January 21, 2024

By Nick Strobel | 01/21/24
Late January at 9:30 PM looking south

The spring semester is now in full swing at Bakersfield College. The spring schedule of evening shows at the William M Thomas Planetarium will be posted on the Planetarium’s homepage. If the finance processing can get worked out, the spring lineup will include a new show about future moon bases.

The recent failure of the Peregrine lander last week due to a fuel leak in the lander shows that our return to the moon is not going to be as smooth we hoped. Peregrine is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program that is supporting private companies landing missions on the moon over the next five to ten years. The private companies in this venture are smaller companies not making it into the news (yet): Astrobotic, which built the Peregrine lander, Intuitive Machines, which will send a lander to the moon in February, and Masten Space Systems (in Mojave) and Firefly Aerospace, which will each send a mission in 2025 or 2026.

Although the failure of the Peregrine lander prevented Peregrine from reaching the moon, the Astrobotic and NASA science teams still got some science measurements out of the instruments on board before it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on Thursday. Peregrine had five science instruments providing data about the space environment between Earth and the moon. The science team also tested a new guidance and navigation sensor that will become part of future missions to the moon and beyond. We don’t know yet how the failure of the Peregrine lander will affect the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission. Astrobotic is under contract with NASA to deliver VIPER to the moon later this year. VIPER will rove around for 100 days in a permanently shadowed crater at the lunar south pole probing the water ice and other resources we can use for future human bases on the moon.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) held its semi-annual meeting in the second week of January. Usually, there are a number of astronomical discoveries announced during an AAS meeting and this meeting was no exception. Here is a brief description of some of discoveries announced, most of them made with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

JWST observations of the very distant universe—the very early universe—has uncovered small, infant galaxies that have extremely large supermassive black holes at their centers. In the nearby universe, the central supermassive black holes scale up with the size of the galaxy in about a 1000 to 1 ratio, so the rest of the galaxy is about a thousand times more massive than the supermassive black hole. We aren’t sure why there’s the correlation between the two and there’s the question of whether the correlation extends back to the earliest times. Looking at a sample of 21 infant galaxies with JWST, a team found supermassive black holes that are 10 to 100 times too large proportionally for their host galaxies. The rapid growth of supermassive black holes has been a long-standing astronomy mystery and this discovery adds another layer to the mystery.

Another discovery made with JWST was of a brown dwarf (a class of objects too small to be a star and too large to be a Jupiter-like planet) that has extra emission seemingly produced by aurorae. The puzzle is what is the source of plasma that would light up the atmosphere of the brown dwarf since the brown dwarf is very far from the usual source of plasma, a star. Our sun’s plasma stream, the solar wind, is responsible for Earth’s aurorae. A geologically-active moon with volcanoes or geysers could also be a source of plasma. Further observations from Webb are needed.

Another JWST announcement was the possible detection of an atmosphere around the very hot, super-Earth called 55 Cancri e. The exoplanet orbits so close to its star that it takes just 17 hours to orbit and it’s very likely a lava world. The detection of an atmosphere would be the first one around a rocky, terrestrial exoplanet but there is a bit of debate if an atmosphere has actually been detected.

Life that we can detect from afar will be found on the surface of a terrestrial world (sub-surface life can’t be detected with telescopes). Surface life will require an atmosphere to provide a shield from the star’s radiation and moderation of the temperature between day and night. If a super-hot world like 55 Cancri e can have an atmosphere, then cooler worlds should too.

One last recent discovery is a “dark galaxy” made only of gas and no stars, so only radio telescopes can see it. The object lies 270 million light years away in the direction of the Auriga constellation. The hydrogen gas is rotating in an organized way like a spiral galaxy but there are no stars. Could it be an example of a primordial galaxy that hasn’t yet bumped into another galaxy to trigger star formation? How many more of these “dark galaxies” are there?

I hope that you’ll be able to find a time and place sometime in 2024 to gaze up in wonder at a dark night sky filled with thousands of stars.

Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website www.astronomynotes.com