The Best Sky Sights of 2021


Two major eclipses of the Moon and a partial eclipse of the Sun over eastern North America highlight the astronomical year of 2021.

I provide my selection of three dozen of the best sky sights for 2021. I focus on events you can actually see, and from North America. I also emphasize events with the potential for good “photo ops.” 

What I Don’t Include

Thus, I’m excluding minor meteor showers and ones that peak at Full Moon, and events that happen with the objects too close to the Sun. 

I also don’t include events seen only from the eastern hemisphere, such as the April 17 occultation of Mars by the Moon — it isn’t even a close conjunction for us in North America. The August 15 rare triple transit of three Galilean moons at once on the disk of Jupiter occurs during daylight hours for western North America, rendering it very challenging to see. An outburst on August 31 of the normally quiet Aurigid meteor shower is predicted to happen over Asia, not North America.

I also don’t list the growing profusion of special or “supermoons” that get click-bait PR every year, choosing instead to limit my list to just the Harvest Moon of September as a notably photogenic Moon. 

Good Year for Lunar Eclipses

But two Full Moons — in May and in November — do undergo eclipses that will be wonderful sights for the eye and camera. As a bonus, the Full Moon of May is the closest Full Moon of 2021, making it, yes, a “supermoon.” 

The New Moon eclipses the Sun on June 10, bringing an annular eclipse to remote regions of northern Canada and the Arctic (including the North Pole!). Eastern North America and all of Europe can witness a partial solar eclipse this day. 

Recommended Guides

For an authoritative annual guide to the sky and detailed reference work, see the Observer’s Handbook published each year in Canadian and U.S. editions by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. I used it to compile this list.

The RASC has also partnered with Firefly Books to publish a more popular-level guide to the coming year’s sky for North America, in the 2021 Night Sky Almanac, authored by Canadian science writer Nicole Mortillaro. It provides excellent monthly star charts.

However, feel free to print out my blog or save it as a PDF for your personal reference. To share my listing with others, please send them the link to this blog page. Thanks!


January

The year begins with a chance to see three planets together at dusk.

January 10 — Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn within 2 degrees (°)

Even three weeks after their much publicized Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn are still close and visible low in the evening twilight. On January 10 Mercury joins them to form a neat triangle of worlds, but very low in the southwest. Clear skies and binoculars are a must!

NOTE: The red circle on this and most charts represents the 6.5° field of view of a typical 10×50 binocular. So you can see here how binoculars will frame the trio perfectly. All charts are courtesy the desktop app Starry Night™ by Simulation Curriculum

January 14 — Thin waxing crescent Moon above line of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn 

Saturn disappears behind the Sun on January 23, followed by Jupiter on January 28, so early January is our last chance to see the evening trio of planets, tonight with the crescent Moon. 

January 20 — Mars and Uranus 1.6° apart

Uranus will be easy to spot in binoculars as a magnitude 5.8 green star below red Mars, so this is your chance to find the seventh planet. The quarter Moon shines below the planet pair. 

January 23 — Mercury at a favourable evening elongation 

This and its appearance in May are the best opportunities for northern hemisphere observers to catch the innermost planet in the evening sky in 2021. Look for a bright magnitude -0.8 “star” in the dusk twilight. 


February

This is a quiet month with Mars the main evening planet, but now quite small in the telescope. 

February 18 — Waxing Moon 4° below Mars

The pairing appears near the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters high in the evening sky.


March 

Mars shines high in evening sky in Taurus, while the three planets that were in the evening sky in January begin to emerge into the dawn sky. 

A 200+ degree panorama of the arch of the winter Milky Way, from south (left) to northwest (ar right) with the Zodiacal Light to the west at centre. This was from Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta on February 28, 2017.

March 1 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the evening 

From sites away from light pollution look for a faint glow of light rising out of the southwest sky on any clear evening for the next two weeks with no Moon.

March 3 — Mars 2.5° below the Pleiades

This will be a nice sight in binoculars tonight and tomorrow high in the evening sky, and a good target for tracked telephoto lens shots.

March 4 — Mercury and Jupiter just 1/2° apart 

Close to be sure! But this pairing will be so low in the dawn sky it will be difficult to spot. They will appear equally close on March 5 should clouds intervene on March 4.

March 9 — Line of Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and waning crescent Moon 

Three planets and the waxing crescent Moon form a line across the dawn sky but again, very low in the southeast. The even thinner Moon will be below Jupiter on March 10. Observers at low latitudes (south of 35° N) will have the best view on these mornings. 

March 20 — Equinox at 5:37 a.m. EDT

Spring officially begins for the northern hemisphere, autumn for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading north. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops. 

March 30 — Zodiacal light season again!

With the Moon out of the way, the faint zodiacal light can again be seen and photographed in the west over the next two weeks, but only from a site without significant light pollution on the western horizon.


April

The inner planets appear in the evening sky, while Mars meets M35.

The arch of the Milky Way over the Red Deer River valley and badlands at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, Alberta, on May 19/20, 2018 just after moonset of the waxing crescent Moon.

April 6 — Milky Way arch season begins

With the waning Moon just getting out of view, this morning and for the next two weeks are good nights to shoot panoramas of the bright summer Milky Way as an arch across the sky, with the galactic core in view to the south. The moonless first two weeks of May, June and July will also work this year, but by August the Milky Way is reaching high overhead and so is difficult to capture in a horizontal landscape panorama. 

April 24 — Mercury and Venus 1° apart

The two inner planets will be very low in the western evening sky tonight and tomorrow, but with clear skies this is a chance to catch both at once. Use a telephoto lens for the best image. 

April 26 — Mars passes 1/2° north of M35 star cluster

This will be a fine scene for binoculars or a photo op for a tracked telephoto lens or telescope in a long enough exposure to reveal the rich star cluster Messier 35 in Gemini.


May

On May 26 a totally eclipsed Moon shines red in the west before sunrise for western North America. 

May 12 — Venus and Moon 1.5° apart

Look low in the western evening sky this night for the pairing of the thin crescent Moon and Venus, and the next night, May 13, for the crescent Moon higher and 4° away from Mercury. These are good nights to capture both inner planets using a short telephoto lens. 

May 16 — Mercury at a favourable evening elongation

With Mercury angled up high in the northwest this is the best week of the year to catch it in the evening sky from northern latitudes. 

The total lunar eclipse of April 4, 2015 taken from near Tear Drop Arch, in western Monument Valley, Utah. This is a single 5-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 400 with the Canon 24mm lens and Canon 6D, untracked. The sky is brightening with blue from dawn twilight.

May 26 — Total Eclipse of the Moon

The first total lunar eclipse since January 20, 2019, this “TLE” can be seen as a total eclipse only from western North America, Hawaii, and from Australia and New Zealand. Totality lasts a brief 15 minutes, with the Moon in Scorpius not far from red Antares. The red Moon in a twilight sky will be beautiful, as it was for the April 4, 2015 eclipse at dawn over Monument Valley, Utah shown above.

Those in western North America will see the totally eclipsed Moon setting into the southwest in the dawn hour before sunrise, as depicted here. Over a suitable landscape this will be a photogenic scene, as even at mid-eclipse the Moon will be bright red because it passes so far from the centre of Earth’s umbral shadow.

Unfortunately, those in eastern North America will have to be content with a view of a partially eclipsed Moon setting in the morning twilight. 

A bonus is that this is also the closest and largest Full Moon of 2021, with a close perigee of 357,311 kilometres occurring just 9 hours earlier. So the Full Moon that rises on the evening of May 25 will be the year’s “supermoon.” 

See Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise.com page for details on timing and viewing regions. The dark region on this map does not see any of this eclipse.

May 26 — Comet 7/P Pons-Winnecke at perihelion

The brightest comet predicted to be visible in 2021 (as of this writing) is the short-period Comet Pons-Winnecke (aka Comet 7/P). It reaches its closest point to the Sun — perihelion — the night of the lunar eclipse and is well placed in Aquarius high in the southeastern dawn sky above Jupiter and Saturn. 

But … it is expected to be only 8th magnitude, making it a binocular object at best, looking like a fuzzball, not the spectacular object depicted here in this exaggerated view of its brightness and tail length. 

May 28 — Mercury and Venus less than 1/2° apart

Look low in the northwest evening sky for a very close conjunction of the two inner worlds. A telescope will frame them well, with Mercury a tiny crescent and Venus an almost fully illuminated disk. 


June

While eastern North America misses the total lunar eclipse, two weeks later observers in the east do get to see a partial solar eclipse.

May 10, 1994 Annular Eclipse taken from a site east of Douglas Arizona Showing “reverse” Bailey’s Beads — lunar mountains just touching Sun’s limb 4-inch f/6 apo refractor at f/15 with Barlow lens, and with Ektachrome 100 slide film !

June 10 — Annular eclipse of the Sun

Should you manage to get yourself to the path of the Moon’s anti-umbral shadow you will see the dark disk of the Moon contained within the bright disk of the Sun but not large enough to cover the Sun completely. You see a ring of light, as above from a 1994 annular eclipse.

The Moon is near apogee, so its disk is about as small as it gets, in contrast to the perigee Moon two weeks earlier. During the maximum of 3 minutes 51 seconds of annularity the sky will get unusually dark, but none of the dramatic effects of a total eclipse will appear. The annulus of sunlight that remains is still so bright special solar filters must be used at all times, covering the eyes and lenses.

The region with the best accessibility to the path is northwestern Ontario north and east of Thunder Bay. However, the annular phase of the eclipse there occurs at or just after sunrise, so clouds are likely to obscure the view, as are trees! 

The eastern seaboard of the U.S. and much of eastern Canada can see a partial eclipse of the Sun, as can most of Europe. For details of times and amount of eclipse see Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise website

For an interactive Google map of the path see this page.

June 20 — Solstice at 11:32 p.m. EDT

Summer officially begins for the northern hemisphere, winter for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most northerly position above the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the northeast and sets farthest to the northwest, and the length of daylight is at its maximum.

June 22 — Mars passes through the Beehive star cluster

Mars, now at a modest magnitude +1.8, appears amid the Beehive star cluster, aka M44, tonight and tomorrow evening, but low in the northwest in the twilight sky. Use binoculars or a telescope for the best view. 


July 

Venus and Mars put on a show low in the western twilight.  

July 2 — Venus passes through the Beehive star cluster 

Venus (at a brilliant magnitude -3.9) follows Mars through the Beehive cluster this evening, but with the pairing even lower in the sky, making it tough to pick out the star cluster. 

July 4 — Mercury at a good morning elongation

Though not at its best for a morning appearance from northern latitudes, Mercury should still be easy to spot and photograph in the pre-dawn sky in Taurus, outshining bright Aldebaran. 

July 11 — Grouping of Venus, Mars and waxing crescent Moon 

Look low in the evening sky for the line of the thin crescent Moon, bright Venus and dim Mars all in the same binocular field. Venus passes 1/2° above Mars on the next two nights, July 12 and 13. 

July 21 — Grouping of Venus, Mars and Regulus

The two planets appear with bright Regulus in Leo, all within a binocular field, but again, low in the northwest twilight. The colour contrast of red Mars with white Venus and blue-white Regulus should be apparent in binoculars. 


August

The popular Perseid meteors peak, and we can see (maybe!) the extremely close conjunction of Mercury and Mars. 

The core of the Milky Way in Sagittarius low in the south over the Frenchman River valley at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

August 1 — Milky Way core season opens

For southerly latitudes, the first two weeks of May and June are also good, but from the northern U.S. and much of Canada, the nights don’t get dark enough to see and shoot the bright galactic centre until August. The rich star clouds of Sagittarius now shine due south as it gets dark each night over the next two weeks. 

August 2 — Saturn at opposition

Saturn is at its closest and brightest for 2021 tonight, rising at sunset and shining due south in Capricornus in the middle of the night. 

A composite of the Perseid meteors over Dinosaur Provincial Park on the night of August 12/13, 2017.

August 12 — Perseid meteor shower peaks

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight with a waxing crescent Moon that sets early, to leave most of the night dark and ideal for watching meteors. Look for the crescent Moon 5° above Venus on August 10. 

August 18 — Mars and Mercury only 0.06° apart!

Now this is a very close conjunction, with Mercury passing only 4 arc minutes from Mars (compared to the 6 arc minute separation of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020). But the planets will be very low in the west at dusk and tough to sight. This will be a conjunction for skilled observers blessed with clear skies and a low horizon.

August 20 — Jupiter at opposition

Jupiter, now in Aquarius, reaches its closest and brightest for 2021 tonight, also rising at sunset and shining due south in the middle of the night. On the night of August 21/22, the Full Moon, also at opposition — as all Full Moons are — appears 4° below Jupiter, as shown above. 


September 

It’s Harvest Moon time, with this annual special Full Moon occurring close to the equinox this year for an ideal geometry, making the Moon rise due east. 

Zodiacal Light at dawn on September 24, 2009. Taken from home in Alberta, with a Canon 5D MkII and 15mm lens at f/4 and ISO 800 for 6 minutes, tracking the sky so the ground is blurred.

September 5 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the morning

With no Moon for the next two weeks, from sites away from light pollution look to the pre-dawn sky for a faint glow of light rising out of the east before twilight brightens the morning sky.

September 20 — Full “Harvest” Moon

Occurring two days before the equinox, this Full Moon will rise nearly due east (a little to the south of east) at sunset and set nearly due west at sunrise at dawn on September 21, for some fine photo ops. 

September 22 — Equinox at 3:21 p.m. EDT

Autumn officially begins for the northern hemisphere, spring for the southern, as the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south. Today, the Sun rises due east and sets due west for photo ops.


October 

Mercury adorns the dawn while Venus shines bright but low at dusk. 

October 4 — Zodiacal light “season” begins in the morning

With the Moon out of the way for the next two weeks, the zodiacal light will again be visible in the east in the pre-dawn hours. 

October 9 — The Moon 2.5° from Venus

The crescent Moon passes close to Venus this evening, with the pair not far from the star Antares. The low altitude of the worlds lends itself to some fine photo ops. Look for a similar close conjunction on the evening of November 7. 

October 25 — Mercury at its most favourable morning elongation

The high angle of the ecliptic — the path of the planets — on autumn dawns swings Mercury up as high as it can get in the morning sky, making this week the best for sighting Mercury as a “morning star” in 2021 from northern latitudes. 

October 29 — Venus at its greatest angle away from the Sun

While now farthest from the Sun in our sky, its low altitude at this time of year makes this an unfavourable evening appearance of Venus. 


November

The second lunar eclipse brings a mostly red Moon to the skies over North America. 

November 3 — Moon and Mercury 2° apart, then a daylight occultation 

Before dawn, with Mercury still well-placed in the morning sky, the waning crescent Moon shines 2° above the planet, with Mars below and the star Spica nearby. Later in the day, about noon to early afternoon (the time varies with your location), the Moon will occult (pass in front of) Mercury. This will be a challenging observation even with a telescope, with the pale and thin Moon only 14° east of the Sun. A very clear sky will be essential! 

Total lunar eclipse November 8, 2003. Taken through Astro-Physics 5″ Apo refractor at f/6 with MaxView 40mm eyepiece projection into a Sony DSC-V1 5 megapixel digital camera, mounted afocally.

November 19 — 97% Partial Eclipse of the Moon 

Though not a total eclipse, this is the next best thing: a 97% partial! And unlike the May 26 eclipse, all of North America gets to see this one. 

Mid-eclipse, when the Moon is most deeply embedded in Earth’s umbral shadow, occurs at 4:04 a.m. EST (1:04 a.m. PST) on November 19. While not convenient timing, it ensures that all of the continent can see the entire 3.5-hour long eclipse. The partial umbral phase begins at 3:18 a.m EST (12:18 a.m. PST).

At mid-eclipse, the Moon will resemble Mars — a red world with a bright south “polar cap” caused by the small 3% of the southern edge of the Moon outside the umbra. Its position near the Pleiades and Hyades clusters will make for a great wide-field image. 

Remember — this occurs on the night of November 18/19! So don’t miss it thinking the eclipse starts on the evening of November 19. You’ll be a day late! 

For details see Fred Espenak’s EclipseWise site. As above, the dark region on this map does not see any of this eclipse.


December

The year ends with a chance to see four planets together at dusk. 

Nov. 23, 2003 total solar eclipse over Antarctica on Qantas/Croydon Travel charter flight out of Melbourne, Australia. Sony DSC-V1 camera. 1/3 sec, f/2.8, 7mm lens, max wide-angle.

December 4 — Total Eclipse of the Sun

I include this for completeness, but this total solar eclipse (TSE) could not be more remote, as the path of totality lies over Antarctica. Only the most intrepid will be there, in expedition ships and in aircraft. (I took this image over Antarctica at the November 23, 2003 total eclipse one 18-year Saros cycle before this year’s TSE.) Even the partial phases are visible only from southernmost Australia and Africa.

December 6 — Moon 2.5° below Venus

With Venus just past its official December 3 date of “greatest brilliancy” (at magnitude -4.7), the waxing crescent Moon appears close below it, with Saturn and Jupiter further along the line of the ecliptic in the southwest. The Moon appears below Saturn on December 7 and below Jupiter on December 8. 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major.

December 13 — Geminid meteor shower peaks

The most prolific meteor shower of the year peaks with a waxing 10-day-old gibbous Moon lighting the sky, so not great conditions. But with luck it will still be possible to see and capture bright fireballs. 

December 21 — Solstice at 10:59 a.m. EST

Winter officially begins for the northern hemisphere, summer for the southern, as the Sun reaches its most southerly position below the celestial equator. The Sun rises farthest to the southeast and sets farthest to the southwest, and the length of daylight is at its minimum.

December 31 — Four planets in view 

As the year ends the same three planets that adorned the evening sky in early January are back, with the addition of Venus. So on New Year’s Eve we can see four of the naked eye planets (only Mars is missing) at once in the evening sky. 


Good luck, good viewing, and clear skies in 2021! 

For lots of tips and techniques for shooting the night sky, see my Nightscape and Timelapse ebook linked to above.

— Alan, December 26, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Great Conjunction


On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226. 

As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see. 

Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky. 

But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years! 

Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear. 


Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses

This shows the field of view of various lenses on full-frame cameras (red outlines) and a 200mm lens with 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera (blue outline). The date is December 17 when the waxing crescent Moon also appears near the planet pair for a bonus element in a nightscape image.

Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4. 

The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work. 

Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context. 

For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 3, 2020 from the Elbow Falls area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 30 seconds each, and one untracked image for the bright sky for 15 seconds to preserve colours and highlights, all with the 24mm Sigma lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 200.

NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites). 

My ebook linked to at right has pages of tips and techniques for shooting nightscapes and time-lapses. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 10, 2020 from Red Deer River valley, north of Drumheller, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 20 seconds each at f/5.6, and a single image for the sky for 5 seconds at f/2.8, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 400. All untracked.

Harder — Shooting With Longer Lenses

The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night. 

As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud. 

For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21. 

On December 21 wide-angle and even short telephoto lenses will likely show the two planets as an unresolved point of light, no brighter than Jupiter on its own.

On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects. 

However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use. 

A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds. 

To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800. 

This shows the motion of Jupiter relative to Saturn from December 17 to 25, with the outer frame representing the field of view of a 200mm lens and 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera. The smaller frame shows the field of a telescope with an effective focal length of 1,200mm.

TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos. 


Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses 

This one popular sky tracker, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, here with a telephoto lens. It and other trackers such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer seen in the opening image, can be used with lenses and telescopes up to about 300mm focal length, if they are balanced well. Even longer lenses might work for the short exposures needed for the planets, but vibration and wind can blur images.

However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site. 

Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use. 

Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds. 

You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise. 

TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing. 


The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope

An alt-azimuth mounted GoTo scope like this Celestron SE6 can work for short exposures of the planets, provided it is aligned and is tracking properly. Good focus will be critical.

Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year. 

But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars. 

While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.

You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.

A simulation of the view with a 1,200mm focal length telescope on December 21. Even with such a focal length the planet disks still appear small.

TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view! 

But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same. 

This is the setup I might use for a portable rig best for a last-minute chase to clear skies. It’s a Sky-Watcher EQM-35 mount with a 105mm apo refractor (the long-discontinued Astro-Physics Traveler), and here with a 2x Barlow to double the effective focal length to 1,200mm.

However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21! 

TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it. 

TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others. 

TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus! 

Jupiter and Saturn in the same telescope field on December 5, 2020. Some of the moons are visible in this exposure taken in twilight before the planets got too low in the southwest. This is a single exposure with a 130mm Astro-Physics apo refractor at f/6 (so 780mm focal length) for 4 seconds at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D MkII. The disks of the planets are overexposed to bring out the moons.

Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.

Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it. 

FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.

Jupiter and Saturn taken in the deep twilight on December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky (and untrailed stars) for 30 seconds each at ISO 400, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy! 

The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn! 

And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!

In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view! 

Jupiter and Saturn taken December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky for 30 seconds at ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry. 

Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene. 

Clear skies! 

— Alan, © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Geminid Meteor Shower


The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity. 

The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal! 

The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night. 

A Good Year for Geminids

While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:

• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.

• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years. 

The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower looking east to the radiant point. This is a stack of 40 images, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 40 frames with meteors out of 357 taken over 3.25 hours. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky. I rotated and moved each image in relation to the base image and around Polaris at upper left, in order to place each meteor at approximately the correct position in relation to the background stars, to preserve the effect of the meteors streaking from the radiant near Castor at centre.

What Settings to Use?

To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:

  • A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
  • A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
  • Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
  • An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins. 
  • Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Use an intervalometer to control the shutter speed, with the camera on Bulb. Set the interval to one second to minimize the time the shutter is closed.

Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:

  • A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
  • A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
  • A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible. 
  • Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
  • A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
This sky chart looking east for December 13, 2020 shows the position of the radiant and the constellation of Gemini at about 7 p.m. local time. Orion is just rising in the east.

When to Shoot?

The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.

For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14. 

For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.

So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold! 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major. Gemini itself and the radiant of the shower is at top centre. It is one frame from a 700-frame sequence for stacking and time-lapses. The ground is a mean stack of 8 frames to smooth noise. Exposures were 30 seconds at ISO 6400 with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII.

Where to Go?

To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north. 

While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town. 

From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up. 

The Geminid meteor shower of December 13, 2017 in a view framing the winter Milky Way from Auriga (at top) to Puppis (at bottom) with Gemini itself, the radiant of the shower at left, and Orion at right. The view is looking southeast. This is a composite stack of one base image with the brightest meteor, then 20 other images layered in each with a meteor. The camera was not tracking the sky, so I rotated and moved each of the layered-in frames so that their stars mroe or less aligned with the base layer. The images for this composite were taken over 107 minutes, with 22 images containing meteors picked from 196 images in total over that time. Each exposure was 30 seconds with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400.

Where to Aim?

You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west. 

But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are. 

The Star Adventurer star tracker, on its optional equatorial wedge to aid precise polar alignment of its motorized rotation axis.

Using a Tracker

Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite. 

A tracked composite showing the 2017 Geminid meteors streaking from the radiant point in Gemini at upper left. This is a stack of 43 exposures, each 1-minute with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.5 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 6400, set fast to pick up the fainter meteors. These were 43 exposures with meteors (some with 2 or 3 per frame) out of 455 taken over 5 hours. The background sky comes from just one of the exposures. All the other frames are masked to show just the meteor.

However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary. 

If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower, from the peak night of December 13, with the radiant in Gemini, at top, high overhead. So meteors appear to be raining down to the horizon. This was certainly the visual impression. This is a stack of 24 images, some with 2 or 3 meteors per frame, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 24 frames with meteors out of 171 taken over 94 minutes. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky.

Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera

The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses. 

The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant. 

To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.

Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog. 

But I cover the process in multi-step tutorials in my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook, linked to above. 

The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials. 

A trio of Geminid meteors over the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, with Orion and the winter stars setting. I shot this at the end of the night of December 13/14, 2017 with the rising waxing crescent Moon providing some ground illumination. This is a stack of one image for the ground and two fainter meteors, and another image with the bright meteor. The camera was on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker so the stars are not trailed, though the ground will be slightly blurred. All were 30-second exposures at f/2.8 with the 24mm Canon lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 5000.

Keeping Warm

Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.

Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon. 

Good luck and happy meteor hunting!

— Alan, December 2, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

 

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