Here's what to look forward to in space for 2021
There will be more missions to Mars, the potential for northern lights and early morning planets
Looking back at 2020, it was a pretty good year for not only space exploration, but also some wonderful astronomical treats: Mars Perseverance blasted off toward the red planet, Americans launched from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011 and we even had a surprise bright comet.
While we can't predict everything that will happen in 2021, there will be a lot going on in the sky — and some historic missions to look forward to.
Here are just a few space-related events to expect:
January meteor shower
Who doesn't love a good meteor show? The Quadrantid meteor shower is expected to be the first one of the year and also one of the most active. Under peak conditions — with dark, clear skies — the shower can produce up to 120 meteors an hour.
There are a few downsides to the timing of this shower. One is that the peak falls within a narrow window: just about six hours. The second is that January tends to be one of the cloudiest months of the year. And also, this year the moon will be up and roughly 85 per cent full, which means only the brightest meteors will be visible.
While the shower runs from December 27 to January 10, the peak night is expected to be overnight from January 2 to 3.
Visitors arrive on Mars
There are a couple of highly anticipated missions to Mars planned for this year.
On February 18, NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is scheduled to land at Jezero Crater. The rover — similar in size to Curiosity, which has been on Mar's surface since 2012 — is also the first equipped with a helicopter, named Ingenuity.
The location is an important one, as it's the first rover that is specifically designed to look for signs of past life on Mars. Jezero Crater is considered to be a promising place to find those signs, as it's the home of an ancient lake bed that planetary scientists believe could have preserved any organic matter.
And in a historic first, China is expected to become the third country to land on the red planet. It's Tianwen-1 rover launched last July and is scheduled to arrive some time in February. Though unconfirmed, it's believed to be landing in Utopia Planitia, near where NASA's Viking 2 landed in 1976. (As an aside, Star Trek fans might recognize the name as the location of the Starfleet shipyards.)
Planets in the morning sky
If you're an early riser, you won't want to miss out on a beautiful planetary grouping in the dawn sky on March 9.
Just before sunrise, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn should be low on the eastern horizon together with a crescent moon.
While Jupiter and Saturn should be fairly easy to spot, Mercury will likely be more challenging. But you can use Jupiter to help locate it, as dim Mercury will be slightly to the lower left of the second-brightest planet in our sky.
If you have a pair of binoculars, you can use them to look at Ganymede and Europa, two moons of Jupiter that will be on either side of the planet. They will also help you locate Mercury.
After a successful first flight to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX looks for a repeat performance on March 30 in the Crew 2 launch.
On board will be NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet.
The launch will mark the third time astronauts have been sent to the ISS on board SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first was a demonstration mission, the second — launched in November — was the first official return of launches of astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.
Part of what makes the SpaceX launches so exciting, isn't just the ride up, but also the return of the first stage — or booster — of its Falcon 9 rocket. To date, SpaceX has successfully returned and reused some of its boosters, one of them as many as seven times.
NASA has awarded both SpaceX and Boeing contracts to send astronauts to the ISS, however, Boeing's first uncrewed demonstration launch in December 2019 failed to dock with the station. So now it's playing a game of catch-up. It plans to conduct a second uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 spacecraft some time in the first quarter of 2021. Its first crewed test will follow, perhaps some time in June.
Unfortunately, there won't be many eclipses in 2021, just two lunar and two solar.
On May 26, expect a total lunar eclipse. However, it will only be visible across western Canada at moonset, so it will look like a partial lunar eclipse. However, there are always ways to enjoy the show online, through the Virtual Telescope Project or other online sites.
However, on November 19, most of Canada should be able to see a partial lunar eclipse. The eclipse should look like a total eclipse, however, as only a small fraction of the moon will remain in the penumbra, the fainter outer shadow.
Potential for northern lights
The sun, which goes through an 11-year solar cycle with a solar minimum and maximum, is coming out of a very quiet minimum. That means activity on the sun is already increasing as it makes its way toward the maximum.
During the solar max, the sun becomes more active, with more sunspots. These can result in solar flares, which are sudden releases in energy. These are often followed by a coronal mass ejection, where fast-moving charged particles travel along the solar wind outward. If Earth happens to be in the path, the particles can disrupt our magnetic field, and the particles interact with molecules in the atmosphere.
There were already more sunspots in December, with some reports of northern lights across Canada. It's still unclear if this maximum will be quieter, as the last few have been. However, a recent paper suggests that there's a possibility that this solar cycle may be more active than those before.
Perseid meteor shower
Due to the favourable weather conditions and the number of meteors at its peak, the Persieds are the most anticipated meteor shower of the year.
In 2021, the shower is expected to run from July 17 to August 26, but peak on the night of August 11–12.
The shower rarely disappoints, though in 2020, the shower seemed to produce fewer meteors than normal.
At its peak, under ideal conditions — meaning cloud-free and in a dark-sky location — the shower can produce close to 100 meteors an hour.
Tips for catching it: get to as dark a location as you can, and just look up. No binoculars or telescopes needed.
Hubble's successor finally to launch
After years of delay, NASA's James Webb telescope — the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — is set to launch.
The telescope, which will be more powerful than Hubble, is scheduled to launch on board a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket on October 31 from French Guiana.
Webb is far larger than Hubble and will view the sky primarily in the infrared spectrum rather than in visible light. This allows it to see things that are invisible to the unaided eye. It also allows it to look at the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets, distant worlds orbiting distant stars.
The trusty Geminids
A final treat for the end of the year should be the Geminid meteor shower. This is the most active shower of the year, with up to 150 meteors an hour at its peak under ideal conditions.
The 2021 Geminid shower runs from Dec. 4–17 but peaks on the night of Dec. 13–14.
Viewing this shower can be challenging due to the time of year. December tends to be one of the cloudiest months. However, you can try catching a few meteors in the nights ahead and after the peak.
The shower rarely disappoints, with bright fireballs shooting across the sky.