Astro Bob: the superlatives of the night sky in 2020 and what will be in 2021

The stars assured us that some things do not change and offered a way to rediscover the wild spaces above the head. Of course, in the long run, the stars change, providing another important lesson. You can’t hold on too tightly to this life, but there’s nothing wrong with loving the hell.

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

Astronomically, 2020 will be remembered for NEOWISE comet, the first truly bright, fantastically gorgeous comet to grace the northern night sky at Hale-Bopp in 1997. Maybe you were like me and lost sleep. willingly to see this ethereal beauty in early July, when it first appeared in the sky before dawn. Although NEOWISE began to fade later in the month, it also moved into the evening twilight, when people who usually sleep at 4 in the morning were able to enjoy themselves.

Comet SWAN, presented here on May 16, 2020, became dimly visible to the naked eye in both hemispheres before it disintegrated later that month.  (Photo by Bob King)

Comet SWAN, presented here on May 16, 2020, became dimly visible to the naked eye in both hemispheres before it disintegrated later that month. (Photo by Bob King)

WDAY acronym

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Long ago, comets were seen as the present of evil and disaster. NEOWISE was anything but to millions of people around the globe. In my town, people packed a parking lot on the nearby football field and were amazed by its appearance in the dark. The opportunity to simply look and find the comet with your own eyes gave each of us a little tingle of joy – and maybe hope.

Many of us had high hopes that comet ATLAS (C / 2019 Y4) would grow to brightness in May, but its fragile, frozen core fragmented and the comet disappeared.  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 grow to brightness in May, but its fragile, frozen core fragmented and the comet disappeared. 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 skywatchers hoped that they would turn into bright objects, but in the end, both eyesight were still wonderful objects to watch in the telescope.

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

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

Before all the cometary delusions, the bright Venus soared into the evening sky in March and April. If you went out at dusk, the planet was your constant companion. Before returning to the sun in May and passing into the morning sky, Venus crossed the steps of the Pleiades star group (Seven Sisters) on April 3, in an attractive and rare conjunction.

Jupiter and Saturn mate in one of the nearest Great Conjunctions on December 21, 2020, over the city center and the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota.  (Photo by Tom Nelson)

Jupiter and Saturn mate in one of the nearest Great Conjunctions on December 21, 2020, over the city center and the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Nelson)

Although NEOWISE stole the show, 2020 was undoubtedly one of the best years ever to watch the planet. If Venus caught our eye in the spring, Mars made us head back in the fall when it was so close to Earth that it briefly overtook the planet Jupiter. The Red Planet will not be as bright until September 2035.

As Mars began to fade, I watched Jupiter inches to Saturn from September to the first day of winter, in one of the slowest visual increases so far. Would they ever meet? On December 21, the two giants embraced in an amazing Great Conjunction, the closest of them for centuries. Now, on the last day of 2020, they are still only 1.2 degrees away and continue to enjoy the southwestern sky at dusk.

What’s next for 2021

Below we have compiled some of the best and brightest events we have to look forward to in the new year:

January 2-3 – The peak of the annual Meterantid meteor shower. I will provide more details on how to see it in a future blog.

March 10 – Wonderful tight grouping of the thin, waning crescent with Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn down in the southeastern sky at dawn.

Photos line up to capture photos of the November 13, 2016 upper moon over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota.  (Photo by Bob King)

Photos line up to capture photos of the November 13, 2016 upper moon over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. (Photo by Bob King)

April 26 – Full supermoon tonight. Supermoons are full moons that appear at the same time as the moon is closest to Earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 11-12 – Perseid meteor shower peak. The crescent moon will set around 10 pm, so it won’t spoil the view.

August 22 – We will have a seasonal blue moon, the third full moon of a season containing four. This is the original definition of a Blue Moon. Nowadays it is also considered to be the second full moon that appears in the same month.

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

The edge of the eclipsed moon emerges from the shadow of the Earth during the lunar eclipse of 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 in America, northern Europe and other places.

December 5 – Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and the moon will form a line of celestial conga 50 degrees long in the western sky at dusk, the moon passing on each planet in turn in the following nights.

December 13-14 – The peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Although a bright, growing gibbous moon will interfere, it sets around 3 a.m. local time, leaving a three-hour window of dark sky until dawn.

Unfortunately, no comets make the list. While 2021 will see a few comets return bright enough for amateur telescopes, none will come close to brightness with the naked eye. You have faith. Many of us are discovered every year. No one expected NEOWISE either.

Happy birthday and always find relief in the stars.

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

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