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Welcome to 2021—a year full of spectacular astronomical events! What stargazing and sky watching events should you keep an eye out for? Here are our top picks of the year, including two great meteor showers, a three-planet conjunction, and a supermoon lunar eclipse! Take a look…
The year 2020 was one of the strangest of our lives. But for those who took solace in the heavens, it was also remarkable for its celestial richness. Comet Neowise brought us the finest comet in more than a quarter century. The Geminid meteors of mid-December were the richest in years, as they delivered over a meteor-a-minute. And the Great Conjunction wowed the world, except for those who suffered the bad luck of a prolonged cloudy streak.
So, what about 2021? Will our good sky-luck continue? What will the new year hold for those of us who enjoy nature and the night sky?
Lunar and Solar Eclipses
When we preview what the stars hold in store for any coming year, we first must consider the possibility of a total solar eclipse, since that’s the most stunning sight Nature can ever conjure. Normally people must travel to see one, since, for any given location, they only happen once every 360 years on average. And sure enough, while there will indeed be a total solar eclipse, it will play its usual game of hard-to-get. The date will be December 4, but it will only be seen from parts of Antarctica and nowhere else. So we can forget that one.
This new year will bring two lunar eclipses, however, and both will appear total. The first, on May 26, will be best seen from the Western half of the US, but the next one, on November 19, will be visible from everywhere. During a total lunar eclipse, Earth stands between the Sun and the Moon, such that Earth casts a shadow on the Moon. This gives the Moon its characteristic reddish hue during the eclipse.
In addition to the lunar eclipse, May’s full Moon will also be the biggest full Moon of 2021—a “supermoon“—as it occurs nearest to perigee (the point in the Moon’s orbit where it’s closest to Earth). On May 26, the Moon will be roughly 222,116 miles away from Earth. Those who live near the coasts should expect a dramatically large range of high and low ocean tides around this time.
Although the year starts off with a Quadrantid display on January 2-3 that will be washed out somewhat by the waning gibbous Moon, the year’s best meteor showers—the Perseid meteors on August 11 and the Geminid meteors on December 13—will both unfold without a full Moon or even a bright gibbous Moon to spoil the show with unwanted light. If the weather’s clear, both meteor showers should be gorgeous.
What about the planets? Here, we have a mixed bag.
The brightest planet, Venus, will indeed be a super brilliant Evening Star, but not until December, near year’s end.
Mars will be downright strange. The Red Planet is at its brightest in early January, at zero magnitude, as the very brilliant orange star that’s out most of the night, and it will slowly dim but remain easy to spot. However, from May until year’s end it will be dim and also subdued by being too close to the sun’s glare. So unless you look at it right now during the opening few weeks of 2021, it’ll be a washout year for Mars.
Jupiter and Saturn, however, will be wonderful all summer long, with oppositions in August, when they’ll be very bright in the constellation Capricornus. But, alert!! Right now, during the first week of January, you can still see the remnant of 2020’s Great Conjunction. Peer low in the southwest, to the left of where the sun set, between 5 and 5:30. You need a very clear, unobstructed horizon, but those giant worlds are still easy to spot, hovering close together. On January 9-11, they are joined by Mercury, too!
If you have an unblocked southwest horizon or can get to one—try a mall parking lot, cemetery, lakeside, or athletic field—those three worlds form a striking triangle at around 5:15 PM. Jupiter is brightest, Mercury second-brightest, and Saturn is the dimmest of the trio. This is a don’t-miss conjunction, which I’d rate as more visually stunning than even the official Great Conjunction on December 21, 2020.