2021 Jun 30
With all the lockdowns and social isolation throughout the past year, many of us might have found ourselves gazing out of our bedroom window or balcony on a solitary weekend night. The starry skies gave us solace, especially visible because of the reduced light pollution arising from the otherwise usual nightlife. It’s not hard to see why humans have always been fascinated by the stars- you can see something spectacular almost every night.
This is just an ordinary night sky we’re talking about- so you can imagine how exciting an extraordinary one will be! And you have to admit- there’s something incredibly awe-inspiring about witnessing celestial events- they remind us just how beautiful and incredible our universe really is. It is when we’re enveloped by the magnificence of creation that we realise there’s so much out there that’s beyond us- and the twinkling horizons sure help to indicate better times ahead.
Well, with the extended travel restrictions and current lifestyle limitations, we may have another year of skywatching upon us, but luckily- the future ahead’s bright- there’s a lot to look forward to on the final frontier! Each year brings its own rare and unmissable celestial events- and 2021 and 2022 are no exceptions. Whether you’re a longtime astronomy enthusiast or someone embracing a newfound quarantine hobby- if you want to observe a stellar occurrence, you’ll have to plan-et! And to help you do just that- we’ve put together a list of the best upcoming celestial phenomena visible in Sri Lanka- so read on and enjoy. Above and onwards it is!
PS: most of the listed celestial phenomena can be seen without any special equipment- just find a dark location with minimal artificial lighting (e.g.: garden) to ensure maximum visibility.
Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower – July 28th and 29th
For those of you who don’t know, meteors are leftover bits and pieces of broken comets and asteroids- left as a trail of debris when they pass by the Sun. As the Earth passes through these trails, the debris collides with our atmosphere and disintegrates- producing the famous ‘shooting stars’ we’ve all heard of. Meteor showers are named after the constellations they appear to radiate from (e.g.: Aquarius, Perseus, Draco, etc.).
Whether you want to wish upon them or not, the Delta Aquarids Meteor shower runs annually from July 12th to August 13th and will peak on the night of July 28th and the morning of July 29th. This is an average one producing only up to 20 meteors per hour. (merely a constellation prize in the rewarding world of stargazing might we say?!)
Perseids Meteor Shower – August 12th and 13th
In the list of celestial events coming to a sky near you, this one’s a definite highlight! Known as ‘the old faithful of the midsummer sky’, the Perseids are one of the brightest, most plentiful and best-to-observe meteor showers. They are produced by the comet Swift-Tuttle and soar across the sky annually, peaking in mid-August giving up to 60 meteors per hour. Their defining features are their ‘fireballs’ (outstanding bright coloured meteors that last longer than a typical meteor streak) and bolides (exploding meteors)- making this one heavenly display you don’t want to miss.
Blue Moon- August 22nd
While this won’t necessarily cause everyone to be over the moon, it is so-called because it’s the third of four full moons in a season. This notable celestial phenomenon occurs about once every 2.7 years and will coincide with the Nikini Poya here in Sri Lanka.
Draconids Meteor Shower – October 7th
The Draconids produce a minor meteor shower that will definitely require comet-ment to observe! Originating from comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner, Draconids will sparkle in the high northwest skies with about 10 to 15 shooting stars an hour. They are fairly easy to spot since they are some of the slowest moving of any annual shower. They are also unusual in that the best viewing is against a twilight backdrop instead of in the early morning; and this year, the dark skies of the nearly new moon will help sky-watchers enjoy these flashes of cometary debris.
Orionids Meteor Shower – October 21st and 22nd
The dust grains left behind by comet Halley will put on quite the show this year as they course the sky at up to 20 meteors per hour- so keep an eye out for them on the 21st and 22nd of October.
Taurids Meteor Shower – November 4th and 5th
Continuing on with the list of memorable astronomical events, we have the Taurids Meteor Shower. Although this long-running minor meteor shower produces only about 5-10 meteors per hour, it’s a must-see because it consists of two separate streams. The first is from Asteroid 2004 TG10 and the second is from Comet 2P Encke- making this quite a unique and unusual occurrence in the celestial calendar.
Leonids Meteor Shower – November 17th and 18th
An exciting display can be observed on the 17th and 18th of this year courtesy of the Leonids Meteor Shower. This is an average shower, producing up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak, from comet Tempel-Tuttle; but this is again unique in that it has a cyclonic peak about every 33 years where hundreds of meteors per hour can be seen! Unfortunately, the last one of these occurred in 2002, so we’ll have to wait over a good 10 years to witness the next occurrence of this revolutionary cosmic phenomenon.
Geminids Meteor Shower – December 13th and 14th
Space enthusiasts are in for a treat on the 13th and 14th of December this year as the Geminids mega-Meteor Shower will peak and take centre stage. This is the king of all meteor showers, with the highest star rating! It’s considered to be the best shower in the heavens- producing up to 120 multicoloured meteors per hour! And what’s more- the Geminids are unique as well- because they originate from an asteroid (3200 Phaethon), unlike others that originate from a comet.
Ursids Meteor Shower – December 21st and 22nd
The Ursids Meteor Shower will grace the sky on the night of the 21st and morning of the 22nd in December. Here the dust grains left behind by comet Tuttle produce about 5-10 meteors per hour.
Quarantids Meteor Shower – Jan 3rd and 4th
Ring in the new year with the Quarantids Meteor Shower that will peak on the 3rd and 4th of January, 2021. It originates from the asteroid 2003 EH1, and the fact that it produces up to 110 meteors per hour would make missing it a definite cat-astro-phe.
Lyrids Meteor Shower – April 22nd and 23rd
The Lyrids Meteor Shower will give you some breathtaking views on the 22nd and 23rd of April next year as debris from the comet Thatcher disintegrates in the Earth’s atmosphere (including fireballs) producing up to 18 meteors per hour. The Lyrids Meteor Shower is one of the oldest recorded meteor showers- having been seen over 2,500 years ago according to some historical Chinese texts.
Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower – May 5th and 6th
Have a blast watching the stunning Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower as it peaks on the night between 5th and 6th May in 2022. It’s one of the two showers originating from comet Halley (the other being the Orionid Meteor Shower in October)- and with up to 50 meteors per hour, it’s a big one.
Other Celestial Phenomena
Planets at Opposition and Elongation
Planets at Opposition and Planets at Elongation are two celestial phenomena that refer to the best time to view and photograph other planets from Earth- based on planetary movements and their relative positions within the Solar System. Five planets can be seen with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Outer-orbit planets (i.e. those that lie after the Earth when counting from the Sun) appear best at ‘Opposition’ (180°)- at which they are brighter than at any other time of the year and visible all night long. This occurs as a combination of two things- them being on their closest approach to Earth and their face being fully illuminated by the Sun. Upcoming Opposition dates for this year are:
Saturn at Opposition – August 2nd
(getting to spot this gas giant sure has a ring to it, right?)
Visibility: A medium-sized or larger telescope will allow you to see Saturn’s rings and a few of its brightest moons.
Jupiter at Opposition- August 19th
Visibility: A good pair of binoculars should allow you to see Jupiter’s four largest moons, appearing as bright dots on either side of the planet.
Inner-orbit planets (i.e. those that lie before the Earth when counting from the Sun) appear best at ‘Elongation’- because it is at this point that they are at their highest position above the horizon in the sky. This makes a truly ‘out of this world’ observation possible! Upcoming Elongation dates for this year are:
Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation- July 4th
Visibility: Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.
Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation- September 14th
Visibility: Look for the planet low in the western sky just after sunset.
Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation- October 25th
Visibility: Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.
Venus at Greatest Eastern Elongation- October 29th
The most dazzling of planets comes into evening prominence!
Visibility: Look for the bright planet in the western sky after sunset.
The New Moons- i.e. when the Moon will be located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun (between the Earth and Sun) and thus not be visible. This translates into dark skies and can surprisingly be a good thing! They usher in excellent viewing conditions because there is no moonlight to interfere, making these the best times to do some planet and star gazing.
The upcoming New Moons fall on July 10th, August 8th, September 7th, October 6th, November 4th and December 4th in 2021. In 2022, the New Moons fall on January 2nd (a Super New Moon because it’s also falling when the Moon’s closest in its orbit to the Earth), February 1st, March 2nd April 1st, April 30th (known as a Black Moon- this is when two New Moons occur in the same month) and May 30th – so you might want to lock out these days on your event calendar.
Although the name is misleading, Earthshine Nights actually refer to the illumination of the Moon- where the unlit part of the Moon becomes visible due to light that reflects off the surface of the Earth falling on it. Also known as ‘Da Vinci glow’, this just might appeal to the lunar-tic in us! The Waxing and Waning Crescent Moon phases in April and May are the best times to see Earthshine- and the dates next year specifically are the 4th, 5th, 26th and 27th of April, and the 3rd and 4th of May.
The www.timeanddate.com website has some spectacular features for the amateur astronomer in you- including live streams of celestial phenomena as well as detailed information about all upcoming astronomical events. Among these, however, the coolest and most notable feature is their Interactive Night Sky Map that simulates the sky above your location (https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/). You can simply select the Sun, Moon or another planet and track its movements and watch the sky come alive on your screen. The Interactive Map also shows all solar and lunar eclipses, which will no doubt help with your sky-gazing endeavours- so check it out next time.
Next, observing celestial phenomena is both family-friendly and a great way to keep the little Neil Armstrongs occupied- so you’re welcome to all the young mums and dads out there who are thanking their lucky stars for having just read this article! It’s also incredibly exciting and inspiring- not to mention has immense educational value- and is a unique and fun way to foster your children’s imagination and love of all things math and science.
So there you have it earthlings- all the must-see celestial phenomena visible from Sri Lanka in the upcoming year or so. Observing celestial bodies really puts our mundane day-to-day life and all its worries into perspective, and it comes as no surprise therefore that having our head in the clouds would actually make us more down to earth in this case! We hope you enjoy observing the final frontier (or should we say fun-tier?) and learn a thing or two in the process- about outer space and life as well. Here’s wishing you happy exploration, and remember to always reach for the stars!
Are you an individual with a love for space? Have you observed any of these celestial phenomena before? Any tips or advice? Do let us know in the comments section below!