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What's Up in the Sky: Here's what to expect in 2021

Suzie Dills
Special to Akron Beacon Journal

Although 2020 was a very difficult year for us, it gave us a chance to take time to observe astronomical highlights and night sky delights and view live broadcasts of historic launches. Many of us enjoyed the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and the surprise visit of Comet NEOWISE. We watched the launch of the next Mars rover, Perseverance, in July. History was made with the NASA SpaceX Crew Dragon flight, the first American rocket launch since 2011 and the NASA SpaceX Crew-1 Mission.

Space exploration highlights

Mars — Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is scheduled to land inside the 28-mile Jezero Crater, on Feb. 18. Perseverance will search for signs of ancient life in Jezero Crater, which harbored a lake and river delta billions of years ago. The rover will collect and store samples for future return to Earth, along with demonstrating technology that could aid in future exploration. A tiny helicopter,  named Ingenuity, hitched a ride on the belly of Perseverance. After the rover lands, it will find a place for Ingenuity to conduct test flights. Then Ingenuity will make a few short flights into the Martian skies. This will be the first ever flight by a rotorcraft on a planet beyond Earth.

SpaceX crew — In May, the NASA SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts will return to Earth. Soon after the NASA SpaceX Crew-2 Mission with four astronauts aboard will head to the International Space Station. The Crew-2 astronauts will spend six months at the ISS.

Boeing crew — Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 is targeted to launch March 29. The first crewed mission for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will be slated for June or later.

Moon — The first stage of the Artemis program for the return to the moon by humans will begin with the launch of Artemis I in November 2021. The mission is designed to test the crew spacecraft Orion and the Space Launch System. Crewed Artemis missions will follow.

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Space telescope — The James Webb Telescope is still on track for launch on Oct. 31. The James Webb Telescope will be the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built and launched into space. With the Webb, we will be able see much closer to the beginning of time, when the first stars and galaxies started to form.

Night sky highlights 

March 10 — The thin crescent moon joins Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the morning twilight.

April 25 Mercury and Venus will be about a degree apart, low in the western sky after sunset.

April 26 Supermoon: closest full moon of the year.

May 12 Venus and the thin crescent moon, less than 1 degree apart, low in the west-northwest at dusk.

May 26 Partial lunar eclipse, begins at 5:44 a.m. with the moon setting at 6:02 a.m.

June 10 Partial solar eclipse, will be underway with the sunrise at 5:52 am. Maximum at 5:55 a.m., and eclipse will end at 6:35 a.m.

July 11 The thin crescent moon will be 5 degrees from Venus and Mars, which will be separated by 1 degree low in the western sky at dusk.

Aug. 22 Seasonal blue moon, occurs when we have four full moons in one season. The third is called the blue moon. This is the original definition of a blue moon.

Nov. 19 Near-total lunar eclipse. Partial eclipse begins at 2:18 a.m., maximum at 4:02 a.m. and eclipse ends at 5:47 a.m.

Dec. 5 Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and the moon form a spectacular line in the western sky after sunset.

Night sky for January

Planets and moon: Jupiter and Saturn start the month low in the southwestern sky, right after sunset. By mid-month, they drop from view, but will return to the morning sky next month. Mercury returns to the evening sky in January and creates a spectacular trio with Jupiter and Saturn, in the southwest, right after sunset Jan. 10. Mercury will continue to climb higher and remains visible through the end of the month. Mercury reaches greatest elongation Jan. 23, 19 degrees east of the sun. Mars shines brightly overhead all month but continues to move away from Earth. At the beginning of the month, Mars is 84.3 million miles from Earth, at month’s end it will be 111 million miles away. Brilliant Venus will be low in the predawn southeastern at the beginning of January but lost in the sun’s glare at month’s end. Jan. 18-22 will be a great time to spot Uranus. Mars will pass north of Uranus, with Jan. 21 as the best night, when Uranus is 1.7 degrees due south of Mars. On Jan. 1, Neptune will be 1 degree east of Phi Aquarii in eastern Aquarius. On Jan. 14, the moon pairs with Mercury, 35 minutes after sunset. Then on Jan. 17 the moon passes south of Neptune and on Jan. 21 passes south of Mars and Uranus. In the predawn sky, the moon pairs with Venus on Jan. 11.

What you'll see if you look east in the night sky mid-January

Constellations: East — Great star hopping in this part of the sky! Start with the most magnificent picture in our stars, Orion, the Hunter. Look for the three stars in a line, which make up the belt of Orion. The bright red-orange star up and to the left of the belt is Betelgeuse. The bright blue-white star down and to the right of the belt is Rigel. Draw a line up from the belt to a red, orange star, Aldebaran, which is the eye of Taurus, the Bull. The sideways V shape is the face of Taurus. Above Taurus, the small cluster of stars is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. Making a counterclockwise loop from the Pleiades, the next bright star is Capella. Continuing down, the two stars you see are Gemini, the Twins.

North — The Big Dipper is beginning to swing up on its handle. Following the two stars at the end of the cup to the next bright star, is Polaris, or the North Star. The constellation Cassiopeia is above and to the left of Polaris and resembles the letter “M.”

West — There you will see four stars that form the Great Square of Pegasus.

Binocular highlights — When facing north, locate the “M” shape of Cassiopeia. From the left point of the “M” shape, scan slowly up to the left. You will see a fuzzy circular shape. That is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is 2.5 million light years away. From the right point of the “M,” scan up slightly. You will come upon the Double Cluster in Perseus. High overhead, you will see the small cluster of stars, the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. The Pleiades is a beautiful open star cluster. Head to Orion, the Hunter. Scan below the three stars of Orion’s belt. You will see fuzzy area with bright stars. This is the Orion Nebula, a hydrogen gas cloud where new stars are forming.

The peak of the Quadrantid Meteor Shower is Jan. 3.

For further night sky details, maps and audio, visit my website www.starrytrails.com.

Visit the Hoover Price Planetarium: Visit www.mckinleymuseum.org, for limited show dates and times. Planetarium shows are free with museum admission. Seating is limited and will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The planetarium is located inside the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW in Canton. For more information, call the museum at 330-455-7043.