Despite all that was terrible in 2020, it brought us a few eye-catching night sky events. Most recently, viewers looked up to see the “Christmas Star” with the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Back in August, the Perseid meteor shower, one of a number of annual meteor showers, did not disappoint for those getting to dark skies late at night.
Then, near the end of July, there was the fly-by of Comet Neowise, with its tail trailing across the early dawn and then evening sky. Before that, Comet Atlas arrived in early May, but it broke up and fizzled out before getting close enough for most of us to see it.
Mark your calendars now for those special stargazing events for the upcoming year that make it worth staying up late — or getting up early — to gaze to the heavens.
Many of the highlights for 2021 involve the planets as they crowd together and become readily visible. On Feb. 11, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, are both in view 20 to 30 minutes before sunrise.
A huddle of planets appears on March 9 and 10 with Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in alignment with the nearby crescent moon. Those with binoculars might even see a few of the moons of Jupiter.
Possibly the biggest treat of the year appears on May 26 with a total lunar eclipse. The last total lunar eclipse visible from Wyoming was on January 20, 2018. This 2021 one is handy for early risers, but night owls might find the timing inconvenient. The full eclipse begins at 5:11 a.m., and the show is over by 5:25 a.m.
A lunar eclipse occurs only during a full moon and when the earth, sun and moon are in alignment. The moon lacks its own light, but shines because its surface reflects the sun’s rays. During a total lunar eclipse, the earth comes between the sun and the moon and blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the moon. The sun casts the earth’s shadow on the moon’s surface and, during an eclipse it appears a brick red color due to dust in the earth’s atmosphere. That red color is why the lunar eclipse is called a “blood moon.”
This is also a “super” moon. That designation is a result of the elliptical shape of the moon’s orbit. The moon’s distance from earth changes and, when the full moon coincides with when the moon is closest to earth, it is considered a “super” moon.
That isn’t the only super moon in 2021. There’s one a month early, in April. That moon, called the Pink Moon, will also be closest to earth and appear to be a smidgen larger than normal when seen on the horizon.
For the big celestial event on June 10, you’ll have to head to Canada or Greenland for the “Circle of Fire” solar eclipse. That’s when the moon, sun and earth are in one line so the lunar disk is too small to cover the entire sun, creating a ring of light around the dark lunar silhouette.
The Perseid Meteor Shower arrives again in August, peaking on August 12 and 13. The 2021 event should be a good one thanks to the dark, moonless sky. Shooting stars abound with as many as 60 visible per hour.
The Draconid meteor shower peaks on Oct. 8 but it is typically less dramatic than the Perseid shower. The shooting stars are less numerous, but they’re also slower, taking longer to cross the sky.
As we near Thanksgiving, the moon gets into the act again. On Nov. 19, a partial lunar eclipse will be visible around 2 a.m. in Wyoming. It is like a total eclipse, but there isn’t full coverage of the moon. Still, 97% of the moon will be in shadow, making it well worth getting up in the middle of the night to see.
The final big event for 2021 will require a trip to Antarctica. On Dec. 4 those in Antarctica and South Africa will be treated with a total solar eclipse. That is when the moon comes between the sun and earth and casts the darkest part of its shadow on the earth.
Wyoming residents recall the total solar eclipse that crossed Wyoming on August 21, 2017. That’s when we all donned special eclipse-gazing glasses and watched in awe as day turned to night with the sun’s corona forming a white flame encircling the moon. The next one visible from the United States isn’t until April 8, 2024.
Until then and for 2021 we’ll have to settle for one total and one partial lunar eclipse. As for visible comets in 2021, those are not as easy to predict. While comets pass overhead frequently, having one come into view without the use of a telescope is a rare treat. Stay tuned, though, in case one shows up to regale us in 2021.