone. No black hole needed. Sigh! We'll have to travel 5100 light years to get to the nearest black hole.

The season of spring officially began today at 8:33 AM The flowers in my yard have been celebrating several weeks in advance. On Friday morning, March 25, Venus, Mars, and Saturn will form a beautiful triangle in the east-southeast before sunrise. Three mornings later, on March 28, the waning crescent moon will join them. I hope you'll be able to enjoy a truly dark sky filled with stars sometime this month!

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