Updated: Nov 30, 2017 11:24 am
If your first instinct might be to bundle up inside on cold winter nights, you're missing out on all the amazing celestial events that are illuminating our night sky. Now that we're nearing the heart of fall and the beginning of winter, we're also approaching the peak viewing days for several meteor showers and other natural phenomena.
Whether you're looking for a fun, family-friendly bonding activity this winter or you're a bona fide space nerd, you won't want to miss these stargazing events. So grab your friends, family, and a few snacks and head outside to enjoy the fresh air and the beautiful sights.
Geminid Meteor Shower
The Geminids are one the most highly anticipated meteor showers of the year because the meteors are bright, easy to see, and frequent, according to Space. Rates as high as 120 meteors per hour have been recorded.
The Geminids earned their name because they appear as if they're coming from the constellation Gemini, which is just up and a bit to the right of Orion's belt. In the distant past, an asteroid now called Phaethon 3200 collided with something and left a path of particles. Now, when the Earth passes through those particles, we see the debris as the Geminid meteor shower.
For 2017, the Geminids will shoot through the sky on the night of December 13 and into the morning of December 14, with peak viewing time being 2 a.m. local time. If you're not a night owl, you better brew yourself a strong pot of coffee!
Every year, the harvest moon looms large in the sky, often with an orange tint that makes it resemble a giant pumpkin. But what is a harvest moon, exactly? The harvest moon is the first full moon that occurs after the autumn equinox, which marks the beginning of fall. Because of a phenomenon known as "moon illusion," the harvest moon appears bigger and brighter than normal.
The 2017 harvest moon occurred on October 5, which was rare because most harvest moons occur in September. The good news? That gives you almost a year to prepare for 2018's harvest moon!
Perseid Meteor Shower
The Perseid meteor shower is another item to add to your celestial events calendar. The astronomer-beloved shower occurs when the Earth passes through the dust and debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last passed near us in 1992. We won't see the comet near Earth again until 2126, but luckily we still get to see the Perseids every year until then.
Even though you missed out on the 2017 showers — which occurred on August 12 — you'll be able to witness the 2018 Perseid meteor shower next August. This year, the Perseids peaked around 1 p.m., so next year, those who are lights-out at 10 p.m. won't be forced to stay up past their bedtime to watch the meteors.
Fun fact: When you see a shooting star, what you're actually seeing is a meteoroid burn up as it enters Earth's atmosphere. Your chances of a meteor from the Perseids actually reaching Earth without completely burning up (this debris would then be called a meteorite) is pretty slim because Perseid meteors are only about the size of a grain of sand.
Love staring up at the moon at night? Well you won't want to miss a supermoon! A supermoon happens when perigee — the point in the moon's orbit around Earth when it's the closest to our planet — coincides with a full moon. So supermoons will appear bigger and brighter than normal.
This year's supermoon — and the only 2017 supermoon you'll be able to witness — is scheduled for the night of December 3 into the morning of December 4. The best viewing time is 4:35 a.m. on December 4, so if you're staying up or waking early, be prepared with coffee!
Leonid Meteor Shower
It's rare, but in past years, the Leonid meteor shower has produced up to 50,000 meteors per hour during its peak. However, the rate typically hovers around 10 to 20 meteors per hour, so you won't get whiplash trying to catch every shooting star.
The Leonids are the result of the Earth passing through debris left in the path of the Comet Tempel-Tuttle, and they get their name because they appear as if they're coming from the constellation Leo.
This year, the Leonids streaked across the sky on the night of November 17 and into the early morning hours of November 18. For next year's performance, NASA's Bill Cooke recommends lying flat on your back as you watch the night sky for the prime shooting-star viewing experience.