Astronomical Events to Get Supernova-Level Excited About
From eclipses to meteor showers, these are the big cosmic events worth begging your parents to let you stay up late for.
Erica Silverstein · about 1 month ago
Look up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane — it’s a celestial object putting on a show. If you’re thrilled by the Big Dipper or a full moon, mark your calendars for astronomical events with even more wow factor. Some are rare, like total solar eclipses, and others, like meteor showers, take place like clockwork every year. But if you get supernova-level excited about major cosmic events, beg mom and dad for a late bedtime or an early wake-up call to view these impressive sky-based theatrics.
Throughout the ages, people have freaked out about solar eclipses. After all, it’s a big deal when your source of light, heat, and life goes dark. Today, we know that a solar eclipse occurs when the path of the moon takes it directly between the Earth and the sun, and the moon’s shadow falls across our view of the sun, blocking its light for a short period. Still, it’s pretty dramatic when the sun seems to disappear.
That blackout only happens in a total solar eclipse. In a partial solar eclipse, the moon isn’t precisely lined up, so its shadow blocks only a portion of the sun. In an annular solar eclipse, the moon is directly between the Earth and the sun, but since it's farthest from the Earth, it doesn’t block the sun completely; observers will see a dark spot with a ring of light around it.
The next total and partial eclipses won’t be visible from the U.S. However, astronomy fans are already counting down to the annular eclipse in October 2023 and a total solar eclipse in April 2024 — both visible from the U.S.
The news media doesn’t get as amped up about lunar eclipses as it does about solar ones, but we don’t see why you can’t get excited about them. Lunar eclipses happen when the Earth passes between the sun and the moon. When our planet’s shadow falls across the moon, it prevents the moon from reflecting the sun’s light back at us. Sometimes, observers will see a full moon go dark, or perhaps the moon will look red.
At least two partial lunar eclipses happen every year; the next one we can see is in November 2021. A more rare total lunar eclipse will be visible in mid-May 2022.
Speaking of the moon, supermoons are an easy night sky event to see. A supermoon happens when the moon is at the closest part of its orbit to the Earth on the night of a full moon. The moon appears brighter and larger on that night than it usually does. We get three or four supermoons a year; in 2022, they’ll occur in mid-June, mid-July, and mid-August. The moon will look the largest when it’s low above the horizon, so just after moonrise.
Also, fun fact, the full moon of each month was given a name by Native Americans. For example, the July full moon is called the Buck Moon because it coincides with the time of the year when male buck deer start to grow new antlers. A Blue Moon is the second full moon within one calendar month or the third of four full moons within a given season (between a solstice and an equinox). They’re fairly rare, so definitely worth geeking out over with your astronomer buddies.
Sometimes it rains cats and dogs, sometimes meatballs, and sometimes meteors. Just kidding — a meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through a debris field left by a passing comet. The “shooting stars” you see are bits of dust and rock burning up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Meteor showers are common, and happen year after year, as the Earth returns to the same cluttered points on its orbit around the sun. The Perseids meteor shower in August is a popular one to witness because it’s warm and there’s often no school the next day to prevent you from staying up late to watch. The Geminids in December also put on a good show — but most folks don’t want to lie on the ground to stargaze at midnight when it’s freezing outside.
Did you know that there are more than 3,500 comets orbiting the sun? These balls of frozen dust, rock, and gas are like cosmic snowballs that heat up as they near the sun and shed dust and gas in a long tail behind them. Most comets can’t be seen with the naked eye, so when one is big and close enough to Earth to see, it’s worth getting excited about.
Famous Halley’s comet won’t show up again until 2061, but you don’t have to wait 40 years to see a comet. Scientists believe that Comet Leonard will be visible during the first half of December 2021. Grab a pair of binoculars or a telescope and set your alarm to wake up before sunrise to catch a glimpse.
A great conjunction sounds like an ominous occurrence from a fantasy novel, but the actual astronomical event is not quite that dramatic. A great conjunction occurs when Jupiter and Saturn appear as close as they ever get to each other in the night sky. The event is not earth-shattering, but it’s still thrilling for stargazers because it only happens every 20 years or so. If you’ve got a telescope, you can get a great view or photo of the two planets posing together.
Other conjunctions happen more frequently. You can see pairs of planets appearing together in the sky or planets positioned next to stars, moons, or the sun. Remember, the celestial objects are still thousands (or millions) of miles apart; they only look close together. However, the conjunction makes them easier to spot, especially for newbie stargazers. Find one planet, and you can more easily find the next.