Anyone who was in the contiguous United States for the “Great American Eclipse” in August 2017 knows just how awe-inspiring a solar eclipse can be. Even a full moon can be a profound experience for a skywatcher. Not all stargazers know what to look for, or when to focus their gaze on the skies, however. To make your skywatching experiences as optimal as possible in 2021, we’ve put together a list of this year’s can’t-miss astronomical events in chronological order, from the best and brightest meteor showers to the eclipses worth traveling for. These are the celestial events you don’t want to miss this year.
1. April 21-22: Lyrid meteor shower
According to NASA, the Lyrids are among the oldest-known meteor showers, having been observed for at least 2,700 years, and they usually peak in late April. In 2021, they will be active from April 14 to April 30, but the best time to check them out is April 21-22. Stargazers might be able to see between 10 and 20 meteors, and their bright dust trails, per hour if the conditions are right (i.e. with very little light pollution and a cloudless sky). Those living in the Northern Hemisphere have a better chance to see the Lyrids, after moonset and before dawn.
2. May 26: Total lunar eclipse and supermoon
On May 26, 2021, those lucky enough to be in Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and most of Australia will be able to admire an entire lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses happen when Earth blocks the sun’s light and projects its shadow on the full moon. During the total phase of the eclipse, the moon appears to glow a warm shade of red. According to NASA, while the eclipse is set to last a little over three hours, the total phase, when the moon is red, will only last about 15 minutes. The total eclipse will also be visible in parts of North America, such as western Canada, Alaska, the western United States, and Mexico. Consult Time and Date’s map and animation of the eclipse’s path to know if you’ll be able to see the spectacle from home.
But if you won’t be on the path of the eclipse on May 26, worry not. On the same day, there will also be a supermoon, an event that occurs when a full moon coincides with perigee, meaning the moon orbits closest to Earth. The result is a big, beautiful moon that looks even fuller than normal. There will also be a supermoon on April 27, 2021, and June 24, 2021.
3. June 10: Annular solar eclipse
On June 10, 11 days before the 2021 summer solstice, there will be an annular solar eclipse during which the moon will pass between Earth and the sun, obscuring all but the sun’s outer edge. Though the eclipse won’t be visible in the United States, anyone in Ontario and Quebec in Canada, as well as in Northeast Russia where it will be visible, can expect a striking “ring of fire” effect. Consult NASA’s map of the eclipse’s path to know if you’ll be able to see the spectacle from home.
4. June 21: Summer solstice
In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice is usually welcome with open arms — it is the longest day of the year, the shortest night of the year, and the first day of summer. While there’s not much to look at in the sky, the summer solstice is usually a day of celebrations, one of the most famous being the rise of the sun behind the ancient Heel Stone of Stonehenge in England.
5. August 11-12: Perseid meteor shower
One of the flashiest meteor showers of the year is the Perseid shower, which is created by debris from the mammoth Swift-Tuttle comet. It might also be the most pleasant meteor shower of the year given that it falls on balmy summer nights, perfect for stargazing. Skywatchers can expect between 50 and 100 shooting stars, and their bright and colorful wakes, per hour during the Perseid meteor shower. In 2021, the flurry of shooting stars will be active from July 17 to August 24 and peak on August 11-12.
6. August 22: Blue moon
The phrase “once in a blue moon” is rooted in an astronomical phenomenon. There are different definitions for what the event is, but in this case, it refers to the third full moon happening during an astronomical season (in this case, the time between the summer solstice and the fall equinox). On August 22, you can witness the event for yourself. Don’t expect the moon to actually be blue in color, however.
7. November 16-17: Leonid meteor shower
While the Leonid meteor shower is not the most impressive astronomical event in terms of numbers of meteors per hour (there can be as few as 15 visible meteors per hour, NASA says), the speed of the meteors, as well as their brightness and color, make it a beautiful celestial spectacle. Not to mention that a chance at a Leonid storm that can have hundreds to thousands of meteors seen per hour is not to be ignored. The Leonids will be active between November 6 and November 30 and will peak on November 16-17. As for every meteor shower, stargazers need to lie flat on their back in an area with little light pollution and adjust their eyes to the darkness for about 30 minutes for optimal viewing conditions.
8. November 19: Partial lunar eclipse
Visible from all of North America, the partial lunar eclipse will start at 6:02 UTC on November 19, 2021. During a partial lunar eclipse, Earth blocks parts of the sun’s light and projects its shadow on the full moon. A partial lunar eclipse can be easily seen with the naked eye in a cloud-free sky.
9. December 13-14: Geminids meteor shower
Together with the Perseid meteor shower, the Geminid shower is the most impressive of the year, with up to 120 colorful shooting stars raining down per hour at its peak, which will fall between late evening on December 13 and early morning of December 14 in 2021. Though stargazing may be less enticing in winter given the lower temperatures, the Geminid shower is worth braving the cold for.
10. December 4, 2021: Total solar eclipse
You probably won’t be seeing this eclipse in person — although several Antarctic cruise lines are advertising special solar eclipse voyages. Interestingly, because it’s a polar region, the total eclipse will sweep across the Antarctic Peninsula from east to west for just under two minutes rather than follow the typical west-east trajectory.