Jimmy Westlake’s top 10 celestial events of 2021

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” columns 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. After a 6.5-month journey from Earth, the Perseverance rover is due to settle down on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18 and begin its exploration for evidence of ancient life there. It also carries with it the first helicopter drone to attempt flight on another planet. Stay tuned to the NASA website https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/ for details as the landing approaches. (NASA Image) Feb. 18: Perseverance lands on Mars A whole new era of Mars exploration begins on 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 back 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 will also use this proven but risky technique to settle down on the rugged surface. Unlike Curiosity, Perseverance will have to 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?” The timing of the total lunar eclipse of May 26 might not be ideal, but the views should be. A total eclipse of the moon happens when the moon slips completely within the dark shadow of the Earth and, as a result, becomes painted with all colors of the rainbow, but most notably blood red. This montage of the total lunar eclipse of April 15, 2014, shows the eclipse just before, during, and just after totality. Early risers will get to see something very similar just before dawn on May 26. (Jimmy Westlake/courtesy) 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. Venus and Mars are playing cat and mouse in our evening sky this summer, including a chase across the famous Beehive Star Cluster, or M44. First Mars on June 23 and then Venus, nine days later, will slide in front of the dozens of swarming stars of the Beehive. Although it is faintly visible as a fuzzy smudge to the unaided eye, to see this event at its best, a pair of ordinary binoculars will be required. This image shows Venus posing with the Beehive on June 20, 2010. (Jimmy Westlake/courtesy) 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 Top 10 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. When Jupiter comes to opposition each year, it is always a special event. The giant planet shines brilliantly from sunset to dawn as it passes closest to Earth for the year. This year, Jupiter reaches opposition on Aug. 19, just 18 days after Saturn does, so once again, both giant planets will adorn our late summer sky with their dazzling display. These images were taken with the 60-inch Hale Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory and reveal details only visible in large instruments, but opposition is a great time to aim your backyard telescope at the planets to see the wonders of the solar system for yourself. (Jimmy Westlake/courtesy) 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 and 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, […]

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