Local Lifestyle

Monday, May 06 2013 08:42 AM

NICK STROBEL: BC scientists, engineers travel to solar contest

BY NICK STROBEL Contributing columnist

In less than two weeks, three teams of young scientists and engineers from Bakersfield College will be traveling to Bozeman, Mo., to compete against other college and university teams from across the nation in the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition. This is the first year that Bakersfield College will participate in the competition in which student teams design, build and test optical instruments to answer questions about the sun or use sunlight to investigate some science question about the Earth.

One of the three teams from BC is using its spectrometer to measure the amount of surface-level ozone, one of the common pollutants in our Bakersfield air that contributes to asthma and other respiratory problems. Ozone way up high in the stratosphere is the "good ozone" because it blocks much of the ultraviolet light from the sun from reaching the Earth's surface. Without the ozone layer in the stratosphere, multicellular life on the Earth's surface would not be possible and a lot of the water molecules would be broken apart. (Despite being "good," that stratospheric ozone is has a nasty effects on our lungs if it's where we breathe.) The team will compare the amount of ozone above Bakersfield with that above Bozeman and later with other parts of California.

Although it may look like the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition has a narrow goal of sun spectroscopy, the real goal is to train future scientists and engineers in how to solve problems as a team by working on a real-world question. Most who participate will probably not go into space science, but the experience gained will be invaluable in whatever future science and engineering problems we'll need them to solve for us. We're certainly going to need a lot of home-grown expertise in STEM fields for the future challenges in this county, state and, heck, in our inter-connected world.

The three BC teams have received NASA mini-grants to fund building the spectrographs, but still need help with travel/lodging costs to the competition judging. At least one team needs to raise its own money as they are not eligible for special program funding of their costs (more than $1,900 for a team of four).

If you or your company would like to encourage these future Bakersfield scientists and engineers, please contact the Bakersfield College Foundation (395-4800) with whatever financial -- and tax-deductible -- help you would like to provide.

Comet ISON

Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), which might put on a great show this November and December, is having a moment in the spotlight.

Discovered last September by two Russian comet hunters in the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), it is coming from a very distant reservoir of comets called the Oort Cloud, which exists tens of thousands times farther out from the sun than Pluto. In the distant past, a passing star nudged the comet sending it toward the sun. After many thousands of years traveling from the Oort Cloud, it will pass through the inner solar system in only a few months.

Comet ISON passes within 6.73 million miles of Mars on Oct. 1, so the Mars orbiters and rovers will take a break from looking down at Mars' surface to look at the comet from their vantage point. At that time, the comet will be too dim to see from the Earth without a telescope. By mid-November, it may be barely bright enough to see without a telescope under very dark skies (away from the city) low in the east-southeast in the pre-dawn sky. By then it is moving very fast -- it will pass by Mercury on Nov. 19 to 20 at which point it may be bright enough to just barely see in our Bakersfield pre-dawn sky in the east-southeast.

On Nov. 28, the comet will pass just 1.1 million miles of the sun's center but, because the sun is so large, it will be just 680,000 miles from its surface. Because of this close distance, it is a "sungrazing comet" and it might not survive the heat, breaking apart as many sungrazers do. The pre-dawn nights before and after that closest sun approach, the comet should be easily visible from even the center of Bakersfield.

Around that closest approach, ISON might even be bright enough to be seen during the day. However, it will be very close to the sun, which is over a million times brighter (bright enough to permanently blind you), so you would have to be very careful about blocking the sun to try to see the comet. For those nights around closest approach, Comet ISON's tail may stretch across a quarter to a third of our sky! Before Nov. 28, the tail will point southeast and after that date, it will point northeast.

In December, the comet will climb up away from the sun in our northeastern pre-dawn sky. For the first couple of weeks in December, it should be bright enough to see without binoculars. On Dec. 26, the comet will pass closest to the Earth but at a nice safe distance of 39.9 million miles. At that time you will need binoculars to see it from Bakersfield but those far from city lights might be able to see it without any aid.

Our last interaction with the comet may be a meteor shower on the few nights around Jan. 12, 2014, as the Earth passes through the trail of dust debris left behind by the comet. One possible result of passing through that particular debris field though may be the creation of noctilucent clouds that float more than 50 miles above the Earth's poles. They glow an electric-blue and are seen only after sunset by those north of the Washington state border. The noctilucent clouds might be seeded by space dust. (For more on this, see the Science@NASA report for April 19 at science1.nasa.gov/science-news.)

I'm a bit skeptical of claims that Comet ISON will be as bright as the full moon. Yes, it should get bright, but full moon brightness is a bit too much hype. Even if it did get that bright, it would do so when it is right next to that very bright sun.

I've been tentative in my descriptions of what will happen as comets are very hard to predict, especially those coming into the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud because we have no prior history of that particular "dirty iceberg" to know how it will behave. Each comet has a unique structure of how the volatile materials such as water and carbon dioxide are mixed in with the dust, dirt and rock materials all packed in a frozen chunk a few miles across to a few tens of miles across (Comet ISON is roughly 3 miles across).

A comet is quite fragile -- you could easily break off a piece of a comet with your bare hands. It is also quite dark, darker than charcoal. Comets only get bright when their volatile material heats up close to the sun and vaporize to make an atmosphere. The comet atmosphere can get charged and glow to brighten the comet. The vaporization of volatiles in the comet can release the dust, which is great at reflecting sunlight, further brightening the comet.

Many comets getting close to the sun will break up as Comet Elenin did in late 2011. Elenin was a comet the 2012 doomsayers latched onto as a world-destroyer until it so inconveniently disintegrated.

What will Comet ISON do? We'll just have to wait and see. The comet will be whipped around the sun so fast that it (or its remnants) will escape the solar system entirely. If you want to learn more about this comet or comets in general, see the comet section (see chapter 10) of Astronomy Notes at astronomynotes.com.

In the night sky

Closer to home and the present, Saturn is taking over the evening sky from the other large planet Jupiter. Jupiter is low in the southwest after sunset, setting a little more than two hours after the sun does tonight and less than an hour after sunset by month's end.

At the end of May, Jupiter will make an interesting dance with Venus and Mercury low in the west just after sunset. Saturn is just coming off from opposition at the end of April, so it is rising as the sun is setting and it will be up all night long.

The attached star chart shows the evening sky at 10 p.m. About halfway up in the east-southeastern sky you will see an elongated right triangle of brighter stars tipped up by about 45 degrees with the long end pointed toward the left (north). The lowest point of the triangle will be Saturn about a third of the way up in the sky and the upper right point about halfway up in the sky will be Spica in Virgo just slightly dimmer than Saturn. About two-thirds of the way up in the sky at the upper left point of the stretched out triangle will be bright Arcturus at the end of the kite-shaped Bootes. Arcturus will be the brightest point of the triangle. Saturn is moving retrograde (backward) toward Spica for the next couple of months.

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower should have its peak early Sunday morning but those farther south of the U.S. will have a better view. The radiant of the Eta Aquariid's is still pretty low in the sky for us as the early morning twilight begins to brighten the sky. A star chart for the early morning sky with the radiant marked on it is posted in the Night Sky section at bakersfieldcollege.edu/planetarium.

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