Astronomy 2021: The biggest events including a super moon lunar eclipse
Let’s hope the sky is crystal clear in Colorado just before dawn on the morning of May 26.
If it is, Front Range residents will be treated to a very special lunar eclipse appearing to hang just above the mountains as part of a confluence of events that figures to be the highlight of the celestial calendar for 2021.
First of all, the moon will be full, and it will be a “super moon.” That means the moon will be closer to the earth — just over 222,000 miles away — than for any other full moon this year. And remember, the moon always looks bigger when it is rising and setting than it does when it’s overhead. (Scientists tell us that is just an optical illusion, but it sure is a convincing one.)
That’s already a cool aspect of the timing for this eclipse. But here’s where it gets really exciting: The moon will be low in the western sky when the eclipse begins at 5:11 a.m., while the sky is turning twilight blue with the approach of sunrise. The eclipse will reach its maximum at 5:18, the sun will rise at 5:36 and the moon will set at 5:43.
We’re already thinking about cool places to watch the show. The Genesee overlook on Interstate 70, where the moon would be seen hanging over the Continental Divide, could be an amazing vantage point.
“What I think will be really cool is that it will be setting in the west over the Rocky Mountains for folks in the Front Range, and it’s going to be just coming out of totality (of eclipse) as it sets,” said John Keller, the director of the Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus. “For that 45 minutes or so when it is in full totality, it will be a rusty reddish color. You will be seeing the red refracted light from our atmosphere making the otherwise dark moon glow.”
Indeed, Keller says one of the things that makes this eclipse special is that there’s more to the show than the alignment of the sun, the Earth and the moon. He thinks we should give extra props to the influence of Earth’s atmosphere.
“If the Earth didn’t have an atmosphere, we would still have eclipses, but the eclipse in May would be very different,” Keller said. “One, the moon wouldn’t be lit up because there wouldn’t be any bending of the red light (through Earth’s atmosphere) to give you the reddening of the moon, And two, there wouldn’t be any light blue twilight as the sun is rising, because our atmosphere is doing both. It’s scattering the blue light and it’s bending the red light. So this combination of the reddish setting moon in a bluish predawn sky is really as much about the alignment of the three objects as it is about our atmosphere playing a huge light show for us.”
Another lunar eclipse will be visible in Denver on Nov. 19, but that one is only partial. And while the moon will be full for that one, too, it will be farther away (251,000 miles, 29,000 more than in May). Plus, it will take place in the wee hours after midnight.
With that as an appetizer, here’s a list of other celestial events to put on your calendar for 2021:
- Lyrids meteor shower, April 16-30: The Lyrids are a “medium-strength” meteor shower that usually produces good numbers for the three nights around the peak of April 21-22, according to the American Meteor Society, which says those meteors “usually lack persistent trains but can produce fireballs.” Fireballs are especially bright meteors, sometimes visible even in daylight hours.
- Super moon, April 26: Super moons occur when a full moon coincides with its moon’s perigee, meaning when it is closest to Earth. The full moon with the closet perigee in 2021 will occur on May 26, but the full moon on April 26 comes in a close second. In other words, April’s full moon, like May’s, will appear unusually large.
- Perseids meteor shower, July 17-Aug. 26: This shower, which will peak Aug. 12-13, is one of the best of the year, and is usually considered the most popular because it happens when nighttime viewing conditions are more comfortable than they are for the year’s strongest shower, the Geminids, which occur in December.
- Opposition of Saturn, Aug. 2: Saturn will be especially bright because it will be in “opposition,” meaning it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, and it will be at its closest approach to Earth of the year.
- Opposition of Jupiter, Aug. 19: Same situation as Saturn. Jupiter will appear especially bright because it will be at opposition with the sun and relatively close to Earth.
- Geminids meteor shower, Dec. 4-17: For those willing to stand outside in the dark on cold nights, the Geminids are usually the best meteor shower of the year, peaking Dec. 13-14. “The Geminids are often bright and intensely colored,” according to the American Meteor Society. “Due to their medium-slow velocity, persistent trains are not usually seen.”
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