Say what you will about 2020, but we can't deny that it was a great year for astronomy and space sciences. And 2021 is shaping up to be another fantastic year for those who love to gaze up in wonder at the universe beyond our atmosphere.
To help you identify the best nights for stargazing and other astronomical events this coming year, here's a list of the top space events in 2021. While the first event on this list isn't until mid-March, that isn't to suggest there are no astronomy events happening in the first 10 weeks of the year. However, in attempting to pare down the list of astronomy events worth planning on, some don't make the cut. If you're heading out to stargaze on a night that isn't on this list, be sure to check a star app to see if any other wonders will be visible that night. Here's our list in chronological order:
Ideal Night for the Messier Marathon: March 13
On this night, conditions will be ideal for attempting to "run" the Messier Marathon. This is an event that many amateur astronomers attempt once a year, on the best night of moon phase and weather conditions to try and see all 110 deep space objects in the Messier catalog. These deep space objects include nebulae, star clusters and galaxies – seeing them all in a single night is on many an astronomer's bucket list!
You'll need a minimum 80 mm telescope to complete the Messier Marathon, so start saving up now if you need to invest in one before the night.
Lunar Occultation of Mars: April 17
Maybe you've seen the headlines over the past few years when planets and the moon get close together – sometimes we say they're "kissing." (It's all a matter of our perspective and how the planets and moon align.) In mid-April, we'll have the chance to see one better than a kiss: It's called a lunar occultation when the moon passes directly in front of another planet or a star. It's the lunar equivalent of an eclipse.
On April 17, the moon will pass in front of Mars; just like eclipses, lunar occultations are visible from only a small area on Earth when they occur. This one will be visible only from parts of Southeast Asia.
Peak of the Lyrids Meteor Shower: April 22
The first great opportunity to spot shooting stars in 2021 will occur in the early morning of April 22 (the night of April 21). This is the predicted peak of the Lyrids Meteor Shower that occurs from April 16 to 26 annually. Lyrids meteors are caused by the Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which orbits the sun every 415 years.
What makes the Lyrids special is the chance to see "Lyrid fireballs" — these meteors are unusually bright and can even cause a shadow. On the night of peak activity, you can see around 20 meteors per hour.
Total Lunar Eclipse: May 26
After more than a year of penumbral lunar eclipses (which are less impressive and harder to spot than partial and total lunar eclipses), we finally have a chance to see a total lunar eclipse on the night of May 26. Viewers in parts of Eastern Asia, Oceania, western North America, and southern South America will have the chance to spot a blood-red moon in the sky.
Pro tip: Be sure to check the time zone when the total lunar eclipse will occur in your area so you don't miss it!
Annular Solar Eclipse: June 10
As is always the case, lunar and solar eclipses happen together (sometimes one of each, sometimes a solar eclipse is bookended by two lunar eclipses). On June 10, those in northern Russia/Siberia and Canada's Northwest Territories will have the chance to see an annular solar eclipse. This is sometimes called a "ring of fire" eclipse because the moon doesn't fully block out the sun – causing a bright circle of sun in the sky.
This is one of two solar eclipses in 2021; the other is in December — and a bit more spectacular.
Peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower: Aug. 12
The Perseid meteor shower is widely considered the best meteor shower of the year, thanks to its high frequency of meteoric activity and the warm weather that we experience in the Northern Hemisphere during August.
Typically, the Perseids peak sometime between Aug. 12 and 14; in 2021, that peak is expected to be on the first night. Look for up to 150 meteors per hour on this night, caused by debris left by comet Swift-Tuttle on its 133-year orbit around the sun.
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Launch: Oct. 31
NASA has a number of exciting missions planned in 2021 – though as with all space launches, the dates are always considered tentative until the launch actually happens. These include test flights for the Boeing Starliner – the second manned spacecraft planned for International Space Station crewed missions after SpaceX's Crew Dragon – and the Lucy Mission to study Trojan asteroids near Jupiter.
The one everyone has been waiting for is the James Webb Space Telescope launch. The mission to launch a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope began in 1996 and was supposed to happen in 2007. Numerous delays have plagued the project, but NASA seems confident that the Oct. 31 date they've set will actually happen. This isn't an astronomy event per se, but a reminder that we continue to gaze outward and plan new ways to explore our solar system and universe.
Lunar Occultation of Venus: Nov. 7
After occulting Mars in the spring, the moon is back for another lunar occultation in early November. This time it's bright, neighboring Venus that will be blocked by the moon on the night of Nov. 7. The last lunar occultation of Venus occurred in January 2019.
Like the lunar occultation of Mars earlier in the year, this occultation is only visible from a small area on Earth. In this case, those in Far East Asia, including eastern China, Korea and Japan will have picture- perfect view of a waxing crescent moon passing in front of Venus.
Total Solar Eclipse: Dec. 3-4
This is the better solar eclipse viewing opportunity of the two this year. Overnight Dec. 3-4, a total solar eclipse will occur when the sun, moon and Earth align, casting a shadow over part of the Southern Hemisphere.
But like that earlier eclipse, you'll need to be up for quite a journey to experience totality as the moon's shadow passes over Earth: It will only be visible from parts of Antarctica and cruise tours planning to be in the right area on the day of the eclipse. Tick off two bucket list experiences – totality and setting foot on Antarctica – with this one!
Peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower: Dec 14
Last but certainly not least, end your year of astronomical wonders by viewing the Geminid meteor shower when it peaks on the night of Dec. 14. This meteor shower won't be quite as good as the Perseids in August for a number of reasons, including cold winter weather in the Northern Hemisphere and a bright waxing gibbous moon. If you're up for it anyway, look for up to 120 meteors per hour on the night of peak activity.