2020 Astronomical Highlights … Or Why You Should Never Skip Dessert

I like dessert. I’ll sometimes eat it before the main meal. I tell myself I could drop dead at any time, so why not end it with something sweet? That was my inspiration for compiling this list of the sweetest and best night-sky sights for the brand new year. Of course, there will be dozens more interesting things you’ll want to see including new discoveries like bright comets or close-approaching asteroids, but if you only eat the desserts I totally get it. Enjoy!

January 2020

Meteors are pieces of comet and asteroid debris that strike the atmosphere and vaporize in a flash. Jimmy Westlake

This year will be a great year for meteor showers starting with the Quadrantids which peak during the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 4. This brief but intense shower normally produces 25 meteors per hour for most locations. But if the time of maximum coincides when the radiant is well-placed in a dark sky where you live, up to 120 meteors per hour are visible. North America is the favored place to be this year, so we should get a great show. Watch between 2 a.m. and dawn.

Two additional launches of Starlink satellites are planned for this month, adding 120 more satellites to swelling SpaceX constellation that will eventually provide worldwide Internet access. At least 12,000 satellites will be launched to achieve this goal.

February

This simulation shows the moon about a minute before occulting Mars at 5:55 a.m. Feb. 18 from Des Moines, Iowa. Stellarium

Conjunctions between the moon and a bright planet occur often, but it’s far more unusual for the moon to pass directly in front of a planet, an event called an occultation. The best of the year occurs on Feb. 18 at dawn, when the waning crescent moon will occult the planet Mars for eastern North America. You can observe it with the naked eye, binoculars or in a telescope. The “moment of truth” happens around 7 a.m EST, 6 a.m CST and 5 a.m. MST.

March

Don’t miss this bright quartet on March 18 at dawn. Stellarium

On March 9 we’ll see the largest full moon of 2020 which is often referred to as a Supermoon. A Supermoon occurs when the moon is full at the same time it’s closest to the Earth. Since closer means bigger and brighter lots of us get excited about these things.

Get up early on March 18 to see a spectacular celestial quartet of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the waning crescent moon and the waning crescent moon low in the southeastern sky. The moon will be in conjunction about 2° south of Jupiter and Mars with Saturn 6° (three fingers) to the left or east. Use your mobile phone to take a picture in twilight.

Mars, being much closer to the Earth than Jupiter or Saturn, moves faster across the sky. It will cruise only a degree south of Jupiter on the 20th and the same distance from Saturn on the 31st.

April

The last Venus-Pleiades passage happened 8 years ago.

Whoa! Speaking of cruising, Venus will sail across the Pleiades star cluster (Seven Sisters) on the evening of April 3. Don’t miss this marvelous sight that happens only once every 8 years. Binoculars will give the best view.

The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks on Wednesday morning April 22. Yes, another pre-dawn event. You’re going to lose a lot of sleep this year. A nap or early to bed the next day will take care of your zombiehood. About 15 meteors an hour — fragments of Comet Thatcher — will stream from near Vega, Lyra’s most brilliant star, between 2 and 5 a.m.

May

Comet PANSTARRS (C/2017 T2) already shows a short tail and bright coma in this photo taken on Dec. 21, 2019. Michael Jäger

Venus starts the month gleaming high in the western sky at dusk, but quickly sinks sunward until by month’s end it’s left the scene. Before it goes, point a pair of 7x-10x binoculars at the planet and you’ll see it’s not a dot but a perfect little crescent moon. Whenever Venus and the Earth approach each other closely Venus is in crescent phase and big enough to see with only a little optical aid.

This is also the month that Comet PANSTARRS (C/2017 T2) will become bright enough to see in binoculars and possibly with the naked eye from a dark-sky site as it zips between the North Star and the Bowl of the Big Dipper. Details and maps to come!

June

Sequence showing the annular eclipse of May 10, 1994 from Urbana, Illinois. Bob King

There will be an annular or “ring of fire” solar eclipse on June 21 visible from Africa, eastern Europe, Asia and parts of Australia. No worries if you can’t get there to view it in person. Several websites will live-stream the event. I’ll have details for you as we approach the date.

Although the moon will pass centrally across the sun, it will lie at the far end of its orbit around the Earth and appear too small to completely cover the sun. Like a lid too small to cover a pot, the moon will be surrounded by a narrow ring or “annulus” of sunlight at maximum eclipse.

Venus returns to the morning sky as a brilliant “morning star” in the northeastern sky before sunup.

July

The penumbral shadow is visible over the top third of the moon on January 31, 2018. Bob King

A penumbral lunar eclipse will be visible across North America, South America and western Europe on July 4 between 10:07 p.m. and 12:52 a.m. Central Daylight Time. In a penumbral eclipse the moon only passes through Earth’s outer shadow called the penumbra. Unlike the dark bite of the inner, umbral shadow, the penumbral looks gray and gives the moon a blunted appearance. The best time to see this is at mid-eclipse or around 11:30 p.m. CDT when the top or northern third of the moon will look “smudged.”

Jupiter reaches opposition when it’s closest to the Earth on July 14, followed by Saturn on July 20. The two planets will be only about 6.5° apart, rise around sunset and remain visible all night.

August

On the nights of Aug. 12th and 13th, the Perseid meteor shower, a summertime favorite, will peak with around 60-80 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky. Good viewing begins in the late evening starting about 10 o’clock local time and continuing until dawn. The waning crescent moon will rise around 12:30-1 a.m. and add a little light but not enough to ruin the shower.

September

You’re going to start noticing Mars rising during late twilight in the southeastern sky. As it approaches opposition the Red Planet is brightening rapidly. On Sept. 1, it shines at magnitude –1.8, a little brighter than the brightest star Sirius. But by month’s end it reaches magnitude –2.5, equal to Jupiter in brilliance. Venus dominates the morning sky, while Saturn and Jupiter are paired like a set of eyes low in the southern sky during the evening hours.

October

Mars in 2018 photographed with the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA

Mars makes its closest approach to Earth until 2035 on Oct. 6 when it will be just 38,568,243 miles (62,069,571 km) from your doorstep. Opposition occurs a week later on the 13th when the planet will rise in Pisces the Fish around sunset and remain visible all night. When you’re out trick-or-treating with the kids on Halloween, point out how Mars’ bloody appearance keeps to the day’s dark spirit.

The annual Orionids meteor shower peaks on Oct. 21 with 15-20 meteors per hour flying out of Orion in the wee hours before the start of dawn. No moon will interfere, making this an ideal year to watch.

November

A second penumbral eclipse will be visible across North America, South America, northwestern Europe, Australia, Asia on Nov. 30. This will be a more obvious eclipse than the one in July because the moon travels more deeply into Earth’s penumbral (outer) shadow. The show begins at 1:32 a.m. Central Standard Time and ends at 5:53 a.m. The shadow should be obvious 3:30 a.m.

December

Total solar eclipse. M. Druckmüller / P. Aniol / K. Delcourte / P. Horálek / L. Calçada / ESO

2020’s only total solar eclipse occurs on Dec. 14 along a narrow band crossing the South Pacific, southern South America (Chile and Argentina) and the South Atlantic. Totality — the part to die for — will last 2 minutes 9.7 seconds. A partial eclipse will be visible across much of South America. Like the June eclipse you will be able to watch it live online if you can’t make the trip.

Coincidentally, the annual Geminid meteor shower will peak overnight Dec. 13-14 when around 100 meteors per hour or more will flash under dark skies. Since the moon will be new (and busy with creating a total eclipse!) it will not rob the shower of its grandeur. You can start watching as early at 9 o’clock local time, but the later you stay up the more meteors you’ll see.

On Dec. 16, a thin crescent joins Jupiter and Saturn at dusk low in the southwestern sky. They’ll be so close on Dec. 21 that both will fit in the same field of view of a telescope. Stellarium

Finally, Jupiter and Saturn will shine within 1° of each other from Dec. 12th through the 29th and be in close conjunction on Dec. 21. And I mean close! From some parts of the world they’ll only be 0.1° apart, their closest since the year 1623.