With 'normal life' limited for the foreseeable future - including travel options - many of us are escaping by exploring the skies. But what are the best celestial views in 2021?
Since antiquity, the stars have provided a dramatic backdrop for the existence of humankind. Astronomy is a science, a history, a mathematics, a mythology, a religion, a paradox and an art form which still perplexes even the profoundest intelligentsia.
Humans have been analysing the night sky in search of answers to existential questions for millennia - predating any religion or belief system. We're eternally fascinated by trying to rationalise our existence. In the 21st century, living in the wake of great minds like Hubble, Hawking and Cox, our understanding has expanded - though not as fast as the universe itself.
For the majority of us mere mortals, ‘space talk’ is saved for incoherent debates after a few pints down the local, or alone in the small hours when sleep evades us. But after a year of witnessing our tangible world alter beyond the realms of imagination, it would seem there’s a lot of solace to be found in cascades of celestial bodies beaming light through the darkness.
Here are the main events to look up for in 2021.
January 2 - 3: Quadrantids Meteor Shower
While there are many meteor showers throughout the calendar year, most have very low rates. The Quadrantids is an above-average shower, thought to have come from dust grains left from a now-extinct comet, 2003 EH1.
In this shower, you might be able to see a meteor every minute or so, and the really bright ones are known as fireballs. The Quadrantids make an appearance every year at the start of January, usually around the 1 - 5.
January 13: First New Moon of 2021
January 28: First Full Moon of 2021
February 11: New Moon
This moon cycle is the perfect opportunity to stargaze in the deep winter sky. The new moon means there will be no light, so gazers might be able to see the Pleiades and the Andromeda Galaxy.
February 18: Perseverance Landing
NASA’s latest Mars explorer is due to land on February 18 to study Martian soil for signs of life. It was launched in July last year.
March 20: March Equinox
An equinox is when the sun shines directly onto the equator, meaning there are nearly equal amounts of day and night around the world. It also marks the first day of spring (vernal equinox) in the Northern Hemisphere, and the first day of autumn (autumnal equinox) in the Southern Hemisphere.
April 22 - 23: Lyrids Meteor Shower
The Lyrids produce about 20 meteors per hour. This year, April’s super moon might impact visibility, but it usually creates bright dust trails that last for several seconds. The Lyrids originate from particles left by comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861. The shower runs annually from April 16 - 25.
April 27: Super Full Moon
On this night, the moon and the sun will be directly opposite each other so the moon’s face is fully illuminated. Super moons can appear up to 14 per cent bigger and 30 per cent brighter than a normal full moon.
May 6 - 7: Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower
The Eta Aquarids isn’t as prolific as the Quandrantis, but is capable of producing up to 60 meteors per hour. Made of debris left from Halley’s comet, which has been observed since ancient times, the shower runs annually from April 19 to May 28.
May 26: Super Full Moon and Lunar Eclipse
It’s a double whammy in late May. If you miss April’s super moon, don’t worry: this is the closest the moon will get to the Earth all year, so it’s the date you really want in your diary.
If you’re located in the Pacific Ocean, or eastern Asia, Japan, Australia and western America, you’re also likely to see the total lunar eclipse. This happens when the moon passes completely through the Earth's dark shadow. The moon will gradually get darker and then take on a blood red hue.
June 10: Annular Solar Eclipse
Solar eclipses occur when the moon is too far from the Earth to completely obscure the sun. This results in a ring of bright light around the dark moon. The annular eclipse will be visible in eastern Russia, the Arctic Ocean, western Greenland and Canada. A partial eclipse will be visible in the US, Europe, and the rest of Russia.
June 21: June Solstice
On June 21, the North Pole will be tilted toward the sun. This is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and the first day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
July 13: Conjunction of Mars and Venus
Earth’s closest neighbours are banking on social distancing rules being lifted by summer ‘21. On this night, the visibility angle from Earth will make Mars and Venus appear as one. They can be seen just after sunset in the western sky.
July 28 - 29: Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower
The Delta Aquarids can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. It is a result of the debris left behind by comets Marsden and Kracht. The shower runs every year from July 12 to August 23.
End of July: Completion of NASA’s Juno Mission
The hugely successful Juno mission will end this July, when the craft is deorbited and plunged into Jupiter, which is home to the largest ocean (made entirely of liquid hydrogen) in the solar system.
By destroying the spacecraft, researchers will avoid contaminating any of Jupiter’s moons, which might host life. Juno has provided NASA with lots of information around Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields.
August 12 - 13: Perseids Meteor Shower
It’s due to be a good year for the Perseids. The waxing crescent moon will set early in the evening, guaranteeing dark skies just in time for the show.
The Perseids meteor shower produces up to 60 meteors per hour. These come from comet Swift-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1862. The shower is especially famous for producing a large number of fireballs, and runs annually between July 17 and August 24.
August 2 and August 19: Jupiter and Saturn in Opposition
Following the Christmas conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, August will see the planets oppose. On 2 August, Saturn will be at its closest approach to Earth and fully illuminated by the sun. On August 19, Jupiter will follow suit; it will be brighter than any other time of year and visible all night.
August 22: Blue Moon
As the third of four full moons this season, blue moons occur roughly every 2-3 years, and 2021 is on the list.
14 September and 5 November: Neptune and Uranus in Opposition
These are two planets that get very little airtime from planet Earth due to their size and distance. It’s a rare opportunity to actually have a viewing (this still requires a telescope).
October 7: Draconids Meteor Shower
The Draconids is a minor meteor shower of about 10 meteors per hour. This one comes from the dust grains left behind by comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. The comet was first discovered in 1900.
It’s an unusual shower in that the best viewing is in the early evening instead of early morning. The shower runs annually from October 6 - 10.
October 13: James Webb Space Telescope launch
The next big thing in telescopes is launching on 13 October after several delays. Following the game changing Hubble Space Telescope will be no easy task, but the James Webb features a mirror capable of collecting over six times more light than Hubble can - meaning it will see more, and further afield.
October 21 - 22: Orionids Meteor Shower
The Orionids is an average shower producing up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. It’s another product of comet Halley, and runs from October 2 to November 7. The full moon might cause some visibility issues this year.
November 4 - 5: Taurids Meteor Shower
The Taurids is a long-running minor meteor shower producing only about 5-10 meteors per hour. It’s made up from two separate streams: the first, from dust grains left behind by Asteroid 2004 TG10. The second stream is debris from Comet 2P Encke. This shower runs from September 7 to December 10.
November 17 - 18: Leonids Meteor Shower
Another average shower, but this one is unique in its cycle. In a normal year, Leonids produces up to 15 meteors per hour. However every 33 years, hundreds can be seen. The last time this happened was 2001, so we’re over halfway. The shower is made up of dust grains from the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1865. Visible annually from November 6 - 30.
November 19: Partial Lunar Eclipse
A partial lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth's partial shadow, or and only a portion of it passes through the darkest shadow. This one will be visible in eastern Russia, Japan, the Pacific Ocean, North America, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America.
December 4: Total Solar Eclipse
The path of totality in this eclipse is limited to Antarctica and the southern Atlantic Ocean. You might catch a glimpse in South Africa.
December 13 - 14: Geminids Meteor Shower
We’ll be heading out of 2021 with a bang, and one of the best meteor showers the heavens have to offer. The Geminids showcase up to 120 multicoloured meteors per hour at its peak.
These are produced by debris from an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, first discovered in 1982. The shower runs annually from December 7 - 17.