For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
No content available.
Mark your calendars because 2024 promises to be a phenomenal year for skywatchers! Bob has a short list of 6 celestial events that everyone can view without special equipment. Plus, he debunks the hype around some overhyped “events” that you can skip. Let’s focus on the truly magnificent shows in the night sky.
The universe does not pretend to offer equality when it comes to Earth’s sky-calendar. Some years present mind-numbing spectacles; others are average, and a few others offer treats only for those lucky enough to live under rural dark skies and, perhaps, also own a good telescope.
We’ll assume you enjoy a good natural spectacle and wouldn’t want to miss something bright, inspirational, and easy to see, so long as it does not require any technical celestial knowledge or equipment other than your baby blues.
Top 6 Skywatching Highlights (In Order of Grandeur)
So here are the top half-dozen celestial events of 2024. And just for fun, we’ll also list a few more that are not worthwhile or even visible but which some of the media will probably mistakenly headline nonetheless. In other words, the sky-hypes you can safely ignore.
April 8, 2024: Total Eclipse of the Sun
A total solar eclipse sweeps North America on Monday afternoon. And roughly 45 million people will be on the path of totality!
Countless people imagine that the big deal about solar totality is “darkness at noon.” But actually, the full eclipse is not very dark, and anyway, that’s not the reason you must not miss it. Stuff happens when the Moon, Sun, and your spot on Earth form a straight line.
Dazzling but bizarre visual apparitions materialize, like the Sun’s stringy, curvy magnetic field, the solar system’s largest structure, made visible as the ‘corona.’ And pink flames of fire called prominences shoot off the Sun’s edge. And an unearthly feeling, a vibe, a sensation unlike anything you’ve ever known in your life.
I’ve led over a dozen solar eclipse expeditions for decades and watched thousands react. Half weep from the emotional impact!
So do not imagine that simply because your backyard can see a 90% partial eclipse, you’d merely be missing an additional 10% darkness boost if you stayed put. No, you’d be missing the whole show! And if you do, the only mainland US solar totalities for the rest of this century are in 2045, 2078, and 2079—a long time to wait.
No other 2024 celestial event even approaches the glory of the April 8 solar totality. But number 2 is probably the Perseid meteor shower on the night of August 11-12. Why? Conditions are near-perfect for one shooting star every minute!
The potentially meteor-ruining moonlight disappears with that night’s midnight moonset. Since that’s just when this shower starts getting rich, it’s definitely 2024’s make-a-wish occasion.
A quirky event unfolds on the night of September 17-18, when the entire US and Canada get to see a partial lunar eclipse (when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are positioned almost, but not quite, in a straight line).
Unlike the solar variety, “partial” is just fine when it comes to the Full Moon. This particular event will be unusual because only 9% of the Moon will be covered by a small black bite of Earth’s shadow. The Moon passes through the umbra, or the darkest part of Earth’s shadow cast by the Sun.
Look for it at 10:44 PMEDT or 7:44 Pacific Daylight Time.
June 21-22, 2024: Solstice Full Moon
Speaking of the Full Moon, we will see an unusually amber, low-down lunar placement at 1 AM on the night of June 21-22. That’s the summer solstice, when the Sun is highest up, although it only ever gets exactly straight up from Hawaii and, rarely, southernmost Florida.
Since the Full Moon is always opposite the Sun, it uses the solstice occasion to sink to its very lowest point in the zodiac, in Sagittarius. But there’s more. The Moon’s tilted orbit itself revolves around Earth in an 18 ½ year period, like a dropped dinner plate rattling around a bit before settling flat. This year, it’s flirting with its extreme angle of wobble, which is what makes the Moon manage to sink an extra 10 Moon-widths lower than the Sun ever gets to go.
So watch the Moon that night if you’re awake in the hour after midnight. That’s when the Full Moon is always highest-up for the entire night. But see how very low it is. This extreme low-high point is the draw. It may sound paradoxical, but it really stands out when viewed in person. And, after all, such once-every-18-years events only come around a few times in one’s life. Read more about June’s Strawberry Full Moon.
November 4, December 4: The Crescent Moon Meets Venus
A conjunction of the night’s two brightest objects, the Moon and the Evening star, is particularly lovely when the lunar phase is a crescent. (Anyway, Venus never ever meets a Full Moon.)
This conjunction is a grand enough apparition to have been chosen as the symbol of a major religion (Islam) and is represented on the flags of 11 nations. (The crescent Moon, sometimes unaccompanied by any star, appears on the flags of 20 countries).
See what the fuss is about on the 4th of November when Venus shines near the Moon at sunset and then again on December 4 when this great conjunction performs a curtain call. Look towards the west as sunset deepens into twilight.
Astronomical Events You Can Skip This Year
A few celestial events may sound delicious but are either invisible or else fall far short of being truly glorious. Here’s a quick peek at the ones to ignore in 2024:
The Full Moon undergoes a very slight darkening that even professional astronomers cannot visually detect. But some journalists with no astronomy background see “penumbral eclipse of the Moon” listed in some reference and imagine that any kind of eclipse must be worth observing. It isn’t. We ignore penumbral lunar eclipses in the Almanac and, to avoid disappointment or even turning folks off to celestial observing, suggest setting no alarms and happily sleeping through this middle-of-the-night non-event.
October 2, 2024: Annular Solar Eclipse
Thanks to the catchy phrase “ring of fire,” many are intrigued by an annular eclipse, in which the Moon is too distant and small to completely cover the Sun, leaving an encircling, dazzling, potentially eye-damaging ring that must only be viewed through an eclipse filter, But this time it’s not visible from the US or Canada, and appears only from the far-southern Pacific and from southernmost Chile and Argentina. So, as the police sometimes say, “Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.”
Everyone loves to be startled by a bright shooting star puncturing the sky. It’s the only fast-moving celestial phenomenon. Every clear night brings six random meteors per hour, especially after midnight. But these numbers are greatly boosted if there’s a major meteor shower like the Perseids on August 11, the Geminids on December 13, and occasionally the Leonids on November 18. But, little-known to the public, there are also dozens of weak showers that astronomers list as class 2, 3, or 4.
Instead of the 60-100 hourly meteors seen during the Perseids, now an observer in dark rural conditions gains two or three extra shooting stars per hour over the nightly background rate. Few would set the alarm just to increase the visible meteor count so marginally.
With most of these, you’d be going from the every-night average of one every 10 minutes to one every 9 1/2 minutes. Yet that’s the best we get from most minor showers. Since a great many writers don’t know this and merely see that a reference says that the “Kappa Cygnids” are coming up, they’ll urge viewers or readers to “go out and see meteors on Saturday night!” But since that shower will, at best, only give observers an extra two meteors an hour over the background rate, be wary.
Trust the Old Farmers Almanac. Or else, simply put, don’t rush out for anything but the Perseids, Geminids, Quadrantids, or the eta Aquarids. And once every 33 years, the Leonids.
Speaking of which, this year, the normally rich Geminids on December 13 will be spoiled by a Moon that’s just one day from Full. When a bright Moon lands during an otherwise worthy meteor shower, the sky brightness suppresses all but the most brilliant shooting stars, so only a meager few specimens each hour survive to remain visible. This is one of those years you may want to pass on the Geminids.
Mark your calendars and be prepared to LOOKUP! What are you looking forward to seeing in 2024? Share your favorite sights of the night sky with us.
Bob Berman, astronomer editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob is the world’s most widely read astronomer and has written ten popular books. Read More from Bob Berman