See Jupiter and Mercury align in the sky and an asteroid flyby this weekend

The solar system's largest and smallest planets will be in alignment this Friday.In the morning, Mercury and Jupiter will be in conjunction and appear...

Posted: Mar 4, 2021 8:10 PM
Updated: Mar 4, 2021 8:10 PM

The solar system's largest and smallest planets will be in alignment this Friday.

In the morning, Mercury and Jupiter will be in conjunction and appear just above the horizon, according to NASA.

A conjunction is when two objects appear close together in the sky, but they can actually be millions of miles apart, according to Thomas Beatty, assistant astronomer at Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

It's similar to a merry-go-round, he said, with certain animals aligning as they circle around the center of the ride.

To the naked eye, the planets will look like two bright stars, Beatty said.

The best time to view the conjunction is in the early morning hours, but it might be difficult to see in the Northern Hemisphere, according to EarthSky. The views will be much better in the Southern Hemisphere due to Earth's angle in the sky.

Asteroid Apophis flyby

An asteroid will make a flyby between Friday and Saturday, according to EarthSky. Apophis, an asteroid that spans over 1,312 feet, will be closest to the Earth -- over 10 million miles from our planet or 44 times further than the moon -- on March 5 at 8:15 p.m. ET.

Unlike the conjunction, it will likely not be visible to the naked eye, Beatty said. Stargazers can view the asteroid flyby online for free through The Virtual Telescope Project in Rome.

When the asteroid was first discovered in 2004, scientists believed the asteroid had a small chance of hitting Earth in 2029, Beatty said.

There was a one in 10,000 chance the asteroid was going to collide with Earth, but given the damage it would do, "one in 10,000 is sort of unacceptable from our standpoint of humanity," he said.

Luckily, the Apophis flyby in 2013 allowed scientists to gather better measurements and the new numbers show the chances are extremely low, Beatty added.

He said the large asteroid will still be passing close in 2029 -- about 24,000 miles from Earth, according to EarthSky -- and it will be easier to see in the sky compared to the 2021 flyby.

Meteor showers

There is a bit of a wait until the next meteor shower, the popular Lyrids in April. The Lyrids will peak on April 22 and will be best seen in the Northern Hemisphere -- but the moon will be 68% full, according to the American Meteor Society.

The Eta Aquariids follow soon after, peaking on May 5 when the moon is 38% full. This shower is best seen in the southern tropics, but will still produce a medium shower for those north of the equator.

The Delta Aquariids are also best seen from the southern tropics and will peak between July 28 and 29 when the moon is 74% full.

Interestingly, another meteor shower peaks on the same night -- the Alpha Capricornids. Although this is a much weaker shower, it has been known to produce some bright fireballs during the peak. And it will be visible for those on either side of the equator.

The Perseid meteor shower, the most popular of the year, will peak between August 11 and 12 in the Northern Hemisphere when the moon is only 13% full.

Here is the meteor shower schedule for the rest of the year, according to EarthSky's meteor shower outlook.

  • October 8: Draconids
  • October 21: Orionids
  • November 4 to 5: South Taurids
  • November 11 to 12: North Taurids
  • November 17: Leonids
  • December 13 to 14: Geminids
  • December 22: Ursids

Solar and lunar eclipses

This year, there will be two eclipses of the sun and two eclipses of the moon -- and three of these will be visible for some in North America, according to The Old Farmer's Almanac.

A total eclipse of the moon will occur on May 26, best visible to those in western North America and Hawaii from 4:46 a.m. ET to 9:51 a.m. ET.

An annular eclipse of the sun will happen on June 10, visible in northern and northeastern North America from 4:12 a.m. ET to 9:11 a.m. ET. The sun won't be fully blocked by the moon, so be sure to wear eclipse glasses to safely view this event.

November 19 will see a partial eclipse of the moon, and skywatchers in North America and Hawaii can view it between 1 a.m. ET and 7:06 a.m. ET.

And the year ends with a total eclipse of the sun on December 4. It won't be seen in North America, but those in the Falkland Islands, the southern tip of Africa, Antarctica and southeastern Australia will be able to spot it.

Visible planets

Skywatchers will have multiple opportunities to spot the planets in our sky during certain mornings and evenings throughout 2021, according to the Farmer's Almanac planetary guide.

It's possible to see most of these with the naked eye, with the exception of distant Neptune, but binoculars or a telescope will provide the best view.

Mercury will look like a bright star in the morning sky from February 28 to March 20, June 27 to July 16, and October 18 to November 1. It will shine in the night sky from May 3 to May 24, August 31 to September 21 and November 29 to December 31.

Venus, our closest neighbor in the solar system, will appear in the western sky at dusk on the evenings of May 24 to December 31. It's the second brightest object in our sky after the moon.

Mars makes its reddish appearance in the morning sky between November 24 and December 31 and will be visible in the evening sky between January 1 and August 22.

Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is the third brightest object in our sky. It will be on display in the morning sky between February 17 and August 19. Look for it in the evenings of August 20 to December 31 -- but it will be at its brightest from August 8 to September 2.

Saturn's rings are only visible through a telescope, but the planet itself can still be seen with the naked eye on the mornings of February 10 to August 1 and the evenings of August 2 to December 31. It will be at its brightest between August 1 to 4.

Binoculars or a telescope will help you spot the greenish glow of Uranus on the mornings of May 16 to November 3 and the evenings of January 1 to April 12 and November 4 to December 31 -- but at its brightest between August 28 to December 31.

And our most distant neighbor in the solar system, Neptune will be visible through a telescope on the mornings of March 27 to September 13 and the evenings of September 14 to December 31. It will be at its brightest between July 19 and November 8.

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