Astronomically speaking, the year 2020 ended on a high note. We got to witness the closest conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in about 800 years. The whole month of December was full of exciting celestial events. We had the best meteor shower of the year on the day of the solar eclipse. Not to mention the last time the Moon passed in front of Venus in 2020. Now, as we enter the new year, let’s have a look at the top astronomical events in January 2021.
January 2021 Astronomical Events
January 2: Earth at Perihelion
On January 2, the Earth’s annual orbit will take it to the closest point to the Sun: its perihelion. The planets have an elliptical orbit. This means their distance from the Sun varies along their orbit. At perihelion, the Earth will be at a distance of 0.98 A.U. from the Sun. That’s about 3,000,000 km closer than average. Earth’s proximity to the Sun at perihelion does not influence the local weather or temperature.
January 4: Quadrantid Meteor Shower
The year’s first meteor shower will peak on January 4. Quadrantids are one of the strongest annual meteor showers, along with the Geminids in December and the Perseids in August. They are active between December 28 and January 12, peaking on January 3-4. The parent body associated with the Quadrantids is a small asteroid named 2003 EH1, discovered in March 2003 by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search.
Every meteor shower has a radiant point associated with it. It’s a special point from where all the streaks appear to originate. A meteor shower is named after the constellation in which its radiant lies: for example, Geminids (Gemini), Orionids (Orion), Taurids (Taurus), etc. The Quadrantids were first seen in 1825 and were named after the constellation called Quadrans Muralis, which no longer exists. The constellation was created by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande in 1795. In 1922, the constellation was omitted when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) formalized its officially recognized constellations list.
“An alternative name for the Quadrantids is the Bootids since the meteors appear to radiate from the modern constellation of Bootes,” NASA says. “Even though the constellation may no longer be recognized, it was considered a constellation long enough to give the meteor shower its name.”
As CBS News notes, there is a chance to spot between 60 to 200 meteors per hour traveling at 25.5 miles per second during the brief window from Saturday night into Sunday morning. Quadrantids are known for bright fireball meteors, larger explosions of light and color that last longer than the typical meteor streak. The window will only last about 6 hours.
“The reason the peak is so short is due to the shower’s thin stream of particles and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle,” NASA says.
Clear skies of the Northern Hemisphere provide the best views of this meteor shower. According to the International Meteor Organization, the peak is expected to occur around 14:30 UTC on Sunday. So the best chance to view the shower is in the predawn hours of Sundar morning.
You don’t need any telescope to see the meteor shower. Just find a dark place away from city lights, give your eyes at least 30 minutes to adapt to the darkness, and make yourself cozy.
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January 9: The Moon at Perigee
The Moon will reach the closest point along its orbit to the Earth and will appear slightly larger than at other times.
January 10-11: ‘Triple Conjunction’
On December 21, Jupiter and Saturn appeared 0.1 degrees apart in the evening sky. As the gas giants move closer to the Sun, they will have a close encounter with Mercury, the tiniest planet of our solar system.
On January 10, Mercury will pass 1°39′ to the south of Saturn in the constellation of Capricornus as shown above. The brighter of the two planets will be Mercury, shining at a magnitude of -0.9. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.
The next day, on January 11, Jupiter will pass 1°28′ to the north of Mercury. The pair will be difficult to observe as they appear no higher than 8° above the horizon. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars. Of all the three planets, Jupiter will be the brightest, followed by Mercury and Saturn.
January 12: Close Approach of Moon and Venus
The Moon and Venus will share the same right ascension, with the Moon passing 1°29′ to the south of Venus. The Moon will be 28 days old in the constellation of Sagittarius. Watch the two celestial objects just before sunrise in the south-east direction. Venus, not getting closer to the Sun, will soon be lost to the morning twilight.
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January 13: New Moon
The first New Moon of 2021: A chance to observe faint star clusters and galaxies. The Moon will pass too close to the Sun and will be unobservable for a couple of days.
January 19: γ-Ursae Minorid Meteor Shower
The γ-Ursae Minorid meteor shower will be active from 15 January to 25 January, producing its peak rate of meteors around 19 January. As the name suggests, its radiant lies in the constellation of Ursa Minor. It’s a weak shower, producing around 3 meteors per hour.
January 21: The Moon at Apogee
The Moon will reach the most distant point along its orbit to the Earth and will appear slightly smaller than at other times.
January 22: Conjunction of Mars and Uranus
On January 22, Mars will pass1°43′ to the north of Uranus in the constellation of Aries. Mars is well up in the sky soon after sunset. At a magnitude of 0.2, it is easily visible with naked eyes. Look for its red hue. On the other hand, Uranus, at a magnitude of +5.8 is invisible to naked eyes. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible through a pair of binoculars.
January 24: Saturn at Solar Conjunction
Saturn will pass too close to the Sun as its orbit carries to the opposite side of the solar system with respect to the Earth. On January 24, Saturn will be at a separation of 0°24′ from the Sun and will be lost in its glare for several weeks. Around the solar conjunction, a planet lies at the most distant point from the Earth. On this occasion, Saturn will recede to a distance of 10.97 AU. If Saturn could be observed at this time, it would appear at its smallest and faintest on account of its large distance. It would measure 15.2 arcsec in diameter.
January 24: Mercury at the Highest Point
It’s the best time to see Mercury as it reaches its highest point in the sky in its January–February 2021 evening apparition. At a magnitude of -0.7, Mercury will shine brightly in the constellation of Capricornus. It won’t be difficult to spot the tiny planet as it will be at an altitude of about 17° above the horizon as soon as the sunsets. Be careful while watching the planet with naked eyes or in a telescope as it lies close to the Sun.
January 29: Wolf Moon
On January 29, the Moon will reach its full phase for the first time in 2021. January Full Moon is also known as the Wolf Moon.
January 29: Jupiter at Solar Conjunction
Following the footsteps of Saturn, Jupiter will be at the solar conjunction on January 29. Jupiter will appear at a separation of only 0°31′ from the Sun, making it totally unobservable for several weeks while it is lost in the Sun’s glare. As mentioned before, Jupiter will be at its most distant point from the Earth as it now lies in the opposite part of the solar system with respect to the Earth.