Jimmy Westlake’s top 10 celestial events of 2021
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
What’s happening in the sky in the year 2021? Well, there’s something of interest almost every night of the year, if you know when and where to look. I have sifted through all of the celestial events happening in 2021 and selected the 10 that I am most excited about.
These are my “Top 10 Celestial Events for 2021,” presented in chronological order. No optical aid is required to view these events, but an ordinary pair of binoculars or a small backyard telescope will almost always enhance the view.
For updates on these and other celestial events, keep an eye on my monthly “Celestial News” column in the Steamboat Pilot & Today and also the NASA-sponsored websites apod.nasa.gov and spaceweather.com. Most of all, share the sky and have fun.
Feb. 18: Perseverance lands on Mars
A whole new era of Mars exploration begins Feb. 18 when the Mars 2020 Mission lands its Perseverance rover down inside of the Jezero crater on the surface of the Red Planet. Mars 2020 was launched toward Mars on July 30, 2020.
Its cousin, the Curiosity rover, is still digging and sniffing for signs of past water inside of Gale Crater, after landing by the “sky crane” maneuver back in August 2012. Perseverance also will use this proven but risky technique to settle down on the rugged surface. Unlike Curiosity, Perseverance will have the ability to search for signs of ancient life, little fossilized Martians, if you will. No Martian spacecraft has had that ability since the two Viking landers of 1976.
Moreover, Perseverance will create stashes of promising soil and rock samples for return to Earth sometime in the future. Jezero crater looks to be the perfect place to land and search for life, because there is strong evidence that it used to be a deep lake, hundreds of millions of years ago.
Tagging along with the rover is the first helicopter drone to attempt flight on another world. This experimental flight will be to test out the technology for the future exploration of Mars and other planets and moons from the air by drone. With Perseverance, maybe we will find an answer to the question, “Did Mars ever host its own microbial life?”
May 26: Total eclipse of the Full Super Flower Moon
For Coloradans, it will be a race against sunrise to see all of the spectacular total lunar eclipse that occurs on the morning of May 26. Totality ends at 5:25 a.m., and the sun pops up just 17 minutes later, at 5:42 a.m. The last part of totality will be very challenging to observe in the bright twilight of dawn, but the earlier stages of the eclipse will happen in a much darker sky.
The excitement begins when the moon first touches the edge of Earth’s dark umbral shadow at 3:45 a.m. This dark bite grows in size until 5:11 a.m., when the moon is totally engulfed in the Earth’s shadow. The first light of dawn will be filling the sky as the very brief total phase of the eclipse comes and goes, lasting only 14 minutes.
The blood red moon will look very surreal against the dawn sky. Binoculars will be useful to see the details lost in the pending dawn. This eclipse happens while the moon is near its closest point to Earth, called perigee, and thus will look larger than your regular full moon — about 7% larger. The stars of Scorpius form the backdrop for this eclipse.
You will need a clear view down to the true horizon in the direction southwest to west-southwest to get a clear view. Eclipses repeat themselves in a period called the saros cycle, lasting 18 years, 11 days and eight hours. I recall taking photos of the previous eclipse in this saros on May 15, 2003, but that one happened at sunset instead of sunrise.
June 23 to July 2: Mars and Venus enter the Beehive Star Cluster
Mars and Venus are beautiful sights unto themselves, but when seen with a swarm of glittering stars behind them, wow, it is spectacular indeed. Sky watchers will have that opportunity at dusk on June 23 when Mars passes in front of the Beehive Star Cluster in the constellation of Cancer, the crab, and then again on July 2 when Venus poses in front of the Beehive, just nine days later.
You’ll need a clear view of the west-northwest horizon and a pair of binoculars for this event. Start looking around 9:30 p.m. or about an hour after sunset. The planets will be easy to spot with the naked eye and with binoculars or a small telescope on low power, you’ll spot the star cluster surrounding Mars first, and nine days later, Venus. Also called The Praesepe (The Manger) and Messier 44, the Beehive Star Cluster contains about 1,000 stars and shines on us from a distance of about 550 light years away.
July 12: Venus passes Mars
Jupiter and Saturn gave us a Great Conjunction back in December and now Venus and Mars give us an encore performance. Although technically not a “great conjunction,” this one will nonetheless be a really, really good one. Around 9 p.m., go outside and face the west sky. Binoculars will be handy, but not essential to see this event.
There’s no missing dazzling Venus, of course, but much fainter Mars will be only one-half a degree to Venus’ eight o’clock position. Shining above both will be a three-day old crescent moon, lit up nicely with Earthshine. Also, nearby will be the bright star Regulus and other bright stars of Leo. Watch a night or two on either side of the main event to see how the planets and moon move against the starry sky from night to night.
Aug. 1 and 19: Jupiter and Saturn reach opposition together
After their stunning Great Conjunction last Dec. 21, solar system giants Jupiter and Saturn are drawing apart but still hanging out close to each other in this year’s sky. Both planets will reach opposition, their closest approach to the Earth, in August this year, just 18 days apart. This means both planets will be big, bright and beautiful in our summer sky again this year.
Saturn and Earth are in a perpetual race around the sun, a race that the faster Earth will always win. Once every 12 ½ months, Earth gains a lap on Saturn for an opposition. It is during opposition that an outer planet is closest to the Earth and therefore best visible in our sky.
This year, Saturn reaches its opposition Aug. 1, only 18 days before Jupiter does. The gleaming planets will appear only 19 degrees apart on the sky, about the width of your outstretched hand at arm’s length. Saturn will be 821 million miles from Earth at this year’s opposition, more than double Jupiter’s distance. Still, this will be the closest Saturn has come to the Earth since May 2015.
Jupiter and Earth are in a perpetual race around the sun, too. Once every 13 months, the Earth gains a lap on Jupiter and pulls up alongside it for an opposition. This year, Jupiter reaches opposition Aug. 19. At a distance of 373 million miles, this will be the closest opposition of Jupiter since December 2012.
Opposition is the best time to observe a planet through a telescope, too. If you own one, take a look at Jupiter’s cloud stripes and giant moons and Saturn’s icy rings in the weeks surrounding this double opposition. The very best observing time would be around midnight, when the two planets are as high in the sky as possible.
Aug. 12: The Perseid Meteor Shower
The annual Perseid meteor shower almost always makes my top 10 list of celestial events. It is the “Old Faithful” of our annual meteor showers and occurs during the warm nights of summer. There’s nothing like lying back on the ground, staring straight up into the sky and counting the meteors as they zip past.
We experience this shower of shooting stars every August because the Earth plows head-on into the dust stream left behind by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, this dirty snowball orbits the sun once every 133 years, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. The particles shed by the comet are exceedingly small, not much larger than grains of sand, but when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere traveling 37 miles per second, they burn up in brief but brilliant streaks of light.
If the sky is dark and clear, a single observer usually can count between 60 and 90 meteors per hour, about one a minute, during the shower’s peak hours. I’ve noticed that the Perseids tend to shoot across the sky in flurries of two or three, with a few minutes of calm in between. Many of the bright ones leave glowing trails behind them that can last for several seconds. The meteors will seem to spring out of the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, just below the familiar W-shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia.
This year, peak activity is expected in the hours before dawn on Aug. 12, but a large number of meteors can be seen about a week on either side of this peak, as the shower ramps up to maximum and back down. More meteors can be expected in the hours after midnight, when the Earth has us facing into the direction of the on-coming dust swarm.
It’s a perfect year for watching the Perseid meteor shower because the moon is just four days past new and will set around 10 p.m. on the night of the peak. That leaves hours and hours of dark sky conditions for watching and counting Perseid meteors. The action will start around 11 p.m. Aug. 11 and picks up more and more in the hours after midnight.
Oct. 31: The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope
This is a biggie. Anyone 30 or younger never knew a time when there wasn’t a Hubble Space Telescope up there exploring the universe from orbit, but the HST won’t last forever.
What’s the next generation telescope to take up where Hubble leaves off? It’s the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. James Webb was the director of NASA back in the moon landing heyday and is honored with his name attached to this new telescope. The JWST has been delayed many times and could be delayed again, but I’m hoping that by putting this in writing, good things will happen (kiss of death, I know).
If all goes according to plan, the JWST will launch on Halloween, and head, not for Earth orbit, but for the so-called L2 Lagrangian point about a million miles outside of Earth’s orbit where the telescope will parallel Earth’s motion around the sun.
Whereas the HST boasts a single 2.4-meter diameter mirror, the JWSP mirror will be a sectional mirror made up of 18 individual segments, for a total diameter of 6.5 meters. A mirror that large can’t fit in any rocket, so it has to be able to fold up and then deploy in space, like a transformer.
With a big $10 billion price tag, JWST has big expectations, like being 100 times more powerful than the HST and being able to see planets around nearby stars, not to mention peering back 13.5 billion years to the time of the very first galaxies in the universe. Even if JWST doesn’t launch on Halloween, anticipation is sky high for the next giant telescope no matter when it launches. Don’t miss this event of a lifetime.
Nov. 19: Partial lunar eclipse of the full Beaver Moon
There are two eclipse seasons every year separated by about six months, so it’s not a surprise to have a second lunar eclipse this year, six months after the first one. This one is much better placed for Coloradans to watch than the May eclipse, however it isn’t quite total — only 97%.
The action starts just after midnight, at 12:18 a.m., when the full Beaver Moon begins to fade on its left edge. Maximum eclipse happens at 2:03 a.m. when only 3% of the sunlit portion of the moon remains visible. Nearby, the glittering Pleiades and Hyades star clusters light up the background sky.
At maximum eclipse, you should still see the red portion of the moon shining through, almost as if it is total. After maximum, the moon moves out of the Earth’s shadow and the umbral eclipse ends at 3:37 a.m. The next total lunar eclipse occurs next year on the night of May 15-16.
Dec. 7: Moon close to Venus, Saturn, Jupiter tonight in Capricornus
Anytime that bright planets and the moon gather in the sky, it’s a great time to get outside and stargaze. No better chance than Dec. 7, when three planets and the moon gather together in the early evening and put on quite a show.
Go outside around 5:30 p.m. and face the southwest sky where you’ll see Venus shining brightly below the crescent moon. Just above the moon is fainter Saturn and above them, bright Jupiter. If you start watching on the night of Dec. 6, you can see the moon sit beside each planet on consecutive nights. What a beautiful way to end the day.
Dec. 14: The Geminid meteor shower
In spite of the cold December nights, the annual Geminid meteor shower is my favorite shower of the year. Their numbers equal or even surpass the August Perseids and the bright stars of winter form a wonderful backdrop.
No Geminid meteors were ever reported before the year 1862, but ever since then, the shower has increased in strength every year.
The source of the Geminid meteors was unknown until 1983, when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite found a small asteroid following the same orbital path as the meteor swarm. Named 3200 Phaethon, it is the only known asteroid that generates a meteor shower. All other meteor showers are associated with icy comets.
When Phaethon makes its close pass by the sun once every 1.4 years, the solar heat bakes and crumbles the asteroid’s surface, leaving a trail of dusty debris in its wake. It is this dust swarm that the Earth moves through every December to create our Geminid meteor shower.
Under ideal dark sky conditions, a single observer can expect to see between 90 and 120 meteors per hour at the peak of activity. The meteors seem to shoot out of the sky near the twin stars of Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini, hence the name of this shower.
This year, the full Cold Moon shines on Dec. 18, and the meteor shower is due to peak before dawn on Dec. 14. On the morning of the peak, the fat gibbous moon will set around 3 a.m., leaving the remainder of the night dark and perfect for picking out meteors.
Don’t just watch for Geminid meteors on the night of the expected peak. Dozens of meteors can be seen for a night or two on either side of the peak. In fact, observers have noticed that in the days after the peak, there are more bright fireballs than before the peak.
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