Has lockdown and stay-at-home advice got more of us stargazing? There’s no proof—no census is going to ask that question—but judging by the increased interest in my stargazing posts, enthusiasm for the night sky has never been greater.
You’ve probably seen a planet, found some constellations and perhaps even watched satellites glide across your backyard, but what are you missing? What are the ultimate sights in the night sky you can see with unaided eyes?
From well-known constellations rising and beautiful planetary conjunctions to rare kinds of eclipses and “shooting stars,” here’s your ultimate night sky bucket-list in no particular order.
As a bonus, many of these cosmic highlights are happening this week, this month, this year or this decade … though for some you’ll have to wait half a lifetime.
1. A magical full moonrise
When and where it happens next: Moonrise where you are on Saturday, October 31, 2020 (Halloween)
It happens every 29.5 days and yet that moment when a big, bright full Moon peers above the eastern horizon just as the Sun has set in the west remains a powerful primeval sight. You need to be in an elevated position, somewhere with a clear view, and get your timing spot-on because as it rises—and only then—the full Moon looks an orange hue. Just like a sunset. About 15 minutes later the full Moon has risen turned a yellow-white, and got so bright it’s almost impossible to look at.
If you’ve not seen a full Moon for a while, you’re in luck; the next one is the “Hunter’s Blue Moon” on Halloween.
2. A super-bright planet Mars
When and where it happens next: Tuesday, October 13, 2020 (then December 8, 2020)
As of right now, Mars outshines even Jupiter. Last week it came to opposition, its closest approach to Earth, so it presently appears to be at its biggest, brightest and best of the year. Technically, it’s the best it’s looked since since 2003 and until 2035, thought next comes to opposition on December 8, 2022.
Get outside after dark and look to the eastern horizon to see an unmistakably bright red “star” rising.
3. A total solar eclipse
When and where it happens next: Monday, December 14, 2020 (then Saturday, December 4, 2021)
You don’t see a total solar eclipse, you experience one. The headline act is a brief view of the Sun’s ice-white corona stretching into space, but the rapidly decreasing temperatures, weird silver light, instant twilight and an inescapable feeling of panic and dread make it feel like a very significant life event.
While not exactly random, total solar eclipses—a momentary blocking out of the Sun by a New Moon resulting in a moon-shadow across a narrow slither of the Earth for a few minutes—don’t tend to happen in one place very often. Generally you need to travel, though chasing the next eclipse seems unlikely because it will occur in the Chilean Lake District at Pucón and Villarrica, and the remote Patagonia region of western Argentina.
The following total solar eclipses will happen on Saturday, December 4, 2021 in Antarctica, on Thursday, April 20, 2023 in Western Australia, and across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada on Monday, April 8, 2024.
4. Orion’s Belt rising
When and where it happens next: mid-October 2020 (and every year)
The Belt of Orion—made-up of the bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka—is probably the most recognised shape in the night sky between October and March. Since Earth is orbiting the Sun our view of the night sky changes, so like all other constellations, Orion’s Belt is seasonal. That makes now the time to see this famous shape heading upwards like an arrow from the eastern horizon after dark. Come mid-November, Orion the Hunter is hanging high in the southern night sky as seen from the northern hemisphere; look below his belt and you’ll see a fuzzy patch called the Orion Nebula, where stars are being born right now.
5. The International Space Station crossing your backyard
When and where it happens next: ask NASA’s Spot The Station
How many people are in space right now? That depends on crew rotations, but either way you’ve got to see the International Space Station (ISS) crossing your backyard in a clear sky. Its constant white light can be so bright as it crosses your sky in about five minutes, though it’s hard to know exactly when it’s going to happen.
So head to NASA’s Spot The Station and find out—you’ll discover that it makes visible west-to-east once or twice in twilight for a couple of weeks before being invisible for a few months as it passes over during the day.
6. A massive meteor shower
When and where it happens next: Monday, December 14, 2020 (and on the same date every year)
There are many meter showers, but few as impressive as the Geminid meteor shower. Sadly it happens during winter in the northern hemisphere when skies are grey and it’s cold, but if you get lucky with cloud and you wrap up warm it’s possible to see 120 multi-colored “shooting stars” per hour, which peak after midnight early in the morning.
7. ‘Blood Moon’ eclipse
When and where it happens next: May 26, 2021 (then May 15, 2022)
More accurately known as a total lunar eclipse, a “Blood Moon” occurs when a full Moon drifts into Earth’s dark shadow in space. The only sunlight that can reach the lunar surface during the event is first filtered by the Earth’s atmosphere, which creates an orangey-red sunset-like effect. The next one also happens to be a “Supermoon.” It comes next May, though the “Super Flower Blood Moon” will only be viewable from Australia, parts of the western U.S., western South America and Southeast Asia. It will last for only 15 minutes.
8. ‘Great Conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn
When and where it happens next: December 21, 2020 (then November 5, 2040)
Every 20 years the Solar System’s giant planets line-up with each other as seen from Earth. As luck would have it that next happens this year when, on the date of the December solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will reach their closest conjunction since the year 1623. Visible in the western sky right after sunset, they’ll be a mere 0.06º apart and shine as one.
9. A ‘ring of fire’ solar eclipse
When and where it happens next: Thursday, June 10, 2021 (then Saturday, October 14, 2023)
Not all solar eclipses are the same. When a “micro” New Moon—the opposite to a “supermoon”—passes in front of the Sun it causes a “ring of fire” around the Moon. It’s a gorgeous sight , especially if seen close to sunrise, which you can next do for 3 minutes 33 seconds from Polar Bear Provincial Park on Thunder Bay in far north Ontario, Canada (or Greenland or far north Russia). Everyone else in North America will see a big partial solar eclipse, which itself will be something special—though you must use solar eclipse glasses to watch it safely. A similar event in 2023 will be visible from Oregon through Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
10. A ‘Golden Conjunction’ parade of planets
When and where it happens next: September 8, 2040
The planets are buzzing around the Solar System at vastly different speeds; Mercury’s orbit of the Sun takes 88 days, Earth’s takes a year and Saturn’s takes 29 years. So only very occasionally can there be a cluster of planets in one place in Earth’s night sky. That next happens in 2040 when a “Golden Conjunction” will see Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter visible in the same tiny 10º patch of the night sky right after sunset in the west.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.