Bakersfield Night Sky – November 19, 2016
By Nick Strobel
Just finished watching the first episode of “MARS” on National Geographic. Very, very nicely done! The six-episode mini-series blends a feature film set in 2033 about the first human mission to Mars with documentary style interviews of today’s scientists and engineers who are are now creating the technology that will enable that first human mission to Mars. The producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard wanted to transport viewers to a world that is both cinematic and real and celebrate exploration in a visceral way. The mini-series will air on Mondays at 9 PM on The National Geographic Channel.
The first episode “Novo Mundo” broadcast on November 14 focused on the harrowing landing sequence of the 2033 mission and SpaceX’s attempts to land the first reusable rocket. There is a malfunction in one of the sensors and the crew lands 75 kilometers from the base camp. The second episode “Grounded” on November 21 will follow the six-person team as they cross harsh Martian terrain to reach base camp. Blended in with that will be the documentary about NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s year on the International Space Station to test the effects of long-duration stays in weightlessness on the human body.
The trip to Mars will take seven months. Seven months of weightlessness far from the magnetic field and atmosphere that shield us from the very nasty radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic rays. Long-duration weightlessness by itself has bad effects on the human body including making bones brittle and muscles atrophy. If we don’t prevent those negative effects on the body, the first humans will be sick when they arrive and not able walk on Mars without breaking a leg.
Attached to the first episode of “MARS” is a digital short on the National Geographic website called “Before MARS” that gives the backstory of astronaut Hana Seung and her twin sister Joon Seung, the key engineer at Mission Control. I enjoyed that even more than the main episode. The digital short shows their first days after they move to a small town as teenagers and try to fit in while one of them pursues her goal of contacting the International Space Station with a ham radio they found in the attic of their new-to-them house. Have a young teenager with a strong interest in STEM? Watch “Before MARS” with them. Should be a good way to start a conversation about their future dreams.
In our night sky Mars will be the orange-red object among the dim stars of Capricornus in the south at sunset (see first chart below). Further west and much brighter will be brilliant Venus. You’ll have no problem seeing Venus if it’s not cloudy. If it’s big, bright, and not moving in the southwestern sky, you’re looking at Venus.
If you missed this month’s “supermoon” on the night of November 13/14, you’ll have another chance to catch a “supermoon” next month on the night of December 13/14 when the full moon will occur just one day and 39 minutes past perigee (closest point to Earth in its elliptical orbit). This month’s “supermoon” received so much attention because the full moon occurred within just 2.5 hours of perigee and this month’s perigee was especially close.
The moon’s orbit does flex a small amount due primarily to the gravitational effects of the sun and Earth, so some months have a closer perigee than other months. Extremolunaphiles will need to wait until November 25, 2034 for a closer full moon than the November 2016 “super-duper moon”. The November 2034 full moon will be 63 kilometers closer or a whopping 0.018 percent closer than this month’s full moon. The closest full moon this century will be on December 6, 2052 when the full moon will be 84 kilometers closer or a huge 0.024 percent closer than this month’s full moon.
Earlier this month, the engineers and technicians working on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope successfully completed the first optical measurement of its fully deployed mirror made of eighteen hexagonal segments precisely fitted together. For the next several months the huge telescope will undergo mechanical testing of its structure to see how well it will stand up to the violent sound and vibrations of launch and extreme cold of space.
The optical tests will be redone after all that shaking to make sure the mirrors of Webb will still have their perfect shape and alignment after launch. Webb will be placed in the L2 gravitational balance point about 1.5 million kilometers further out from the sun than Earth. Unlike what we’ve been able to do with the much closer Hubble Space Telescope, no repairs of the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope will be possible. Everything must be perfect the first time!
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