Worldwide icon-chevron-right The most spectacular astronomical events of 2021

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Total lunar eclipse
Photograph: Shutterstock

The most spectacular astronomical events of 2021

These are the shooting stars, eclipses, meteor showers and planetary alignments to look out for this year

By Ellie Walker-Arnott and James Manning
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Life on Planet Earth is kind of a lot right now – so it’s kind of reassuring that no matter what happens down here, space is going to keep doing its thing. And from where we’re standing, that means a whole lot of beauty: shooting stars, eclipses, meteor showers, planetary alignments, even the phases of the moon. It’s the greatest show off Earth, and there’s zero chance of it being cancelled.

Although pros will want to splash out on a fancy telescope, for most of us stargazing is free, infinitely rewarding and a great way to fill up all that free time we seem to have on our hands these days. It you can, it helps to find a spot far away from the light pollution of the city (here are the best stargazing spots in the UK and USA), but the brightest astronomical phenomena are easily visible from your local park or even your window – as long as it isn’t cloudy, of course.

This year you’ll be able to spot the regular meteor showers and full moons (each with its own name) as well as a total lunar eclipse and two spectacular solar eclipses. To help you spot shooting stars, see a ‘blue moon’ or tell your penumbral from your annular eclipses, we’ve pulled together a list of the upcoming astronomical events we’re excited about. Because in 2021, looking up is the new going out.

Celestial calendar 2021

Total lunar eclipse
Total lunar eclipse
Photograph: Shutterstock

May 26: total lunar eclipse and supermoon

The full moon of May 2021 is special for two reasons. Firstly, it will coincide with a total lunar eclipse, as the moon passes completely through Earth’s shadow. The result: a spectacular darkening across its surface, followed by a spooky red tinge. The whole eclipse will be visible across the Pacific Ocean and in Australia and New Zealand, with east Asia and the western half of North America also getting good eclipse-spotting opportunities.

The other cool thing about May’s full moon is that it’s at its closest point to Earth, which means that for the second month in a row, we’ll be treated to a big, bright ‘supermoon’. The traditional names for May’s moon include the Flower Moon, Milk Moon and Corn Planting Moon, thanks to its appearance in the sky as the Northern Hemisphere’s summer starts to arrive. Oh, and you can spot this one from anywhere on earth.

Annular solar eclipse
Annular solar eclipse
Photograph: Keith Tarrier/Shutterstock.com

June 10: annular solar eclipse

Every lunar eclipse is linked to a solar eclipse, around two weeks before or after. And although the solar eclipse on June 10 2021 won’t be a total eclipse, it’s still set to be pretty spectacular. An annular eclipse is when the moon blocks out the central portion of the sun. The sky will darken and a ring (‘annulus’ in Latin) of light will show around the outside.

June’s annular eclipse will be visible across most of the Northern Hemisphere, including the north-eastern USA and most of Europe, with the best views of all will from Canada – specifically western Ontario and northern Quebec.

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Sunrise at Stonehenge
Sunrise at Stonehenge
Photograph: Shutterstock

June 20: June solstice

In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice, also known as midsummer, is the longest day of the year. The same day in the Southern Hemisphere is the winter solstice, or shortest day. Many celebrations are linked to the event – last year, the summer solstice sunrise was broadcast live from Stonehenge in England.

Full moon
Full moon
Photograph: Shutterstock

June 24: supermoon

Traditionally called a Strawberry Moon (because it coincides with the peak of summer fruit season in the Northern Hemisphere), June’s moon is also known as a Rose Moon, Honey Moon and Hot Moon. This year it’ll be especially lovely, as it’s the last of 2021’s three supermoons – the full moon being at its nearest point to the earth.

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July 24: Buck Moon

July’s full moon is called a Buck Moon because in the past it was associated with male deer, who get their new antlers around this time in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also called a Thunder Moon and a Hey Moon (or, if you like, ‘Hey Moon!’).

July 28: Delta Aquarids meteor shower peaks

The second of two meteor showers named after the constellation Aquarius, the Delta Aquarid shooting stars start each year on July 12 and last until August 23. Your best chance to see them is after midnight on the night of July 28-29, though the bright July moon is likely to make this year’s shower harder to spot.

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August 2: a chance to see Saturn

If you have a telescope, now’s the time to use it. Saturn is at its largest in the sky on the night of August 2, and fully illuminated by the sun. That means it’ll be visible all night long, and brighter than at any other point through the year. Look through a decent telescope and you should be able to see the planet’s rings and even a few of its moons.

Perseid meteor shower
Perseid meteor shower
Photograph: Shutterstock

August 12: Perseids meteor shower peaks

The Perseid shooting stars are debris from the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet, and are so called because they appear to originate from the constellation Perseus. The Perseids are visible between July 17 and August 24, peaking on the night of August 12-13. They’re one of the best and brightest meteor showers, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, and 2021 is set to be a great year to spot them: the moon will set early, leaving darker skies for the celestial show.

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August 19: a chance to see Jupiter

The largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter is easiest to spot tonight. It’s at its closest to Earth and will be lit up by the sun all night, making for excellent viewing (with a strong enough telescope) of its gaseous surface and moons.

Moon and venus in the night's sky
Moon and venus in the night's sky
Photograph: Shutterstock

August 22: Blue Moon

August’s full moon is traditionally called a Sturgeon Moon, because it was when an abundance of fish could be found in lakes where the indigenous North American Algonquin tribe fished. It’s also called a Green Corn Moon, Barley Moon, Fruit Moon and Grain Moon.

But 2021’s August moon is special for another reason. It’s called a Blue Moon, because it’s an extra full moon in between the solstice and the equinox – an event that only happens once every 2.7 years. Sadly, the moon won’t actually look blue – but don’t let that stop you singing Elvis at it.

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SUPER MOON
SUPER MOON
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September 20: Harvest Moon

The Harvest Moon is a name given to whichever full moon falls  closest to the September equinox each year. This year, it’s the September full moon, also known as the Corn Moon or Barley Moon.

September 22: September equinox

There are two equinoxes each year, the March equinox and September equinox. They fall when the length of day and night are nearly equal. In the Northern Hemisphere the September equinox is known as the autumn equinox and heralds the start of the new season, while in the Southern Hemisphere it’s seen as the beginning of spring. Wherever you are, on this day the sun will rise due east and set due west.

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Draconid meteor shower
Draconid meteor shower
Photograph: Shutterstock

October 7: Draconids meteor shower peaks

This annual meteor shower is so called because the shooting stars appear to originate from near a constellation called Draco the Dragon. The meteors appear annually from October 6-10, and come from debris left by comet Giacobini-Zinner.

You can see these shooting stars from anywhere, but they’re easier to spot in the Northern Hemisphere, especially on the peak night of October 7-8. This year’s display should be extra-spectacular because the moon will be almost at its darkest. And unlike most meteor showers, this one is easiest to see in the evening, not the early morning – so you shouldn’t need to stay up too late to catch some shooting stars.

Super worm moon
Super worm moon
Photograph: Shutterstock

October 20: Hunter’s Moon

Heralding the season of big game in the Northern Hemisphere, October’s full moon is also known as the Blood Moon and the Travel Moon. It’s just a regular full moon, but a great excuse to book a trip.

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Orionid meteor shower
Orionid meteor shower
Photograph: Shutterstock

October 21: Orionids meteor shower peaks

This annual meteor shower is the second created by the trail left by Halley’s Comet. The shooting stars appear to originate from the Orion constellation in the sky, and appear from October 2 to November 7, with the best viewings after midnight on the night of October 21-22. It’s visible from all over the world, but this year nearly coincides with a full moon, making it a little harder to see.

November 4: Taurids meteor shower peaks

Running annually from September 7 to December 10, the Taurids aren’t the most spectacular meteor shower of the year, with only five to ten meteors per hour. But this is set to be a particularly good year to spot them, with November’s new moon leaving the skies as dark as can be on the peak night of November 4-5. Head out somewhere dark after midnight for your best chance of a sighting.

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Leonid meteor shower
Leonid meteor shower
Photograph: Shutterstock

November 17: Leonids meteor shower peaks

Known for its fast, bright meteors which peak every 33 years, the Leonid shower seems to radiate from the Leo constellation. These shooting stars come from the Tempel-Tuttle comet and run annually from November 6-30, peaking in mid-November. Unfortunately, this year’s peak on November 17-18 nearly coincides with the full moon, which will make the meteors harder to spot. But head to a dark-sky location after midnight and you may still get lucky.

Partial lunar eclipse
Partial lunar eclipse
Photograph: Shutterstock

November 19: partial lunar eclipse

Less spectacular than a total lunar eclipse, a partial lunar eclipse happens when part of the moon is blocked out by Earth’s shadow. This one will be visible from the whole of the Americas and Australia, much of east Asia and parts of northern Europe and west Africa. It occurs on the night of November’s full moon, called the Beaver Moon. (No sniggering please – it’s because in the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year is when beavers make their winter dams. It’s also been called a Frost Moon Mourning Moon, as it’s the last full moon before the December solstice.)

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Total solar eclipse
Total solar eclipse
Photograph: Shutterstock

December 4: Total solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse is possibly the most spectacular astronomical show of all. It happens when the sun, the moon and the Earth are aligned: the moon moves in front of the sun, temporarily blocking the sun’s light and leaving the Earth in shadow. The only bit of the sun visible will be its fiery ‘corona’ or crown.

Unfortunately, this particular total eclipse will mostly be visible from Antarctica and the inhospitable waters of the southern Atlantic. You’ll have to take a special cruise to see it in person, though it’s likely to be livestreamed by Nasa.

However, a partial view of the the eclipse will be visible from the southern tips of Africa and Australia, including Melbourne.

Geminid meteor shower
Geminid meteor shower
Photograph: Shutterstock

December 13: Geminids meteor shower peaks

You can expect to see over 100 bright shooting stars an hour at the Germinids’ peak. The meteor shower runs from December 7 to 17 and appears to come from the Gemini constellation, hence the name – though their actual origin is the comet 3200 Phaethon. You’ll be able to spot these shooting stars everywhere (though they will be clearer in the northern hemisphere) with the peak on the night of December 13-14. Head to a dark location after midnight for your best shot.

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super worm moon over London and The Shard
super worm moon over London and The Shard
Photograph: Shutterstock

December 19: Cold Moon

No prizes for guessing why the moon nearest to the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice was named the Cold Moon – or indeed why its alternative name is the Long Nights Moon.

Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky
Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky
Photograph: Shutterstock

December 21: December solstice

In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the winter solstice, marking the shortest day of the year. In the Southern Hemisphere, the same day marks midsummer, or the longest day of the year. Either way, there’s only one direction of travel from here.

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Orionid Meteor Shower
Orionid Meteor Shower
Photograph: Shutterstock

December 21-22: Ursids meteor shower peaks

The last meteor shower of the year is caused by debris from the 8P/Tuttle comet. This is quite a sparse one – you can expect around 10 shooting stars an hour, and only in the Northern Hemisphere. The full shower runs from December 17-25, but this year’s December full moon will blot out much of the peak, on the night of December 21-22. So unless you’re a dedicated meteor-spotter, maybe hold on for the Quadrantid shower in early January, which will be closer to the new moon and much easier to catch.

Where to stargaze?

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