The Planets in 2021
On December 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn appeared closer together in the sky than they had in 800 years. The two were visible as bright stars only briefly very low in the southwestern sky shortly after sunset. In early 2021, Jupiter and Saturn will rapidly depart the evening sky, leaving Mars as the lone planet in the evening sky for much of the first half of 2021.
Mars will remain visible as a bright orange star in the evening sky into late summer, after which it will reappear in the morning sky by late autumn. This will not be a good year for viewing Mars. Mars was closest to earth in October 2020, when it was at opposition to the sun. Since then, and through Mars’ conjunction with the sun in early October this year, the distance between Mars and earth will increase, rendering Mars a tiny object when viewed through telescopes. Mars also will gradually fade all this time. After its conjunction with the sun in October, the distance between earth and Mars will once again begin to shrink, heading toward Mar’s next opposition in December 2022.
Mercury briefly will be visible a couple of times in the evening this year. Your first opportunity will be from mid to late January. Look for a bright star low in the southwest shortly after dark, when the first stars become visible. The second opportunity will be in mid-May. Again, look southwest and west shortly after dark. There will be three favorable apparitions of Mercury in the morning sky in 2021. The first is in late February and early March. Look low in the southeast in twilight while stars are still visible. The second time will be in early July. Look low in the east in twilight. The last opportunity will be in mid to late October. Look low in the southeast in twilight.
Venus begins this year in the morning sky, but by the end of January, Venus will be difficult to see as its time of rising approaches sunrise. In mid-March, Venus will pass superior conjunction with the sun, when it is on the other side of the sun. Look for Venus in the evening sky by late April or early May. It will be a bright star low in the west shortly after sunset. If you look at Venus with a telescope at this time, you will be disappointed by what you see. Given its relatively great distance, Venus will look like a tiny dot. However, throughout the summer and autumn, the view will improve dramatically. As the distance between Venus and the earth shrinks, Venus will increase in apparent size. Meanwhile, its shape will develop from nearly a circle to a gibbous phase and then to being half lit by the end of October. In November and December, Venus will appear as an increasingly larger but thinner crescent. That will be the best time to view Venus through a telescope this year. To the naked eye, Venus will gradually increase in brightness, reaching peak brightness in early December. Thereafter, Venus will rapidly get lower in the sky and reach inferior conjunction (passing between the earth and sun) in early January 2022.
Jupiter and Saturn will pass through conjunction with the sun in late January and reappear in the morning sky by late February. Look for two bright stars low in the southeast. An interesting project would be to watch the progress of these two planets as they ascend higher in the sky each morning. At the height of summer, Jupiter and Saturn reappear in the evening sky when they reach opposition to the sun (August 1 for Saturn and August 19 for Jupiter). When at opposition, look for Jupiter and Saturn as bright stars in the southeast shortly after sunset. They will be up all night, setting near sunrise.
There are several mutual planetary conjunctions in 2021. On the evening of January 11, Mercury will be 1.4° to the left of Jupiter, with Saturn 2.3° to the lower of right of Jupiter. However, this will be very low in the southwest in twilight. You will need binoculars to see this, along with very clear weather and a good exposure to the southwest. As I mentioned earlier, later in the month of January, Mercury will be easier to spot, but you won’t have bright Jupiter to guide you. Mercury and Jupiter will be in conjunction for a second time on the morning of March 5. Once again you will need binoculars, very clear weather, and a good exposure, this time toward the southeast to see Mercury 0.4° to the left of Jupiter in the morning twilight. On the evening of May 28, Mercury will be 0.4 to the left of Venus. Though this won’t require binoculars to see, binoculars will help. On July 12, Mars will be 0.5° to the lower left of Venus.
In addition to planetary conjunctions, Venus will have conjunctions with three bright stars in 2021. On July 21, Venus will pass within 1.1° of Regulus. On September 5, Venus and Spica will be 1.6° apart. Finally, on October 16, Venus and Antares will be 1.4° apart.
Two Lunar Eclipses in 2021
There are two lunar eclipses in 2021: one total and the other partial. The total lunar eclipse is the morning of May 26. The partial phase will begin at 5:45 a.m. EDT. Where I live near the Creation Museum, the sun will rise within a half hour of the beginning of the partial phase, with the moon setting a few minutes before sunrise. Therefore, I will have difficulty seeing any of this eclipse. What about people on the West Coast? The partial phase begins at 2:45 a.m. PDT. Totality begins at 4:11 a.m. PDT, and totality ends 15 minutes later. This is barely a total eclipse, so expect the moon’s northern limb (edge) to be noticeably brighter than the rest of the moon. For people in the United States, that will be the upper right of the moon. The partial phase ends at 5:52 a.m. PDT, about the time of sunrise on the West Coast. Therefore, people in the western US will be able to see most of this eclipse. In Hawaii, the eclipse will occur in the middle of the night. Unfortunately for Alaska, this eclipse is only a few weeks from the June solstice. Consequently, in Alaska it will be daytime for much of the eclipse. Only the very end of the eclipse may be visible, but then with the moon very low in the sky.
This eclipse will provide an opportunity for people in the western United States an opportunity to see a selenelion. As I describe on pp. 77–78 of my book Falling Flat: A Refutation of Flat-Earth Claims, a selenelion occurs when both the sun and eclipsed moon are visible. This happens when the beginning of a lunar eclipse is at sunset, when the moon is just rising, or at the end of a lunar eclipse just before the moon sets shortly after sunrise. For people in the western US, the partially eclipsed moon may be visible in the southwestern sky as the sun rises in the northeastern sky. To see both the sun and moon, you will need a good exposure in either direction, with no obstructions (trees, buildings, hills, or mountains) on the horizon. You also will require very clear weather. Though I have seen more than a dozen total lunar eclipses and several other partial lunar eclipses, I’ve never experienced a selenelion. So, I hope that some of you so favorably located will avail yourselves of this opportunity to witness this relatively rare event.
The entire country will be able to watch the partial lunar eclipse on the morning of November 19. While partial, this eclipse will be very close to being total. The partial eclipse begins at 2:18 a.m. EDT and ends at 5:47 a.m. EDT. Mid-eclipse, when the moon will be the most dimmed, will be at 4:04 a.m. EDT. Weather permitting, we hope to provide a public viewing of this eclipse at the Johnson Observatory here at the Creation Museum. We will set this up in autumn as the event nears. If you’d like to join us that morning, watch for the announcement on the Answers in Genesis website.
Two Solar Eclipses in 2021
There is an annular eclipse on June 10 this year. An annular eclipse is when a solar eclipse occurs with the moon near apogee (the point on the moon’s orbit most distant from earth), which causes the moon to appear smaller than the sun. During an annular eclipse, a ring of the sun’s photosphere is left shining completely around the moon. The term annular eclipse comes from anulus, a Latin word for ring. This is a weird eclipse, with the path of annularity barely touching the earth. The path of annularity begins at sunrise on the north shore of Lake Superior. From there the path travels northward across northern Canada and northwest Greenland to reach the North Pole. From the North Pole, the path continues southward toward western Siberia, where the eclipse ends at sunset. Locations not on the path of annularity will experience a partial solar eclipse. For parts of the northern and eastern US, the sun will rise already in partial eclipse, but even that will end shortly thereafter. For instance, here at the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky, the sun will rise at 6:14 a.m. EDT with less than 20% of the sun covered. The partial eclipse will end less than 20 minutes later at 6:33 a.m., when the sun will be only 3° above the horizon. Unless the sky is very clear that morning and I can find a high place with a good exposure to the northeast, I’m going to miss this eclipse. That’s OK—partial solar eclipses, particularly ones that are not even close to 100%, generally aren’t that interesting.
Is that solar eclipse not extreme enough for you? Try the other one on for size. It is a total solar eclipse on December 4, but it is at the other extreme—in Antarctica. Except for a few islands and a wee bit of southern Australia and South Africa, even the partial phases of this eclipse do not make landfall anywhere. If you really want to watch this eclipse, there are some eclipse cruises that you can join. But be aware that these are rather long luxury cruises, so you may find the price a bit steep. I’m patient; I’m awaiting the next total solar eclipse in the US in just four years.
The Perseids in 2021
The Perseid meteor shower lasts a couple of weeks, but it is expected to peak the night of August 11–12. The moon will be a thin crescent that evening, and it will set within an hour after twilight, so this will be a good year for the Perseids. Since meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, it is best to have a good exposure to as much of the sky as possible. Though you can see the brighter Perseids in light-polluted skies, to see the fainter ones it is best to get as far from city lights as possible. Under the best conditions, you can expect to see about 60 Perseids per hour. Where do I intend to be that night? This will be the final night of my annual Grand Canyon raft trip cosponsored by Answers in Genesis and Canyon Ministries. I hope to spend much of that last night photographing meteors. I can sleep when I get back to work at the office (just don’t tell my boss, Ken Ham).
Astronomy Programs at the Creation Museum in 2021
Many of us were glad to see 2020 go. It was a weird year. A year ago, no one could have anticipated how the response to the threat of COVID-19 would wreak havoc on the economy. The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter were closed for three months. All our observatory programs in 2020 were canceled. We were to reopen the totally remodeled Stargazers Planetarium about the time we closed in March. We never did have a proper grand opening for the new planetarium. Once we reopened, seating in the planetarium was greatly reduced. And in 2020 we didn’t have any public live planetarium shows, though we did have two private live shows. The live shows are some of my favorite things to do for our visitors here at the Creation Museum. By the arrival of warmer weather this spring, we hope that COVID-19 restrictions will be a thing of the past (or at least much less restrictive) and we can be back to normal with our Stargazer programs at Johnson Observatory and live shows in Stargazers Planetarium. Why don’t you come for a visit and take one of these in?