Astronomical Highlights for 2020

Happy New Year everyone. Yet another year has passed into the history books, and I am once again presenting some of the astronomical highlights upcoming in 2020. While there are a couple of impressive upcoming events, any time the skies are clear and transparent many stargazers are enticed out under the vault of the heavens to explore our beautiful universe.

The winter months around Southern New England can be quite cold, and I for one need some incentive to spend much time outdoors observing the sky. Fortunately, the sky gods provide the Quadrantid meteor shower which peaks on the night of January 3-4. While this shooting star display can produce up to 100 meteors per hour during peak, a more modest 60 meteors per hour is likely under a moon-less sky. This shower also sports a very narrow peak of activity, only several hours in duration, that can easily be missed. However, if you have the time and can tolerate the usual cold temperatures, the Quadrantids don’t disappoint the well-prepared observer.

The fast-moving Quadrantids blaze across the sky at 25.5 miles per second. These blue meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but their radiant point (the area of sky from where the meteors appear to originate) is not far from the end star, Alkaid, of the Big Dipper’s handle. From midnight till dawn, this area of sky will rise higher and higher above the northeast horizon. By 4:00 a.m. the radiant will be almost at zenith (directly overhead). You’ll know you’ve spotted a Quadrantid meteor if its dust train through the sky points back to the radiant point. A First Quarter Moon will set just after midnight, so it will not interfere with observing as many shooting stars as possible between then and dawn’s early light.

Despite being wintertime, I still recommend that you get comfortable in a lounge chair to conduct your observing session. Snuggle up in a well-insulated sleeping bag and keep your head and hands warm. Just don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep like I did many moons ago!

Speaking of moons. There are four supermoons in 2020. While the term supermoon is not an astronomical term, it has been widely used in recent years to describe a Full Moon’s closest approach (perigee) to the Earth. However, the caveat is, to be called a supermoon the moon has to be within 90 percent of its closest distance to the Earth. Following this arbitrarily assigned criteria there are supermoons on February 9, March 9, April 7 and May 7. The April 7 Full Moon is the closest one for the year and may appear slightly larger and brighter than usual.

The most interesting highlight for 2020 will be a close encounter with Mars. Every 26 months the “Red Planet” is in opposition. That means when the Sun sets Mars will rise. October 13 is the date of opposition. The close approach of our two worlds occurs a week earlier on October 6 when our planetary neighbor will be only 38.6 million miles away. That distance is just a little farther away than Mars was at its last close approach on July 31, 2018. Also, in 2020 Mars will rise much higher into our much less hazy October sky. A telescope should reveal much detail on the Martian surface.

However, just before the July 2018 close approach a global dust storm completely enshrouded Mars making it impossible to view any surface details. And it could happen again, since circumstances will once again favor the formation of dust storms. Should observing conditions on Mars evolve in our favor, the local observatories will certainly focus their attention on this fascinating world. Barring any major dust storms, I will present an observing guide to help identify large-scale features with a telescope.

An interesting celestial dance of Jupiter and Saturn will commence for most casual stargazers on May 12 when both planets will sit just above the eastern horizon around midnight. A waning gibbous Moon will also join the pair. From this date forward these two worlds will appear to move closer to one another from our perspective. On December 21 they will be so close that they will appear as one object to the naked-eye just after sunset 15 degrees above the horizon. This “Great Conjunction” will be the closest these two worlds have been since 1623.

To observe this event, you’ll need to find an observing location that commands an unobstructed view towards the southwest. If you have a telescope by all means use it to focus in on this beautiful sight. Use medium to high-power and you’ll observe both worlds in their glory in the same field of view. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, as the next Jupiter/Saturn conjunction on November 5, 2040 won’t be as “Great.” This December 21st event is really something special to note on your calendar.

In addition, 2020 provides two penumbral lunar eclipses for our location Unfortunately, the Moon does not move into the Earth’s dark shadow. In fact, for the July 5 event only about one-third of the lunar surface will slide into the lighter penumbral shadow. Even at its maximum I doubt whether any shadow will be detectable. For the November 30 penumbral lunar eclipse roughly three-quarters of the lunar surface will pass through the lighter shadow, but will still not be close to the dark umbra. A keen-eyed observer knowing what to look for may detect a slight shading of the top portion of the lunar disk. Good luck.

In conclusion, please remember, weather permitting, the local observatories remain open during the winter months to share beautiful views of the heavens. Snow, ice or below freezing temperatures can force closures, so please check the respective websites for any cancellation notices and observing schedules before venturing out for a visit. Seagrave Memorial Observatory in North Scituate is open every clear Saturday night. Ladd Observatory in Providence is open every clear Tuesday night. The Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick is open every clear Wednesday night. Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown is open every clear Friday night.

Some of the topics highlighted in this column may be covered in depth as an event date approaches.

Please clip and save the following chart showing the observing prospects for the 2020 meteor showers. These displays of shooting stars only require your eyes, dark skies, and patience to enjoy.

Clip & Save

Meteor Shower Prospects for 2020

Month Shower Date Moon Phase
January Quadrantids 3-4 First Quarter
April Lyrids 22-23 New
May Eta Aquarids 6-7 Full  
July Delta Aquarids 28-29 First Quarter
July Capricornids 29-30 Waxing Gibbous
August Perseids 12-13 Last Quarter
October Orionids 21-22 Waxing Crescent
November Leonids 17-18 Waxing Crescent
December Geminids 13-14 New

Keep your eyes to the skies for 2020 and always.

Before you know it, I will be writing my highlights column for 2021!!

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