Searching the Sky: A special way to end the year

David Baumgartner summarizes the year in astronomy, including a total solar eclipse in Chile and the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

This article was contributed by David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.

What a special way to end the year…

And yes, in the night skies it was something special, considering the year that was thrown at us here on Earth. If you want to remember, it was the year 2020. How can we ever forget?

David Baumgartner in an observatory in his old backyard. Photo provided by David Baumgartner.
David Baumgartner in an observatory in his old backyard. Photo provided by David Baumgartner.

The skies were especially generous to us in the last month though. There was a total solar eclipse. You say you missed it? Well, that might be for the fact that it occurred in Chile. We did get to witness the spectacular conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the 21st.  But I thought a more exciting event was on the 16th when not only Jupiter and Saturn were visiting each other, maybe not as close as on the 21st, but they had an encounter from our moon, which made for an interesting photo with all three vying for the front row.

We also had a good look at Uranus and Neptune, the two outer gas giants. You needed a good pair of binoculars to find them that is if you knew where to look.  Mars was almost straight up at the zenith for good viewing with less atmosphere to look through as it falls farther behind as Earth marches away from the red planet. Give it two years from now and Mars will be right back again showing us man’s next adventure in space. If you were a morning person you would be able to see the brightest planet in the sky, Venus, while speedy Mercury was hidden behind the Sun. Now little Pluto was out as well trying to keep up with Jupiter and Saturn, but you would need a very large scope to catch a glimpse of this ice planet. 

Wait, that’s not all! We also had the pleasure of witnessing the Geminid meteors, one of the most active meteor showers of the year, mainly because the lack of the moon wiping out all but the brightest of meteors. And as usual the moon itself always has something to show off about. Now you would think that that would be it for one month, you got it, there’s more. Let’s not leave out the many hard to find asteroids, most of them located in the asteroid belt between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter. Okay, one more: Comet Howell was up and running last month as well. But if you missed it, not to worry, it will be there in January too.

One of the most interesting events of all was the meeting of the two super giants: Jupiter and Saturn. My buddy Ron and I set up our scopes at the Presbyterian Church on Cienega Road. Before we knew it we were surrounded by 20 or so interested parents and children, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great conjunction. Seeing Jupiter showing off its four visible moons, and Saturn’s rings looking as always the best object in the sky, which was the hit of the evening. But most of the visitors didn’t seem all that excited over the highly media publicized event. I must admit I felt more or less the same way. The view of the two planets was one thing, but the real story was just the idea that these two planets hadn’t been this close together in over 800 years and won’t be for another 40 years before they get the chance to dance for us again. And the whole idea of the possibility that this could be the answer to the famous “Star of Bethlehem” is quite interesting, to say the least. 

Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Photo by David Baumgartner.
Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Photo by David Baumgartner.

Everyone seemed to have a good time. I thought it interesting that Ron and I initially set up so we could try and get some photos of the once in a lifetime event. With all the interest from the onlookers wanting to look through our telescopes we didn’t have much of a chance to take many shots. I did manage to get a couple of clicks off. But I must say we got more enjoyment out of the response from the onlookers. It gives us both a good feeling to share our passion with others knowing we aren’t the only potential astronomy geeks out there.

Well I hope everyone had a great holiday. To me, Christmas has always been the best time of the year. That is when Santa surprised me with my first telescope back in the mid 50s and got all this started. Thank you Santa…..I think!

Clear Skies.

Events to come in January:

Jan. 3: Quadrantids meteor shower peaks

Jan. 6: Last Quarter Moon

Jan. 9: Moon is at perigee (228,284 miles from Earth)

Jan. 11: Mercury passes 1.5° south of Jupiter and Venus

Jan. 13: New Moon

Jan. 13: Moon passes 3° south of Jupiter

Jan. 14: Moon passes 2° south of Mercury


David Baumgartner

I am a local fella. Local schools from Fremont, Sacred Heart, Santa Anita, Hollister High, to San Benito Jr. College (Now Gavilan). Then joined the US Air Force where I specialized in Airborne Radar. Married my high school sweetheart JoAnne., shortly after three children arrived; Cindi, Michael, and Lisa. Somehow we ended up with nine Grandchildren.  Went on to San Luis Obispo, Questa, Colleges, and on to Univ. of New Mexico. Came back to Hollister. Opened up Three Pet Stores; Dave's Aquarium Pets & Supplies in SLO, Watsonville, and Hollister. The family spent two and a half years running a ranch up in Oregon. Made our way back to Hollister.  Got my Real Estate License in 1982, opened my own office in 93'. In the mean time raised Swans and revitalized my old hobby of Astronomy.  In 2001 I was named Chamber of Commence Man of the Year. I think I was the only one nominated. I don't care, I'm taking it. In December of 2018 I retired. Not sure if I was forced out or not. None the less, I am retired and I think it was time. Now the last thing I have to do is buy a coffin. I hear COSCO sells them now. But the only drawback is; you have to buy them in lots of six.  I guess I could buy them for the whole family. Not that funny, but thrifty.