Mid-August at 1 AM looking East

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Just one or two weeks left before the schools start up again. Bakersfield College's first day of instruction is August 22 with a whole array of instructional modes from purely online to Zoom to face-to-face to hybrid versions. Before schools starts, one favorite astronomy activity is to check out the Perseid meteor shower which has its peak on the night of August 11/12. Although it's best to observe meteors at a dark sky site well outside of town (e.g., Wind Wolves Preserve, Frazier Park area, high desert east of Tehachapi, etc.), the Perseids are well-known for the occasional bright meteors that can be seen even from within the city.

However, this year the moon will be at full phase on the night of August 11, so the shower will not be easy to see with the moon washing out all but the brightest of meteors. On the other hand, the Perseid meteor shower is pretty broad with meteors streaking across the sky from mid-July to late August, so tonight should produce some meteors and the last part of next week should as well. Plus, meteor observing provides a good incentive to travel to a cooler location outside of the city and take a brief break from the Bakersfield heat! The Perseids are the result of Earth running into the dust trail left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle and the comet bits hitting our atmosphere at 37 miles per second.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of camping with three of my brothers in the Naches area east of Mt Rainier. Beautiful scenery by day and beautiful starry sky at night. It got dark enough to easily see the Milky Way with Cygnus high overhead flying down the middle of it and to easily see all of the stars of Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper). Since the campground is about 12 degrees farther north in latitude than Bakersfield, the sky wasn't truly dark until after about 11 PM or a bit over an hour later than what it did in Bakersfield on that date. 

Deneb at the tail of Cygnus marks one point of the Summer Triangle. The second point of the Summer Triangle, Vega in Lyra is nearly straight up at the zenith at about 10:20 PM tonight and the third point Altair in Aquila will be a bit farther down in the southeast. The three stars of the Summer Triangle are bright enough to see even within the city but at my campsite I was able to pick out all of the stars of Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Of the three, Cygnus is the one that requires the least imagination to see what it's supposed to be when connecting the dots. 

There were too many trees blocking my view of Saturn in the east at my campsite but my home has a clearer view. Next Sunday, August 14, Saturn will be at opposition, meaning that it is (nearly) 180 degrees opposite the sun. Saturn is now rising at sunset and reaches the meridian due south at about 1:30 AM tonight. Next Sunday, Saturn will be due south at 1 AM The rings are tipped a bit further down than they were earlier this summer, so they'll be a splendid sight in a telescope.

By 1:20 AM tonight all of the outer naked eye planets will be up with Mars being the last to appear. Jupiter, about midway between Mars and Saturn, is high enough to easily see rising in the east by about 10:45 PM 

It's now been over a decade since the Curiosity rover landed on Mars at Gale Crater and it's still plugging along. To celebrate Curiosity's tenth anniversary on Mars, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory south of us in Pasadena held a public talk about Curiosity's ten years that is posted at the Curiosity website at mars.nasa.gov/msl or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/nVxwzOgZZ7k .

Because of Curiosity's longevity and how well its younger cousin Perseverance is holding up in Jezero Crater along with the Mars Ingenuity helicopter, NASA has decided to reconfigure the Mars Sample Return program (MSR) which will bring core samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth for the extremely detailed examinations that can only be done with huge instruments in our labs. The original plan for MSR used a second rover to fetch the samples left in caches by Perseverance and put them on the Mars Ascent Vehicle rocket which will be on the Sample Retrieval Lander. The new plan skips the middle man and has Perseverance bring the samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander. The Sample Retrieval Lander is expected to launch in summer 2028 and arrive at Mars seven months later. If this time table holds, we could be getting the samples back to Earth in 2033. The Sample Retrieval Lander will use two helicopters based on the design of Ingenuity to retrieve other samples left along the path Perseverance will have traveled between now and 2028. More information about MSR is available at mars.nasa.gov/msr .

When temperatures get above 105 deg F, senior citizens and others at risk from extreme heat can find relief at a cooling center. I hope you'll be able to go out and enjoy a truly dark sky filled with stars sometime this summer! 

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