WAUKESHA, WI—As America continues to socially distance, 2021 gets off to a start with the first major meteor shower, the Quadrantids, which will peak over Waukesha this weekend. The shower has the potential to be one of the strongest of the year, but the window for maximum activity is short — only six hours — and with winter settling in over most of the country, taking in the shower requires a commitment.
Peak activity occurs late at night Saturday, Jan. 2, and early Sunday morning, Jan. 3.
The Quadrantids are a prolific meteor shower, sometimes offering from 50 to 100 shooting stars an hour in a dark sky, and are known for producing bright fireballs. As with all meteor showers, the Quadrantids are best viewed away from city lights.
The Quadrantid meteor shower faces competition this year from a waning gibbous moon, according to Earthsky.org. But even with the moonlight, it may still be possible to catch fireballs. The Quadrantids started Sunday and continue through Jan. 10.
There will be many other reasons to go outside and gaze at the nighttime sky in 2021.
Lyrids, April 21-22: This medium-strength shower, producing 10 to 15 shooting stars an hour and known for producing fireballs, runs from April 16 to 30. For the best viewing conditions, head outside an hour or two between moonset and dawn. The Lyrid meteor shower can produce rare bursts of as many as 100 shooting stars an hour. The constellation Lyra, marked by the bright star Vega, is the radiant point for this shower.
Eta Aquariids, May 4-6: This meteor shower, running from April 27 to May 28, favors the Southern Hemisphere. People in the northern U.S. may see only a smattering of shooting stars from the Eta Aquariid meteor shower, while those in the southern U.S. can reliably see 10 to 20 an hour. The American Meteor Society says they are swift and produce a high percentage of persistent trains but few fireballs. The constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer is the radiant point for the shower. A waning crescent moon shouldn’t provide too much competition to see this meteor shower.
Delta Aquariids, July 27-30: Don’t commit too much to these dates. The shower runs from July 12 to Aug. 23 but lacks a definitive peak period. Like the Eta Aquariids in the spring, the Delta Aquariid meteor shower favors the Southern hemisphere, but skywatchers in the tropical latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere may see 15 or 20 shooting stars an hour. The best time to see them is in the predawn hours. Earthsky.org says the meteors, which appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer from near the star Skat (or Delta), are fairly consistent throughout late July and early August.
Alpha Capricornids, July 28-29: The Alpha Capricornid meteor shower is active from July 3 to Aug. 15. It’s not a particularly strong shower, offering only about five shooting stars an hour, according to the American Meteor Society, but is remarkable because so many of the meteors are bright fireballs.
Perseids, Aug. 12-13: The Perseid meteor shower is regarded by many as the best meteor shower of the year, according to Sea and Sky. The shower, famous for its bright meteors at a rate of about 60 an hour during the peak, runs from July 17 to Aug. 24. The shower is best viewed after midnight from a dark location. While the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, they can be seen from anywhere in the sky.
Draconids, Oct. 8: The Draconid meteor shower is different from most in that it’s best viewed in the evening, when the Draco the Dragon, the head of the constellation, stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. It’s a short-lived shower, running from Oct. 6 to 10. Nearly dark skies will make for ideal viewing conditions. The shower is a sleeper, typically offering a handful of meteors an hour — but in rare instances, the Dragon awakens and spews hundreds of meteors an hour.
Orionids, Oct. 20-21: The Orionid meteor shower is active from Oct. 2 to Nov. 7 every year and produces between 10 and 20 meteors an hour at the peak. The moon will be full, so only the brightest may be visible. The Orionids, produced by dust grains left behind by the ancient comet Halley, appear to radiate from the constellation Orion but can be seen anywhere in the sky. A nearly full moon will interfere with viewing, which is best in the predawn hours.
Taurids, Nov. 4-5 and again Nov. 11-12: This is a long-running minor meteor shower that produces only about five or 10 shooting stars an hour. It’s unusual not only because of its duration — it runs from Sept. 7 to Dec. 10 — but also because it consists of two distinct branches: the South Taurids, which peak Nov. 4-5, and the North Taurids, which peak Nov. 11-12. The southern branch of the Taurid meteor shower is produced by the dust grains left behind Asteroid 2004 TG10, and the source of the northern branch is debris left behind by Comet 2P Encke. Both streams are rich in fireballs. At the peak, a new moon will make for dark skies. The shooting stars appear to radiate from the constellation Taurus, but you’ll be able to see them anywhere in the sky.
Leonids, Nov. 16-17: The Leonid meteor shower, produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle, runs annually from Nov. 6 to 30. The Leonids have a cyclonic peak about every 33 years, when hundreds of meteors an hour can be seen — as last happened in 2001 — but this will be an average year with about 15 shooting stars an hour at the peak. A nearly full moon will be troublesome, but the Leonids are known for producing particularly bright shooting stars that even bright moonlight can’t blot out. The meteors appear to originate from the constellation Leo.
Geminids, Dec. 13-14: The Geminid meteor shower, which runs from Dec. 4 to 17, is the best shooting star show of the year. Produced by debris left behind by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, discovered in 1982, the Geminids produce anywhere from 50 to 120 multicolored meteors an hour at the peak. A waxing gibbous moon at the peak will block some out, but they are so prolific and bright that you should still be able to see some. The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini, but you’ll be able to see them anywhere in the sky.
Ursids, Dec. 21: The Ursid meteor shower runs from Dec. 17 to 26 and always peaks around the winter solstice. The Ursids are fairly low-key, delivering five or 10 meteors an hour, but on rare occasions can produce outbursts of 100 or more meteors an hour. The meteors appear to come from the Ursa Minor constellation.
Full Moons And Supermoons
A trifecta of supermoons starts in April this year, when it will presumably be warm enough across most of the countries to gaze comfortably upon these big, beautiful spectacles.
What is a supermoon? As NASA explains it, a supermoon occurs when the moon’s orbit is closest (perigee) to Earth at the same time it is full. The closeness to Earth — keep in mind, our planet and moon are still 226,000 apart at this point — makes the moon appear a bit brighter and larger than usual.
A seasonal blue moon also rises in 2021 — and it may not be what you think it is. In modern times, a blue moon is often defined as the second full noon of a given month. The definition is generally accepted; but in older usages, a blue moon referred to the third full moon in a season with four full moons. NASA says this happens about every 2-1/2 years.
“With two decades of popular usage behind it, the second-full-moon-in-a-month (mis)interpretation is like a genie that can’t be forced back into its bottle,” Texas astronomer Donald W. Olson wrote in a 2006 column for Sky & Telescope magazine.
But, he noted, “that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Here’s another bit of blue moon trivia: There are about 29-1/2 days between full moons. For this reason, February never has a new moon under the modern definition of two full moons a month.
Lunar lovers, here are some need-to-know dates:
Jan, 28, full moon: Also known as the full wolf moon, the old moon and the moon after Yule.
Feb. 27, full moon: Also known as the full snow moon and the hunger moon.
March 28, full moon: Also known as the full worm moon, the crow moon, the crust moon, the sap moon and the Lenten moon.
April 27, supermoon: Also known as the full pink moon, the sprouting grass moon, the growing moon, the egg moon or the fish moon.
May 26, supermoon: Also known as the full corn planting moon and the milk moon.
June 24, supermoon: Also known as the full strawberry moon, the rose moon and the honey moon.
July 24, full moon: Also known as the full buck moon, the thunder moon and the hay moon.
Aug. 22, full moon, blue moon: Also known as the full sturgeon moon, the green corn moon and the grain moon, the August full moon is a blue moon under the earliest definition of the phrase because it’s the third of four full moons between the summer solstice and autumnal equinox.
Sept. 20, full moon: Also known as the full harvest moon because it occurs close to the fall equinox, but also known as the corn moon.
Oct. 20, full moon: Also known as the full hunters moon, the travel moon and the blood moon.
Nov. 19, full moon: Also known as the full beaver moon, the frosty moon and the dark moon.
Dec. 19, full moon: Also known as the full cold moon, the long nights moon and the moon before Yule.
Solar And Lunar Eclipses
2021 will have some other notable happenings in the sky:
May 26, total lunar eclipse: People living in western North America, throughout the Pacific Ocean, eastern Asia, Japan and Australia will see a total lunar eclipse, which occurs when the moon passes through Earth’s dark shadow, or umbra. The moon will gradually get darker and then take on a rusty or blood red color.
June 10, annular solar eclipse: An annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon is farthest from Earth and appears smaller and doesn’t completely block the view of the sun, resulting in a ring of light around the darkened moon. The northeastern United States, Europe and most of Russia will see a partial solar eclipse, according to NASA.
Nov. 19, partial lunar eclipse: A partial lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through Earth’s partial shadow, or penumbra, and only a portion of it passes through the darkest shadow, or umbra. The moon darkens as it moves through Earth’s shadow in this type of eclipse. It will be visible throughout most of North America, as well as eastern Russia, Japan, the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, Central America and parts of western South America.
Dec. 4, total solar eclipse: A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely blocks the sun, revealing the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere. The path of totality for this eclipse is limited to Antarctica and the southern Atlantic Ocean, but a partial eclipse will be visible throughout much of South Africa.