Astro Bob: 2020 night sky superlatives and what’s to come in 2021

The stars reassured us that some things do not change and offered a path to rediscover the wild spaces above our heads. Of course, in the long run, the stars change, providing another important lesson. You can’t cling too tightly to this life, but there’s nothing wrong with loving it.

A firefly flashes under comet NEOWISE on July 16, 2020 (Photo by Bob King)

A firefly flashes under comet NEOWISE on July 16, 2020 (Photo by Bob King)

Astronomically, 2020 will be remembered for Comet NEOWISE, the first truly bright and incredibly gorgeous comet to grace the northern night sky since Hale-Bopp in 1997. Perhaps you were like me and have purposely lost sleep to see this ethereal beauty in early July when she first appeared in the pre-dawn sky. While NEOWISE started to fade later in the month, it also shifted to evening twilight when people who typically sleep at 4 a.m. could enjoy it.

Comet SWAN, pictured here on May 16, 2020, became faint to the naked eye from both hemispheres before disintegrating later that month.  (Photo by Bob King)

Comet SWAN, pictured here on May 16, 2020, became faint to the naked eye from both hemispheres before disintegrating later that month. (Photo by Bob King)

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Long ago, comets were seen as portents of evil and disaster. NEOWISE was anything but millions of people around the world. In my town, people packed a nearby soccer field parking lot and marveled aloud at the darkness of its appearance. Being able to just look up and find the comet with our own eyes gave each of us a little tingle of joy – and perhaps hope, too.

Many of us had high hopes that Comet ATLAS (C / 2019 Y4) would reach naked-eye luminosity in May, but its fragile, icy core fragmented and the comet faded.  The Hubble Space Telescope captured these photos on April 20 and 23.  (NASA, ESA, STScI and D. Jewitt / UCLA)

Many of us had high hopes that Comet ATLAS (C / 2019 Y4) would reach naked-eye luminosity in May, but its fragile, icy core broke apart and the comet faded. The Hubble Space Telescope captured these photos on April 20 and 23. (NASA, ESA, STScI and D. Jewitt / UCLA)

Two potentially bright comets preceded NEOWISE in April and May: ATLAS (C / 2019 Y4) and SWAN (C / 2020 F8). Many sky watchers hoped that they would turn into shiny objects, but in the end both were aimed with the naked eye and were still wonderful objects to look at in the telescope.

Venus snuggles up in the Seven Sisters star cluster on April 3, 2020 (Photo by Bob King)

Venus snuggles into the Seven Sisters star cluster on April 3, 2020 (Photo by Bob King)

Before any cometary delirium, the brilliant Venus dominated the evening sky in March and April. If you were outside at dusk, the planet was your constant companion. Before falling back to the sun in May and passing through the morning sky, Venus crossed the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster on April 3 in an eye-catching and infrequent conjunction.

Jupiter and Saturn team up in one of their closest major conjunctions on December 21, 2020, above downtown and the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota.  (Photo by Tom Nelson)

Jupiter and Saturn team up in one of their closest major conjunctions on December 21, 2020, above downtown and the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Nelson)

Although NEOWISE stole the show, 2020 has arguably been one of the best years in history for observing the planet. If Venus captured our gaze in the spring, Mars turned our heads in the fall when it was so close to Earth that it briefly eclipsed the planet Jupiter. The red planet will no longer be as bright as in September 2035.

As Mars began to fade, we watched Jupiter move closer to Saturn from September until the first day of winter in one of the slowest visual crescendos of all time. Would they ever meet? On December 21, the two giants embraced in a stunning grand conjunction, their closest in centuries. Now, on the last day of 2020, they are still only 1.2 degrees apart and continue to revel from low in the southwestern sky at dusk.

What to expect for 2021

Below, I’ve compiled some of the best and brightest events to look forward to in the New Year:

January 2-3 – Peak of the annual Quandrantid meteor shower. I’ll provide more details on how to see it in a future blog.

March 10 – Beautiful close clustering of the thin waning crescent moon with Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn low in the southeastern sky at dawn.

Photographers line up to take photos of the November 13, 2016 supermoon rising above Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota.  (Photo by Bob King)

Photographers line up to take photos of the November 13, 2016 supermoon rising above Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. (Photo by Bob King)

April 26 – Full super moon tonight. Supermoons are full moons that occur around the same time the moon is closest to Earth.

May 12 – Venus and a very thin crescent moon will be only 1 degree apart in the northwest sky at dusk.

May 26 – A total lunar eclipse is visible from western North America and a deep partial eclipse from the eastern half of the country.

During an annular eclipse, like this one in May 2012, the moon has an apparent smaller size because it is located near the end of its orbit around the Earth.  It does not completely cover the sun at the maximum eclipse, leaving a

During an annular eclipse, like this one in May 2012, the moon has an apparent smaller size because it is located near the end of its orbit around the Earth. It does not completely cover the sun at the maximum eclipse, leaving a “ring of fire” or ring of sunlight. (Photo by Kevin Baird)

June 10 – An annular solar eclipse, where the moon covers everything but a narrow ring of sunlight at the maximum eclipse, is visible in Canada, Greenland and Russia. The southern end of the eclipse path touches parts of the north shore of Lake Superior.

July 12 – Mars and Venus will be half a degree apart in the western sky at dusk.

August 11-12 – Peak of the Perseid meteor shower. The crescent moon will set around 10 p.m. so as not to spoil the view.

August 22 – We will have a seasonal blue moon, the third full moon of a season that contains four. This is the original definition of a blue moon. Nowadays, it is also considered the second full moon of the same month.

The edge of the eclipsed moon emerges from the Earth's shadow during the lunar eclipse of April 15, 2014. The moon will appear similar to the maximum eclipse of November 19.  (Photo by Bob King)

The edge of the eclipsed moon emerges from Earth’s shadow during the lunar eclipse on April 15, 2014. The moon will appear similar to the maximum eclipse on November 19. (Photo by Bob King)

November 19 – An almost total lunar eclipse occurs this morning, visible across the Americas, northern Europe and other locations.

December 5 – Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and the moon will form a 50-degree-long celestial conga line across the western sky at dusk, with the moon passing each planet in turn over the coming nights.

December 13-14 – Peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Although a bright and waxing gibbous moon interferes, it sets around 3 a.m. local time, leaving a three-hour window of dark sky until dawn.

Unfortunately, no comet is on the list. While 2021 will see several returning comets bright enough for amateur telescopes, none will come close to luminosity with the naked eye. Have faith. Many new ones are discovered every year. Nobody expected NEOWISE either.

Happy New Year and may you always find solace in the stars.

“Astro” Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Learn more about his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.

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