- Mars is still shining fairly bright in the early part of the year, but the distance between it and the Earth is rapidly increasing. Hence it will become dimmer and smaller as viewed through a telescope. Look high in the south early evening.
- On 20 January the Red Planet is very near the much more distant icy world of Uranus. The latter is too faint to be seen with the naked eye so use binoculars, aim them at Mars and you will spot a “green” star in the same field of view. This is Uranus, which is 1.6 billion miles from the sun! If you have a telescope you will see it is actually a tiny disc.
- NASA’s Perseverance spacecraft is due to land on Mars on 18 February. What is really eye-catching is that it is carrying a little experimental drone called Ingenuity which will be sent aloft to get a view from above with its colour camera. It is due to operate as far as one kilometre from Perseverance and if it works ok expect to see many other similar craft on future missions.
- The Lyrids meteor shower peaks on the night of 22 April. It’s a pretty average display, but the only significant one before Autumn. A near full moon will be a problem this year, but you may see some of the prominent shooting stars. Look high in the south east. Later is better.
- The first of three Supermoons of the year is on 27 April. The Moon will be near its closest approach to the Earth and may look a bit larger and brighter than usual.
- Long summer nights means we see far fewer stars, but if you live between 50 and 60 degrees north we have the compensation of being able to view Noctilucent Clouds. These are the highest that can form in the Earth’s atmosphere caused by ice crystals forming on dust, some of which is thought to be from outer space. They really do glow in the dark, with electric blues prominent. Look to the north one hour after or before sunset and sunrise. The viewing season runs from late May to the end of July. They are truly stunning and make an excellent target for photography. Use a tripod and try a 10 second exposure to get started.
- A partial solar eclipse will be visible from the UK on 10 June. The moon will take a small bite out of the sun, best viewed soon after 11am. On no account look directly at the sun. You will need special eye protection such as eclipse glasses or telescope filters.
- Saturn is best viewed on 2 August when it is brighter than any other time of the year. Over recent years the ringed world has been very low in the sky for UK observers, but it is starting to climb a little higher each year. Look south at midnight. A telescope will show you the fantastic rings. Meanwhile the Solar System’s biggest planet, Jupiter, reaches its maximum brightness on 19 August. Again it has been rather low on the sky at mid northern latitudes, but it is getting higher and more rewarding to observe. A good pair of binoculars should allow you to see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Telescopes will reveal banding on the planet. Both planets will be visible for many months before and after this date.
- One of the year’s best meteor showers – the Perseids – peaks on 12 August. It is caused by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. These shooting stars can put on a really nice display and you will will be able to see them a few days before and after the peak. The crescent moon will set early in the evening, leaving dark skies which is ideal. Use your naked eye, be patient, and if you can go to a dark area you will see many more.
- August sees the return of truly dark skies for mid northern latitudes and is the ideal time to view the Milky Way, which is directly overhead late evening. Choose a moonless night to get the best view. You will need to escape light pollution so country areas are best..
The full moon on 22 August will qualify as a Blue Moon as it is the third of four full moons in the summer.
The wonderful Orionids meteor shower peaks on 21 October. These shooting stars are caused by bits of dust left behind by Comet Halley. Unfortunately there’s also a full moon and its glare will block out fainter meteors, which will radiate from the constellation of Orion. Use your naked eye.
- The final two major meter showers of 2021 are the Leonids on 17 November and the much more promising Geminids on 13 December. For the latter you can expect to see shooting stars anytime between 7 and 17 December. The waxing gibbous moon will block out most of the fainter meteors during the peak, but this is such a rich shower it’s worth having a good look. View high in the south east and use your naked eye.
Noctilucent clouds over northern England in July 2020.