An overview of the fall skies of 2021

Between now and December solstice, there will be lots to see: two eclipses and four meteor showers. The brightest planet in our solar system, reaching its peak in brilliance, and possibly a bright comet, are just a few of the many sights you can take in.
Let's take a closer view at each one of these events.

Related: The brightest stars in the night sky: How and when to see them

Nov. 19: A nearly total lunar eclipse

Map of the partial lunar Eclipse of Nov. 19, 2021. (Image credit: Fred Espenak/NASA)

North America and South America are both in good position to witness the Nov. 19 lunar eclipse. The visible stages will end before the moonset and it will occur in the early morning hours. The moon will pass through the dark portion of Earth's southern umbra. At the moment of greatest eclipse, 97.5% will be covered in shadow.

Earth's shadow doesn't completely disappear because some of the sun's rays hitting Earth are reflected off the atmosphere. The moon gets a faint coppery glow from enough of this light. Combining this glow with the unclipsed yellow sliver will give the moon what is known as the "Japanese Lantern Effect". This effect can be seen naked or through small telescopes.

The United Kingdom and northern Europe will see the early stages of the eclipse before the moonset. It will be visible in Eastern Asia and Australia after the moonrise later in the evening. The greatest eclipse occurs at 4:03 AM Eastern Time or 1:03 AM Pacific Time.

Dec. 4: Total Eclipse of the Sun

An NASA map showing the path that the total solar eclipse on Dec. 4, 2021 across Antarctica will take. (Image credit: Fred Espenak/NASA)

Only Antarctica will see the final eclipse of 2021. The totality path, which averages 265 miles (427 km) in width, will move inland from the Weddell Sea. It will pass over Berkner Island, the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf and then continue across West Antarctica. After darkening the Executive Committee Range, (a mountain range made up of five major volcanoes), it will reach the Ross Sea.

Even for the most avid eclipse chasers, this is a difficult task. However, a few brave souls were able to see the last total solar eclipse there in 2003 from the ground. Others flew commercially over the frozen terrain. You can see a partial eclipse from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, and Victoria in Australia. A small portion of South New Zealand and Stewart Island can also be seen.

Meteor showers

The sky above Assateague Island National Seashore is lit up by a Taurid meteor. (Image credit: Jeff Berkes Photography

Moonlight will flood the sky less than one day after the end of full phase and ruin observations of the Orionid meteor Shower's maximum, which took place the night of October 20-21. This two-day display produces approximately two dozen meteors an hour under favorable conditions, many of which are persistent trains.

Conditions will be favorable for the next two weeks to observe the Taurid meteor shower. It should peak around Nov. 8, four days following the new moon. Clear, dark skies will allow for an average of eight to ten Taurids per hour in the early and mid-November. This could increase to a maximum of twelve per hour during peak activity. The radiant will peak in the southern sky on the date of maximum activity at approximately 1 a.m. local time.

Unusually, Taurid meteors are just as visible in the evening than in the morning. This is because the radiant of the shower (midway between V-shaped Hyades star clusters and the famous Pleiades), is quite high throughout the night. The more meteors that appear in the sky from a shower with a radiant higher than others, the greater the chances of it being a meteor shower.

Taurid Shower's display can last for a very long time. At most, a few meteors per hour can still be seen between Oct. 20 and Nov. 30.

The periodic comet Encke is the source of the Taurids. The meteors encounter Earth at a speed of just 17 miles per second, making them the slowest major meteor shower. Because of their brightly colored meteors, the Taurids have been called "The Halloween fireballs". Although yellow is the most common color, there have been many fireballs of orange, green and red.

Jeff Berkes, an astronomer, captured this shot of Leonid meteors above a New Jersey house in 2012. (Image credit: Jeff Berkes

A nearly full moon will make it difficult to observe the Leonid meteor shower. The maximum number of meteors is reached on Nov. 17, although the bright moonlight will wash most of them out.

The moonlight in December will create even more problems. The waxing gibbous Moon will make the sky brighter for a large portion of the night, and this will severely hamper observations of this year’s Geminid meteor Shower, which is at its peak on Dec. 13-14. Near the bright star Castor (hence the name Geminids), the emanation spot of these meteors rises from the east as evening twilight ends. It will be located in the northwest sky when the moon sets on December 14 at approximately 2:50 AM local time, and again on Dec 15 at around 3:50 AM. Morning twilight won't interfere until 6 a.m. This display is notable for slow-moving fireballs.

December's Christmas star

Venus is only half-illuminated in October. By 2021, the planet will have a thin crescent phase. Image credit: Starry Night

In December 2021 and 2022 Venus will shine brighter than ever in the evening sky or morning sky. If your eye is at the right spot in the south-southwest, you will be able see it in clear skies before sunset. Venus will become brighter and larger as twilight approaches.

For observers in the middle north latitudes, Venus is at its highest altitude during December. It's also at its brilliancy peak on Dec. 3. However, it remains at its brightest magnitude of magnitude -4.9 throughout the month. This isn't one of Venus’s best apparitions.

The planet, as bright as it may be, is just 15 degrees above the horizon at sunset in the first half December. You might need to move around to see past any local obstructions. It is close to the end of one its low apparitions. By Christmas, it will rapidly drop into the twilight glow and gain speed, before disappearing from the night sky in the first week of January.

The comet

C/2021 A1 (Leonard), the newfound comet, will approach Earth at its closest approach on December 12, 2021. Image credit NASA/JPL

C/2021 A1 is the name of Comet Leonard. It was discovered by Gregory Leonard at Arizona’s Mount Lemmon Observatory in January 2021, exactly one year before perihelion. This is when it is closest to the sun. It will travel within 21.7 million mile (34.9 million km), and within 57.2 million mile (92 million km), of Earth on December 12. Comet Leonard will be visible in the east-northeast sky for just a few hours before sunrise during the first two weeks. It will follow the constellations of Coma Berenices and Botes, as well as Serpens Caput.

The comet should be easy to spot with either a pair or small telescope, and possibly with an unaided eye. As the comet approaches the sun in the second half of December, it will slowly absorb the sunlight and eventually disappear from our view. will keep you updated on the development of the comet as we progress into December.

Joe Rao is an instructor at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He is a writer on astronomy for Natural History magazine and the Farmers' Almanac, among other publications. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @Spacedotcom