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Five astronomical highlights the skies have in store in 2021

We’re starting another rotation around the sun. Here’s what to watch out for in the skies.

Image: Shutterstock/underworld

2020 HAS BEEN a year of highlights for astronomy in Ireland.

In March, a newly-discovered comet called Neowise was identified by Nasa, which reached its closest point to earth in July when it was visible over Ireland.

One of the best meteor showers of the year were the Perseids in August, while October brought a rare blue moon on Halloween.

The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn closed out the year during the winter solstice.

As we start another rotation around the sun, here are five astronomical highlights that the skies have in store in 2021.

International Space Station

The International Space Station will be flying over our skies for around a two week period every two months of the year.

The station will first be visible in 2021 for two weeks from 20 January.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, chair of Astronomy Ireland David Moore said that ”when it flies over, it is the brightest thing in the sky”.

“It’s very spectacular,” Moore said.

The light of the station moving across the sky can look similar to a plane, but without the noise.

Moore said the station has “two claims to fame”.

“It is the single most expensive object the human race has ever built [$150 billion] and secondly, it has people on board,” he said.

There are thousands of satellites you can see on a dark night, but this one is actually manned.”

The station, which can have as few as three crew members on board, is current manned by a team of seven.

“That’s a bit of fun. It’s in the evening sky, just after sunset, when everyone is awake. You don’t need any telescope or binoculars and it’s extremely impressive.”

Eclipses

Two eclipses are lined up to appear over Ireland in 2021 – one of the sun, and one of the moon.

Eclipses happen a few times a year, but they aren’t seen from everywhere on earth, and for Ireland, it’s unusual to have two visible in the same year.

“We’re going to catch the tail end of some eclipses,” Moore said.

On 10 June, there will be a partial eclipse from Ireland of the sun.

Later in the year, on 19 November, we’ll see the start of a partial eclipse of the moon.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon moves in front of the sun and casts a shadow on earth, while a lunar eclipse is when the earth blocks the light of the sun from reflecting on the moon.

Shooting stars

There are two key times to watch out for shooting stars over Ireland each year, which are in the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December.

“We’ll be looking forward to both of those,” Moore said.

The Perseids, which are named after the constellation Perseus, will peak over Ireland around 12 and 13 August.

In previous years, astronomers have counted up to 60 to 100 meteors an hour from a dark place during the peak of the Perseids shower.

Similarly, the Geminids can bring up to 120 meteors an hour at its peak, which will come around 13 and 14 December.

The Geminids are named after the Gemini constellation and are associated with the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which orbits the sun every 1.4 years.

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Planets

Venus, which is “extremely bright”, will be coming into the evening skies again, and Jupiter will be back in the summer after moving behind the sun at the end of January.

Mars will be another planet to watch next year, not for its position in the sky, but for probes that have been sent out that are on a mission to find life.

“There’s a lot happening in space exploration as well,” Moore said.

“The big thing that happened in 2020 that will go down in history books – probably more important than Covid-19 in long-term history – this is the year that space colonisation began.”

Earlier this year, a private company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, launched the first commercial crew to the International Space Station.

Now, it’s not the government that are running space, it’s private corporations.”

Musk has said that he intends to put the first person on Mars by 2024 or 2026 and to build a city of one million people on the planet.

“In 500 years time, if the biggest human race economy is on Mars and not on earth anymore… people will look back and say, when did it all start? The answer is 2020.” 

Comets

Right now, there are no major bright comets expected in 2021, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that one isn’t on the way.

“There are no big comets forecast, but then again, the giant comet that we had in July was only discovered weeks earlier and then became the best comet of the century from Ireland,” Moore said.

“That was probably the highlight of this year,” he said.

Will there be a bright comet? “We don’t know, there are no bright one forecasted, but we always hope there’s going to be another great comet.” 

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