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The most spectacular astronomical events of 2021

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

Ellie Walker-Arnott
Written by
Ellie Walker-Arnott
&
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

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.

October 20: Hunter’s Moon
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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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October 21: Orionids meteor shower peaks
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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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November 17: Leonids meteor shower peaks
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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.

November 19: partial lunar eclipse
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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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December 4: Total solar eclipse
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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.

December 13: Geminids meteor shower peaks
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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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December 19: Cold Moon
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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.

December 21: December solstice
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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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December 21-22: Ursids meteor shower peaks
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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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