2020 was tumultuous, yet it offered so much for night-sky lovers. We needed it. With the pandemic making it unsafe to mingle, we looked for alternative ways to engage.
The stars reassured us that some things don't change and offered a path to rediscovering the wild spaces overhead. Of course, in the long haul, stars do change, providing yet another important lesson. You can't hold on too tightly to this life, but there's nothing wrong with loving the heck out of it.
Astronomically, 2020 will be remembered for Comet NEOWISE, the first truly bright, fantastically gorgeous comet to grace northern night skies since Hale-Bopp in 1997. Perhaps you were like me and willingly lost sleep to see this ethereal beauty in early July when it first appeared in the pre-dawn sky. Though NEOWISE began to fade later in the month, it also moved into evening twilight when people who are typically asleep 4 a.m. could enjoy it.
Long ago, comets were seen as portents of evil and disaster. NEOWISE was anything but for millions of people across the globe. In my town people packed a nearby soccer field parking lot and marveled aloud in the dark at its appearance. Being able to simply look up and find the comet with your own eyes gave each of us a little tingle of joy — and maybe hope, too.
Two potentially bright comets preceded NEOWISE in April and May: ATLAS (C/2019 Y4) and SWAN (C/2020 F8). Many skywatchers were hopeful they'd turn into bright objects, but in the end both fizzled naked-eye-wise sight yet remained wonderful objects to watch in the telescope.
Prior to all the cometary delirium, brilliant Venus towered in the evening sky in March and April. If you were out at dusk the planet was your constant companion. Before falling back toward the sun in May and passing into the morning sky, Venus strode across the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster April 3 in an eye-catching and infrequent conjunction.
Although NEOWISE stole the show, 2020 was arguably one of the best years ever for planet-watching. If Venus captured our gaze in spring, Mars made our heads turn in fall when it was so close to Earth it briefly outshone the planet Jupiter. The Red Planet won't be as bright again until September 2035.
As Mars began to fade, we watched Jupiter inch toward Saturn from September until the first day of winter in one of the slowest visual crescendos ever. Would they ever meet? On Dec. 21, the two giants embraced in a stunning Great Conjunction, their closest in centuries. Now, on the final day of 2020, they're still just 1.2 degrees apart and continue to delight low in the southwestern sky at dusk.
What's ahead for 2021
Below I've compiled some of the best and brightest events to look forward to in the new year:
Jan. 2-3 — Peak of the annual Quandrantid meteor shower. I'll provide more details on how to see it in an upcoming blog.
March 10 — Lovely close grouping of the thin, waning crescent moon with Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn low in the southeastern sky at dawn.
April 26 — Full supermoon this evening. Supermoons are full moons that occur around the same time the moon is closest to the Earth.
May 12 — Venus and a very slender crescent moon will be just 1 degree apart low in the northwestern 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.
June 10 — An annular solar eclipse, where the moon covers all but a narrow ring of sunlight at maximum eclipse, is visible in Canada, Greenland and Russia. The eclipse path's southern end touches parts of the north shore of Lake Superior.
July 12 — Mars and Venus will be a half-degree apart low in the western sky at dusk.
August 11-12 — Peak of the Perseid meteor shower. The waxing crescent moon will set about 10 p.m. so it won't spoil the view.
August 22 — We'll have a Seasonal Blue Moon, the third full moon in a season that contains four. This is the original definition of a Blue Moon. Nowadays it's also also considered to be the second full moon occurring in the same month.
Nov. 19 — A near-total lunar eclipse occurs this morning visible across the Americas, northern Europe and other locales.
Dec. 5 — Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and the moon will form celestial conga line 50 degrees long in the western sky at dusk with the moon passing each planet in turn over the coming nights.
Dec. 13-14 — Peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Although a bright, waxing gibbous moon will interfere, it sets around 3 a.m. local time, leaving a three-hour window of dark skies until dawn.
Unfortunately, no comets make the list. While 2021 will see several returning comets bright enough for amateur telescopes, none will approach naked-eye brightness. Have faith. Many new ones are discovered each year. No one was expecting 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. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.