It’s A Big Year For The Solar System. Here’s When You Can See Saturn, Jupiter, Mars And Venus With Naked Eyes

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Did you see the “Christmas Star?” December 21’s rare (and somewhat auspicious?) celestial event saw Jupiter and Saturn appear to come to within 0.1º of each other. 

So what comes next? From a rare “triple conjunction” to Venus as a super-bright “Evening Star” and the best dates to see Jupiter and Saturn at their biggest and brightest, 2021 will contain plenty of opportunities for planet-spotting. 

From inner planet Mercury to eight planet from the Sun, Neptune, here are the highlights and dates for your diary so you can get the best from seeing the Solar System in 2021. 

Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in a ‘triple conjunction’  

When: January 10, 2021 (just after sunset)

Where: southwestern sky

If you’ve been watching Jupiter and Saturn come close to each other for much of 2020, it’s soon time to say goodbye – though only after a “triple conjunction” with Mercury. You’ll need to look very low to the horizon just after sunset for this rapidly sinking sight. 

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Venus and Jupiter in conjunction

When: Just before sunrise on Thursday, February 11, 2021

Where: southwestern sky

It will occur super-close to the horizon and will be visible only for a very short time before the sky brightens, but if you’re up for a challenge the prize will be the two brightest planets—Venus and Jupiter—shining very close to each other. Check the sunrise time where you are and look very low to the southwestern horizon 30 minutes before.

Mars among the stars

When: Two hours after sunset on Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Where: southwestern night sky

This will be a good month to watch Mars in the constellation of Taurus, where it will pass close to the star clusters of the Pleiades and the Hyades, as well as to red supergiant star Aldebaran. On March 3 it will get within 2.6°S of the Pleiades and on March 19 alight with the Moon and Aldebaran. However, Mars in 2021 will get dimmer and dimmer, eventually disappearing from the evening sky in October. 

Jupiter meets Mercury, Saturn and the Moon

When: March 9 and 10, 2021 (before sunrise)

Where: close to southeastern horizon

After being lost in the Sun’s glare for much of January and February, Jupiter will remerge in the morning sky and, on March 9 and 10, you’ll be able to watch the giant gas planet appear close to Mercury, Saturn and a crescent Moon. On March 5, Jupiter and Mercury will be just 0.3° apart.

Venus as an ‘Evening Star’

When: Immediately after sunset, April-December, 2021

Where: western night sky

After dominating the post-sunset night skies for the first half of 2020, Venus won’t be around much in 2021 for those in the northern hemisphere. Come April 2021 it will emerge once again into the post-sunset sky as an “Evening Star.” By May it will be bright and inch towards Mars, but it won’t get very high as seen from the northern hemisphere. It will reach its maximum brightness in December. 

Venus meets Mercury 

When: May 29, 2021

Where: Just after sunset in the west

From the perspective of Earth and any other planet further from the Sun, the two inner planets appear to buzz around our star in no time at all and are only visible shortly before sunrise and shortly after sunset. However, Venus and Mercury do pass each other frequently. Today they will be appear to be just 0.4º apart while 17º from the Sun. If you want to see Mercury in 2021, May 13 through May 29 is when to try.

Venus and Mars in conjunction

When: July 13, 2021

Where: Just after sunset very low on the western horizon 

This won’t be easy to see, but anyone wanting to see a reprise of Jupiter and Saturn’s “great conjunction” should cast their eyes west on July 13, 2021 to see Venus and Mars just 0.5º apart. If you want to see a slim crescent Moon nearby look on July 11, 2021. 

Saturn at opposition

When: August 2, 2021

Where: rising in the east and in the sky all night

Tonight Saturn reaches opposition, when Earth passes between it and the Sun. As a consequence the planet’s disk is 100% illuminated as seen from Earth, and Saturn will look at its brightest and best for all of 2020. However, in practice the ringed planet will be well-positioned and shining very brightly for many weeks before and after this date.

Jupiter at opposition

When: August 19, 2021

Where: rising in the east and in the sky all night

Tonight Jupiter reaches opposition. The geometry of a planet’s opposition also means that the planet rises at dusk (in the east) and sets at dawn (in the west), which is convenient. It’s a time to point binoculars and telescopes at the gas giant to see if you can see pink bands in its atmosphere and four of its moons – both are easy targets. 

Jupiter and a ‘Seasonal Blue Moon’

When: Sunday, August 22, 2021

Where: east

Defined as third of four full Moons in the same season, there will be a full “Sturgeon Moon” on August 22, 2021. As a bonus it will occur just 3º from giant planet Jupiter almost at its brightest of the year.

Mercury attends a total solar eclipse

When: December 4, 2021

Where: Antarctica 

On December 4, 2021 there will be a total solar eclipse in Antarctica. It won’t be witnessed by many – just those on cruises around Antarctica and a lucky few eclipse-chasers in planes – but those viewing totality may be able to see Mercury close to the Sun. 

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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