Bakersfield Night Sky — January 7, 2017
By Nick Strobel
Happy New Year! I hope you had the chance to take part in some of the Winterfest activities on the outdoor ice rink at Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium leading up to the big game this evening. Last Wednesday, January 4, perihelion day was celebrated all over the world as we marked the closest distance between Earth and the sun—just a measly 91.4 million miles. If your news source didn’t mention this year’s event, take heart as you’ll get another chance next January. In 2018 it will happen on January 2.
Next Thursday, January 12 will be the greatest angular distance of Venus from the sun as seen from our perspective on Earth. However, due to the combination of the tilt of Venus’s orbit with respect to our orbit, Venus getting closer to Earth, and our location on Earth, Venus’s altitude at sunset will continue to increase throughout January, reaching its highest altitude at the end of the month. Throughout January Venus will set about four hours after sunset. It will be the super-bright star in the western sky. See the first star chart below.
To the upper left of Venus is the dimmer orange-red planet, Mars. The gap between them will shrink throughout January. By the end of the month, they will be almost within the same field of view of typical binoculars. January 12 will also be the night of the full moon. The fullest phase position will happen at 3:34 a.m. Pacific Time. The sky for later at night at 10 p.m. looking toward Orion is shown in the second star chart below.
Besides the usual celestial events of meteor showers, changing phases of the moon, and planetary conjunctions, the major astronomical event for 2017 will be the August 21 total solar eclipse that will be seen from coast to coast across the United States. I have been looking forward to it for about 40 years since I first read about it in the World Book Encyclopedia in my boyhood home.
The path of totality begins near Lincoln City, Oregon (west of Salem) with totality at 10:16 a.m. Pacific Time. The 67-mile wide strip of totality goes through twelve states: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina. Totality ends in Charleston, South Carolina at 2:15 p.m. Eastern Time. Totality for this eclipse will be short: at best 2 minutes 41.6 seconds long.
For us in Bakersfield, a maximum of 67% of the sun will be covered at 10:20 a.m. Take proper precautions to view the sun safely as the moon slides across its surface. See the “Observe the Sun Safely” link on the William M Thomas Planetarium’s website at bakersfieldcollege.edu/planetarium . For those lucky enough to see the sun while it is totally eclipsed (and only while it is totally eclipsed), no special protection is needed as the faint light from the sun’s corona is too faint to do any harm.
The August 2017 eclipse is the first total solar eclipse visible only in the United States since 1776, yes 1776. It will also be the first since 1918 that crosses the United States from Pacific to Atlantic. Approximately 391 million people in the U.S. will be able to see the eclipse (partial or total). See the NASA 2017 eclipse site at eclipse2017.nasa.gov for other fun facts about this eclipse.
Space exploration in 2017 will be relatively quieter than in past years. Two new missions, NICER and Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), will focus on X-ray astronomy. Launching in early 2017, HXMT will be China’s first astronomy satellite and it will observe black holes, neutron stars, and other bright x-ray/gamma-ray sources. The NICER mission (Neutron star Interior Composition ExloreR) will focus on neutron stars and it will observe from the International Space Station. Neutron stars are the collapsed remnants of massive stars, squeezing more mass than the sun down into a sphere smaller than Bakersfield. As such, they have the highest stable densities in the universe (black holes are “unstable” in the sense that all of the material collapses down to a point). In such extreme environments, all four fundamental forces of nature (strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravity) are simultaneously important.
In mid-September, the Cassini spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn since 2004 will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent possible contamination of Saturn’s moons. Before it does that, it will thread the narrow gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Later in September, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will swing by Earth for a gravity assist on its way out to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.
In December, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) should launch to look for exoplanets passing in front of their host star in the solar neighborhood. Unlike the Kepler mission, it will survey the entire sky and it will focus on much brighter stars that are closer to us. The exoplanets it finds should be easier to study with follow-up observations to determine their densities and atmospheric properties. Based on the exoplanet statistics from the Kepler mission, TESS should find about 500 Earth-sized and “Super Earth” planets, with diameters less than twice that of Earth, along with more than 1000 larger exoplanets. See https://tess.gsfc.nasa.gov to learn more.
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 www.darksky.org for how.
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website www.astronomynotes.com