What to See in the Night Sky for October 2021

From meteor showers to a Hunter's Moon, here's what to spy in the heavens above this month.

full moon above cornfield

crisserbug/Getty Images

With crackling leaves underfoot and shorter days on the horizon, it's time to stow away the summer gear, break out the sweatshirts, and make our transition to cool evenings and frosty mornings. Below are just a handful of celestial highlights to look forward to in this season of pumpkins, colorful foliage, and the occasional high-flying witch.

The New Moon Gives Way to Dark Skies (Oct. 6) 

Early October will present the best dark sky viewing conditions as a New Moon (peaking on October 6 at 7:05 a.m. EDT) allows the universe to glow unimpeded. For those with telescopes, this is also a great opportunity to view some of the fainter galaxies and other celestial objects that are otherwise drowned out by the moonlight.

The Draconids Meteor Shower Peaks (Oct. 8)

It's time for the annual Draconids meteor show, which happens every October. This year the shower peaks on the evening of October 8 but you can also watch on October 7 and 9. The Draconids get their name from the northern constellation of Draco the Dragon, from which they appear to radiate.

This particular shower is caused by Earth passing through debris shed by a periodic, 1.2-mile-wide comet called 21P/Giacobini–Zinner. It last survived yet another trip around the sun in 2018 and is expected to make a return trip in 2024. 

While the Draconids are not as spectacular in numbers as the annual Perseid meteor shower, there have been years when they defy expectations. In 1933, what’s called a “meteor storm” took place when the Earth passed through a very dense debris field from 21P/Giacobini–Zinner and experienced upwards of 500 shooting stars per minute! Another event in 1946 resulted in over 100 meteors per minute. 

Could this year be one to remember for the Draconids? No one knows, but it’s certainly a great excuse to spend a bit of time staring into the heavens. Fortunately, with a thin, waxing crescent moon setting just before nightfall, you’ll be able to enjoy even the faintest meteors from this short-lived event.

The Moon Dances with Jupiter and Saturn (Oct. 14 and 15)

On October 14, the Moon and Saturn will make a close approach, passing within 3°50' of each other. On October 15, Jupiter will cut in and make its own close approach, coming within 3°56' of each other. Both events will be too widely separated to view together through a telescope, but you should have no problem catching this cosmic tango through binoculars or with the naked eye. 

Catch a Dwarf Planet—Eris at Opposition (Oct. 17) 

Discovered as recently as January 2005, Eris is our solar system’s second-largest known dwarf planet (coming in just slightly smaller than Pluto) and the largest object that has not been visited by a spacecraft. Named after the Greek goddess Eris of strife and discord, the dwarf planet’s highly tilted, elliptical orbit takes it around the Sun every 559 years. 

On October 17, Eris will be directly opposite the Sun, while the Earth passes between them. Thanks to its highly reflective surface, which makes it the second brightest large object in our solar system (after Saturn’s moon Enceladus), it can be detected by some amateur telescopes. To spot it, launch a night sky app and point your telescope towards the constellation Cetus

A Full Hunter's Moon (Oct. 20)

October is generally referred to as the Hunter's Moon, so-called by Native Americans for the time of year when people would hunt to build up stores for winter. With the start of frost season, it's also been referred to as the Freezing Moon or the Ice Moon. This month’s full moon will be at its largest on October 20 at 10:57 a.m. EDT, but you can catch it in all its glory for a few days before and after. 

Try Your Best to Catch the Orionids Meteor Shower (Oct. 20-21)

orionids meteor shower

Austinjjohnson/Getty Images

In other years, missing out on the Draconids would mean a second chance to catch the Orionids later in the month. This year, however, a full moon is set to ruin the party. 

"The Orionids are going to, frankly, suck this year,” Bill Cooke, lead for the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told Space.com. “The moon will be up all night, from sunset to sunrise."

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t try and catch some of the brighter fireballs that might defy the full moon’s glow. The Orionids meteor shower, created by debris left behind by Halley's Comet, will peak on the evenings of October 20-21. Under ideal conditions, as many as 25 meteors are visible each hour.

While the Orionids tend to originate from the constellation of Orion the Hunter, most displays can be viewed from any point in the evening sky. Grab a blanket, get comfortable, and look up!