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Astronomical Events 2021: A Stargazing Guide for Sky-Curious Families

Watch these meteor showers, eclipses, and special moons with your favorite amateur astronomer.

Joy Velasco for Fatherly

It’s certainly the oldest, and the grandest, form of visual entertainment you can see from our planet: the night sky. The clockwork motions of the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars come together in an eternal light show that’s billions of years more ancient than anything on Earth. You might not be able to see the many many Earth-like planets astronomers now believe to be out there, but looking up does one better: It sparks curiosity, leads to big questions, inspires awe, and creates family bonding moments. What are you waiting for? What astronomical events in 2021 are you going to see? 

First of all, there’s no bad night to look up at the sky — other than a cloudy one. On any given night, you can explore some of the 88 constellations, document the phase of the moon, spot the visible planets in our solar system, or even look for suborbital phenomena (where is the ISS tonight?).  Still, during solar eclipses and meteor showers, the rewards are even greater. 

So mark your calendar! These are the dates you should schedule in your family for a trip to the remote outdoors full of science, exploration, and wonder of astronomical proportions.

Astronomical Events of Summer 2021

July 17-August 24 2021: Perseids Meteor Shower

  • What: As Earth hurtles through the debris cloud of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids become one of the year’s most stunning meteor showers: At peak, the skies will light up with up to 70 meteors every hour.
  • Fast Fact: You can catch this meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere. It will peak around August 12.

How to Watch a Meteor Shower

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through debris left behind by asteroids or comets. That debris crashes into Earth’s atmosphere and turns into flashy trails that shoot through the sky before burning up. Watching meteor showers is a waiting game, but it’s much easier if you know beforehand which patch of sky you’ll see meteors form in. (There are astronomy and stargazing apps that are useful for this, such as SkyView or SkySafari). Meteor showers usually last several weeks, peaking in the middle. If you do miss the peak, don’t worry! The nights around it are spectacular as well.

August 8 2021: New Moon

  • What: You can’t see new moons, of course. But since the Moon’s disc isn’t there to hide many of the other sights in the sky, the nights around new moons are some of the best times to go stargazing.
  • Fast Fact: Look out for Jupiter! Just eleven days after the new moon, Jupiter will be in opposition — on the other side of Earth from the Sun — and up to 70 percent larger in the sky than usual.

August 22 2021: Full Moon

  • What: Full moons are unmistakable and brilliant. If you have binoculars or a telescope, a full moon is a great chance to bring those out. You can get an up-close look at some of the Moon’s landscapes.
  • Fast Fact: It would take 398,110 full moons to match the brightness of the Sun.

September 6 2021: New Moon

  • What: You can’t see new moons, of course. But since the Moon’s disc isn’t there to hide many of the other sights in the sky, the nights around new moons are some of the best times to go stargazing.
  • Fast Fact: As summer in the Northern Hemisphere starts to wind down, this is a good time to look for the three bright stars of the “Summer Triangle”: Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

September 20 2021: Full Moon

  • What: Full moons are unmistakable and brilliant. If you have binoculars or a telescope, a full moon is a great chance to bring those out. You can get an up-close look at some of the Moon’s landscapes.
  • Fast Fact: Various cultures have labelled full moons with different names based on the patterns of weather, plants, and animals that occur during that month.

Astronomical Events of Fall 2021

October 2-November 7 2021: Orionids Meteor Shower

  • What: Peaking at around 15 meteors per hour, the Orionids aren’t the showiest meteor shower. But they’re linked to the most famous comet of all: Comet Halley. This meteor shower peaks around October 21.
  • Fast Fact:  The Orionids is an annual teaser for Comet Halley’s next appearance, due in the 2060s.

October 6 2021: New Moon

  • What: You can’t see new moons, of course. But since the Moon’s disc isn’t there to hide many of the other sights in the sky, the nights around new moons are some of the best times to go stargazing.
  • Fast Fact: This is a fantastic time to look at the constellation Pegasus. In its direction lies 51 Pegasi, the first star around which astronomers found exoplanets.

October 20 2021: Full Moon

  • What: Full moons are unmistakable and brilliant. If you have binoculars or a telescope, a full moon is a great chance to bring those out. You can get an up-close look at some of the Moon’s landscapes.
  • Fast Fact: Earth’s Moon is the fifth largest moon in the solar system.

November 4 2021: New Moon

  • What: You can’t see new moons, of course. But since the Moon’s disc isn’t there to hide many of the other sights in the sky, the nights around new moons are some of the best times to go stargazing.
  • Fast Fact: The constellations Pisces and Cassiopeia are especially prominent around this time of year.

November 19 2021: Partial Lunar Eclipse

  • What: This lunar eclipse isn’t total, since the Moon won’t fall completely into the Earth’s shadow. But watching the Earth’s shadow look like it’s eating the full moon is still spectacular.
  • Fast Fact: You’ll see it in the early morning, everywhere in North America. This will be the last partial lunar eclipse until October 28, 2023.

How to View a Lunar Eclipse

You don’t need any special equipment to see a lunar eclipse. Just find somewhere dark, where your view isn’t obstructed by things like trees or buildings. Keep in mind that if you’re watching a lunar eclipse from the outdoors, you might be out in the elements for a while. Make sure you have what you need to keep warm.

December 4 2021: New Moon

  • What: You can’t see new moons, of course. But since the Moon’s disc isn’t there to hide many of the other sights in the sky, the nights around new moons are some of the best times to go stargazing.
  • Fast Fact: As winter comes in, this is an opportune time to look at some of the constellations that adorn the Northern Hemisphere’s winter sky, such as Orion.

December 4-December 17 2021: Geminids Meteor Shower

  • What: This meteor shower has gotten brighter in recent years, and in late 2021 you can look forward to it peaking at well over 100 meteors every hour.
  • Fast Fact: The Geminids Meteor Shower will be visible everywhere and strongest in the Northern Hemisphere. It will peak on December 14. 

December 12 2021: Comet Leonard

  • What: First discovered in January of this year, Comet Leonard will spend the year growing brighter as it nears the Sun. But unlike comets such as Halley’s, Leonard is a long-period comet, originating in the deepest reaches of the solar system and bound to return there.
  • Fast Fact: This astronomical event won’t be very visible to the naked eye, so this would be a great time to bring out the binoculars or the telescope.

December 18 2021: Full Moon

  • What: Full moons are unmistakable and brilliant. If you have binoculars or a telescope, a full moon is a great chance to bring those out. You can get an up-close look at some of the Moon’s landscapes.
  • Fast Fact: The Moon is the only moon that humans knew about until Galileo Galilei spotted four moons orbiting Jupiter in 1610.

How to View a Solar Eclipse

Looking directly at the Sun is, as you have surely been told before, very bad for your eyes. Regular sunglasses won’t cut it here. You’ll need special glasses that block the Sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Fortunately, when a solar eclipse is on the horizon, every company under the Sun will have a pair for you to buy. Don’t forget that you may be sitting outside for hours, so bring sunscreen and plenty of water. The next solar eclipse that will be visible from the U.S. will be on April 8, 2024.