Take your vitamins and stick around for the next century’s super-spectacles, including the longest total solar eclipse in U.S. history (2045) or the spectacular return of Halley’s Comet in 2061.
The Magnificent Seven (Four for Canada) Total Eclipses
Totality causes humans and animals alike to moan and babble, as normally invisible deep-pink prominences leap from the Sun’s edge like nuclear geysers. Alas, this ineffable experience of totality happens just once every 360 years, on average, from any given site on Earth.
- August 21, 2017, will bring the first American totality: the 120-mile-wide shadow will slash the country from coast to coast like a calligraphy brushstroke. See the Almanac’s 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Guide and Map!
- Another American totality occurs on April 8, 2024, followed by the longest eclipse in U.S. history (a 6-½ minute totality) on August 12, 2045, that again will cross the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic — an inspiration, perhaps, for today’s observers to stay healthy.
- After a shorter totality in 2052 over Georgia, the country then receives a rare present: two total solar eclipses within a single year, on May 11, 2078, and May 1, 2079. Finally, the century closes with a totality for the northern and Atlantic states in September of 2099. And that’s it — the only occasions in the next 100 years in which stay-at-home Americans can stand fully in the Moon’s shadow.
- For Canadian eclipse addicts, the April 8, 2024, event will also be seen from the Maritime provinces. The next one, on August 23, 2044, actually begins at sunrise on the border with Montana, then hightails it northward through the western Prairies toward the North Pole. After that, it’s a long wait until the eclipse of May 1, 2079, visible from the Maritimes, and the totality of September 14, 2099, seen in southwestern Canada.
In terms of sheer spectacle, the closest runner-up to solar totality is probably Earth’s encounter with a Great Comet. While 1996’s Hyakutake and 1997’s Hale-Bopp did indeed break a 20-year Great Comet drought, neither was as spectacular — that is, bright, with a long tail — as some of the finest historical visitors. The most demanding comet lovers desire a comet with both qualities, like Halley’s memorable 1910 visit, or the “Great January comet” of that same extraordinary year. While most spectacular comets have initially uncharted orbits of thousands of years and therefore visit us with no advance notice, the one trusty short-period comet that can be predicted is also the most famous of all — Halley’s comet.
Unfortunately, during Halley’s most recent visit, in 1985-86, Earth was in nearly the worst possible position, the equivalent of the outfield bleacher seats. But the Earth/Halley geometry will be wonderful for its return in 2061. Then, it should span half the sky. Moreover, it will float in front of the stars of the Big Dipper, making it prominent for observers in the United States and Canada.
The finest reliable showers will continue to be summer’s Perseids of August 11, which will slowly creep to August 12 as the century advances, and December’s rich Geminid display on December 13, which will also migrate ahead one night toward century’s end. Anyone can predict which years these will appear at their best by looking up the phases of the Moon for those dates. Meteors are greatly diminished by a Moon that falls between the first and last quarter phases. See more information and viewing tips for the Perseid Meteor Shower and the Geminid Meteor Shower.
Of course, for true spectacle, observers will be looking for a meteor “storm,” the 50-to-100-shooting-stars-per-second display that happened in 1799, 1833, and 1966. Right now, it appears that the on-again, off-again 33-⅓-year periodicity of the Leonids should continue, giving us good opportunities in 2033, 2066, and 2099.
Truly awesome conjunctions require a meeting of at least two of the three planets that can attain dazzling brilliance (Venus, Jupiter, and, rarely, Mars), or the Moon with one or more of these. We’ll throw in bright but not briliant Saturn and Mercury only when a conjunction involving them is ultra-close. To qualify, the celestial targets must pass extremely near each other in the night sky — perhaps even merge into a single, ultrabright, alien-looking sky-object. (While events involving Venus usually occur in twilight, the conjunctions below remain visible long enough to stand out against a satisfyingly dark backdrop.)
The following list presents a comprehensive list of the best planetary events of the 21st century that can be seen during the nightfall-to-10 P.M. period when most people are willing to venture out.
Dates of Dazzling Conjunctions
J=Jupiter V=Venus M=Mars S=Saturn Merc=Mercury
In all these cases, face west toward the fading evening twilight.
April 5, 2000 M, J
May 10, 2002 M, V
June 30, 2007 V, S
December 1, 2008 V, J, Moon
February 20, 2015 V, M, Moon
June 30, July 1, and July 15 Yr? V, J
December 20, 2020 J, S
March 1, 2023 V, J
December 1-2, 2033 J, M
April 13, 2038 J, Uranus
February 23, 2047 V, M
March 7, 2047 V, J
May 13, 2066 V, M
July 1, 2066 V, S
March 14, 2071 V, J
June 21, 2074 V, J
June 27. 2074 V, J, Moon
June 28, 2076 M, J
October 31, 2076 M, S, Moon
February 27, 2079 V, M
November 7, 2080 M, S, J
November 15, 2080 M, S, J
November 17, 2080 M, S, J, Ura, Moon
December 24, 2080 V, J
March 6, 2082 V, J
April 28, 2065 J, M, Moon
June 13, 2085 J, V, M
May 15, 2098 V, M
June 29, 2098 V, J
Paste this article to a refrigerator you plan to keep for ten decades. But there’s no substitute for keeping your eyes wide open after nightfall—for many of the best celestial spectacles, such as awesome long-period comets, Northern Lights, and bolides (exploding meteors), arrive with little or no warning, brilliant bombshells in the heavens.
For your annual “calendar of the heavens,” be sure to pick up your copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac!