From meteor showers to solar and lunar eclipses to planetary ballets, 2021 is absolutely brimming with celestial events. Here’s an overview of the most noteworthy astronomical phenomena in January and the coming year.
2021 will offer shooting star enthusiasts a mixed bag of sights. The year begins with a waning gibbous Moon that will all but eliminate your chances of seeing the Quadrantids, which are expected to peak on the morning of January 3. What a shame, as this lesser-known meteor shower is in some ways the most intense of the year. But you can make up for it by checking out the Eta Aquarids, past 3 a.m. on May 5-6, and the famous Perseids, on the nights of August 11-12 and 12-13: The Moon will be out of the way in the second half of the night, leaving the sky dark and wide open for both these showers. The Geminids in December will also benefit from a moonless sky in the final hours of the night.
Two eclipses to watch out for
Of the four eclipses that will take place this year somewhere on Earth, two will be visible to varying degrees from southern Quebec. The most talked about one will no doubt be the annular solar eclipse on June 10. This type of solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is too far from Earth to completely obscure the Sun’s brilliant surface, resulting in a ring of light around the Moon’s dark silhouette at the peak of the eclipse. This eclipse will be annular within a band several hundred kilometres wide that will cross the neighbouring regions of our planet’s North Pole, namely the Canadian Arctic islands in Nunavut, as well as the northwestern part of Quebec’s Nunavik territory, along Hudson Bay and James Bay. The rest of Quebec will witness a partial eclipse of varying degrees, commencing shortly after sunrise. We’ll cover this phenomenon in more detail this spring.
Next to be eclipsed is the Moon, in the wee hours of November 19. The eclipse will technically be partial, since the Moon won’t completely enter the Earth’s umbral shadow, but it will plunge very deeply into it: At the peak of the eclipse, around 4:04 a.m. ET, only a small sliver of the Moon’s surface will still be lit by direct sunshine. In fact, we could call this an “almost total” lunar eclipse, since the rest of the Moon will take on the characteristic reddish hue of a total eclipse. A must-see!
The three planets that accompanied our nights over the last few months will bow out one by one in January and spend several weeks out of sight. Early in the year, at twilight, we can still spot the very brilliant Jupiter with Saturn slightly below and to its right. After their exceptionally close conjunction on the first day of winter, the two planets are now moving apart; but the Sun is relentlessly closing in on the pair, which appear lower and lower on the horizon at nightfall. Saturn is the first to vanish in the glow of the setting Sun during the second week of January and is back in solar conjunction on the 23rd. Considerably brighter than Saturn and located a few degrees further east, Jupiter remains visible for an additional week before it, too, disappears during the third week of January. The giant planet is in conjunction with the Sun on the 28th. The ringed planet will be the first to reappear after mid-February, very low in the east-southeast at dawn, while Jupiter emerges at dawn in late February. Both Jupiter (opposition on August 19) and Saturn (opposition on August 2) will be at their best this summer. Jupiter, straddling the border of Capricorn and Aquarius, will gain about 10 degrees in altitude compared to last year—an advantageous position for telescope viewing.
At the other end of the night, Venus is also preparing to exit the morning sky, where it has been shining for over seven months. In the first half of January, the dazzling planet can still be seen above the southeastern horizon at dawn, 30 minutes before sunrise. But Venus loses altitude with each passing day, and spotting it becomes increasingly trickier; during the last week of January, it disappears completely in the brightness of oncoming daylight. Venus will be too close to the Sun over the next few months and, as such, will be washed out by our star’s brilliance. It slips behind the Sun on March 26, but will only begin to be visible around the third week of April, very low above the west-northwestern horizon, 15 or so minutes after sunset. This is a poor evening apparition for Venus, which will peak at less than 10 degrees above the horizon at twilight, practically until the end of the year.
Mars’s slow goodbye
Since its opposition last October, Mars has wandered far from Earth. The Red Planet is considerably dimmer and appears much smaller in our telescopes, but we haven’t seen the last of it yet! For now, it’s steering clear of the Sun’s glare as it treks rapidly through the constellations. In January, Mars will be very high in the south in the early evening, after which it sets in the west-northwest past 1 a.m. The waxing gibbous Moon nestles close to the Red Planet on the evening of January 20-21. By next summer, the Sun eventually catches up with Mars, which appears increasingly lower above the western horizon at twilight until it disappears in the dazzle of the setting Sun around mid-August. The planet will be in solar conjunction on October 8, but we’ll have to wait until mid-November to catch a glimpse of it above the east-southeastern horizon at dawn.
Mercury never moves too far away from the Sun: The tiny planet’s periods of visibility alternate between dawn and dusk. Evening appearances are better in winter and spring, whereas summer and fall are the best times to catch it in the morning. As 2021 gets underway, Mercury gradually emerges in the evening sky, where it makes a very good showing from January 10 to 31. Look for a tiny point of light a few degrees above the southwestern horizon 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. The tiny planet is much brighter at the start of this apparition and quickly dims after February 1 as its plunges back toward the horizon. The prime viewing window extends from January 15 to 25. Another exceptional period of visibility in the evening sky will occur from April 24 to May 28. Early risers take note! Between mid-October and November 10, Mercury will (in many ways) put on its best morning appearance of the year.
Happy astronomical year 2021 and happy skygazing!