Despite another chaotic year on planet Earth, 2021 was a great time for amateur astronomers. Earthbound spectators witnessed a spectacular â€œring of fireâ€ solar eclipse, enjoyed exceptionally dark skies for the annual Perseid meteor shower and were treated to a surprise comet â€œLeonardâ€ that streaked through the December sky. With any luck, another comet might become visible as it cruises through our solar system in 2022. And amateur stargazers can also view a host of meteor showers and lunar events with nothing more than a pair of binoculars, good weather and a patch of unpolluted night sky. To help you set your calendar, weâ€™ve rounded up the ten most significant celestial events that viewers in North America can hope to glimpse in the new year.
March 24 to April 5: A Planetary Trio
While the stars appear relatively stationary from Earth, our solar systemâ€™s planets appear to dance around the night sky throughout the year. Look to the southeastern horizon just before the sun rises in late March through early April, and you might spot this tri-planetary tango: Venus, Mars and Saturn will cluster unusually close together. (These are three of the five planets, together with Jupiter and Mercury, that humans can see with the naked eye.)
For best viewing, locate a dark sky spot near you and pick a vantage point with few obstructions along the southeast horizon. To find the planets, start at the bright star Altair (in the constellation of Aquila the eagle) and follow a line straight down to a cluster of three bright objects near the horizon. Youâ€™ll be able to track the trio each night as Saturn appears to drift closer to Mars. As Andrew Fazekas reports for National Geographic, that pair will draw the closest on the dawn of April 4, when Mars and Saturn will be separated by just half a degree of an arcâ€”about the width of a full moon. Venus will be just to their east.
April 30 to May 1: Venus-Jupiter Conjunction
Spring will be a busy season for planetary meetups. In the early morning hours before dawn on April 30 through May 1, the bright, reddish Jupiter will appear to rise within a hairâ€™s breadth of the yellow-white Venus. Look to the southeast about an hour before sunrise for the best view of the close conjunction. And for an extra early treat, according to EarthSky, viewers on the morning of April 27 will also be able to catch a glimpse of the waxing moon hanging close to the duo.
May 5: Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower
In the hour or two before dawnâ€”around 4 a.m. local time, wherever you are in the worldâ€”look to the eastern horizon for the constellation of Aquarius. (Stargazing apps or star charts can come in handy here.) Be patient, and youâ€™ll likely see more than a handful of shooting stars, which are predicted to rain down at rates of about 10 to 20 meteors per hour. Those who canâ€™t hunt for shooting stars on the morning of the May 5 might also be able to catch some stray fireballs near dawn on May 4 or 6, according to EarthSky.
These meteors are one of two showers that occur when Earth passes through the trail of dust and debris left behind by Halleyâ€™s Comet. (The other is the Orionids, a smaller shower that peaks in October each year.) This famous ball of ice and dirt has blazed into our field of vision several times in recorded history. In 1066, a likeness of the fireball was stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry. Itâ€™s returned about every 75 years since and will next appear in mid-2061.Â Â
May 15-16: Total Lunar Eclipse
Viewers across the United States will be able to marvel at part or the duration of a total lunar eclipseâ€”when the Earthâ€™s shadow completely covers the moonâ€”in mid-May, depending on their location. (Check this map to figure out the optimal time for viewing based on location.) At peak eclipse, the moon will reflect only the sunâ€™s rays that are passing through Earthâ€™s dusty atmosphere. The atmosphere will scatter out most of the sunâ€™s blue lightâ€”bathing the eclipsed moon in a familiar blood-red glow.
June 14: The First Supermoon of the Year
Supermoons happen when the moon is full at its perigee, or the place in its orbit that it is closest to Earth. This positioning makes the moon appear even bigger than normal, reports Brian Lada for Accuweather.com. (The close approach can make the moon appear up to 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter to viewers on Earth than the faintest moon of the year, which occurs at the moonâ€™s apogee, per NASA.) Three supermoons in a row will appear this summer, beginning with one on June 14 and followed by ones on July 13 and August 12. Juneâ€™s full moon will rise in the southeast around 9 p.m. Eastern time for East Coast stargazers, and stay visible in the sky until the next morning.
June 19-27: Fiveâ€”Maybe Sixâ€”Planets in a Row
Early risers have the chance to spot a rare alignment of planets in mid-to-late June, as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn line up in a dazzling row across North American skies. For the best chance to see all five planets in the night sky at once, look to the southeast horizon in the morning twilight. Venus and Jupiter should be the brightest things in the sky. Use a stargazing app or star chart to locate the other planets, which should be arranged in a diagonal line, beginning with Mercury low on the eastern horizon and Saturn high in the south. A crescent waning moon will also join the lineup most mornings. As National Geographic notes, the five planets all stand out for being visible to the naked human eye. But those with a telescope and minimal light pollution might also spot a sixth planet, the icy giant Uranus, which hangs a bit higher than Venus and appears as a bright greenish dot. Â
July 28-9: Delta Aquariid Meteor Shower
This meteor shower is best viewed from the southern United States or South America, according to EarthSky. Get up in the hours before dawn to catch about 10 to 20 meteors per hour shoot across the night sky. Much like the Eta Aquariids, these showers will appear to radiate from the constellation of Aquariusâ€”whose name is Latin for â€œthe water bearer.â€ This yearâ€™s shower will coincide with a new moon, which should offer lucky stargazers the darkest skies and the best chances of witnessing a few fireballs.
August 11-3: Perseid Meteor Shower
Amateur and seasoned stargazers alike across North America look forward to the Perseids every year for a reliably spectacular show. The colorful fireballs appear to radiate from the constellation of Perseus, named after the legendary Greek hero.
Typical shows boast a rate of 150 to 200 meteors per hourâ€”but unfortunately, the peak days of this yearâ€™s shower will coincide with the nearly or entirely full moon, which will brighten the night sky significantly and drown out some of the show. To make the most of the night, wait to stargaze until two or three hours before dawnâ€”after the moon has set, but before the sunâ€™s rays start peeking over the horizon.
November 8: Total Lunar Eclipse
A second total lunar eclipse will cap off the year, starting at around 3 a.m. Eastern time on the morning of November 8. Those along the East Coast will be treated to the full eclipse from start to finish, while those in the West and Midwest will be able to catch a partial show. Look closely at the reddish light reflecting off the moonâ€™s surface during total eclipse: According to NASA, the moonâ€™s rosy hue is the result of the sunâ€™s rays bending around Earth and filtering through its dusty atmosphere. Earthâ€™s shadow blocks out all light except these few rays peeking around its edgesâ€”so, in other words, the only light reflecting off the moon represents â€œall the worldâ€™s sunrises and sunsetsâ€ happening on Earth at the moment of eclipse.
December 13-14: Geminid Meteor Shower
Those disappointed by the Perseids in 2022 might plan instead on catching the winter Geminids, which appear to radiate from Gemini, the â€œtwinsâ€ constellation best identified by its bright stars Castor and Pollux. This show is the result of 3200 Phaethon, a strange hybrid between an asteroid and a comet that orbits the sun every 1.4 years and leaves a trail of dust and rocks in its wake.
This annual show could produce up to 120 to 160 meteors per hour under optimal conditions. (Together, the Perseids and Geminids are the most highly anticipated and most spectacular annual meteor showers each year, per the New York Times.)
A last-quarter waxing moon coincides with the showerâ€™s peak nights this year, but it wonâ€™t last the whole night. Look at the constellation Gemini before midnight on the night of December 13, before the moon rises, to avoid the worst of the moonâ€™s light pollution. Or, early risers can scan the skies in the pre-dawn hours of the next night after the moon has set.Â