Jimmy Westlake’s top 10 celestial events for 2020
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
If I had to characterize the year 2020 with a celestial nickname, I would dub it “The Year of the Planets.” Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will each pass close to the Earth and close to each other in our sky over the next 12 months, culminating with a Great Conjunction at year’s end.
There is something exciting happening in the sky almost every night of the year, if you know when and where to look. I have sifted through all of the celestial events happening in 2020 and selected the 10 that I am most excited about.
These are my top 10 celestial events for 2020, presented in chronological order. No optical aid is required to view these events, but an ordinary pair of binoculars or a small backyard telescope will almost always enhance the view.
For updates on these and other celestial events, keep an eye on my monthly “Celestial News” columns in the Steamboat Pilot & Today and also the NASA-sponsored websites apod.nasa.gov and spaceweather.com. Most of all, share the sky and have fun.
Jan. 4, 2020: The Quadrantid meteor shower
One of the best annual meteor showers of the year will light up North American skies in early January. It’s called the Quadrantid meteor shower, and it could generate scores of beautiful “shooting stars” per hour, on the night of its peak.
The Quadrantid shower was named long ago for the small defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis, the Wall Quadrant, which now has been absorbed into the larger constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman. Still, the meteor shower bears its historic name.
This year’s peak is predicted to occur around 1:30 a.m. Jan. 4. Sky watchers might briefly see upwards of 100 meteors per hour around that time. The waxing crescent moon will set early, around 9:30 p.m. on the night of the peak, leaving the post-midnight sky dark and perfect for meteor watching.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is very brief, going from zero to 100 in only about 12 hours. Consequently, only a small slice of the Earth’s surface gets to see the climax of the fireworks display each year. This year, North America is in the sweet spot.
The Quadrantid meteors can be seen in all parts of the sky but will seem to radiate out from a point just below the handle of the Big Dipper, which hangs high in the northeastern sky during the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 4.
Between poor timing, clouds, subzero temperatures and bright moonlight, I’ve experienced only a few Quadrantid meteor showers over the years, and they left me with a couple of impressions.
First, Quadrantid meteors are extremely fast. Some zip by so quickly that they will leave you wondering if you actually saw them at all.
Second, Quadrantids look sort of silvery to me and seem to shimmer as they shoot across the sky. In that respect, they look very different from the better known Perseid or Geminid meteors.
And, finally, don’t doze off or you might miss the show.
Feb. 18, 2020: The moon occults Mars
As the moon runs its course among the constellation, it occasionally passes in front of a distant star or planet, temporarily hiding it from our view. When the moon covers up the sun, we call it an eclipse, but when the moon covers up a star or planet, it is called an occultation. It turns out that occultations of the bright stars and planets are rather rare, so, that’s why an unusual occultation of the Red Planet, Mars, this winter makes my top 10 list.
Mars and the Moon will rise together in the southeastern sky around 3:40 a.m. Feb. 18. As they rise higher over the next hour, the moon will creep closer and closer to Mars until, at 4:39 a.m., the Red Planet will disappear completely behind the bright edge of the moon, near the 7 o’clock position. Mars will be nearly 168 million miles from Earth at the time, compared to the moon’s distance of 240,000 miles, so, even though Mars is considerably larger than the moon, it will appear much, much smaller, far off in the distance.
To the unaided eye, the poor contrast between Mars and the bright edge of the moon could make seeing Mars challenging. It will be much easier to watch Mars pop back into view along the dark edge of the moon at 5:57 a.m., near the moon’s 2 o’clock position. The pending sunrise will already be brightening the sky as Mars returns, and the view should be nothing short of spectacular.
If you own a telescope or a pair of ordinary binoculars, by all means, aim it skyward and watch Mars play hide and seek with the moon.
March 20 and 31, 2020: Mars meets Jupiter and Saturn at dawn
This next event is actually a double header.
The excitement begins before dawn on March 20, when Mars passes less than 1 degree below the giant planet Jupiter (0.7 degrees to be exact). Jupiter, on top, will be the brighter of the two, shining nearly three times brighter than Mars.
Mars, on the other hand, will appear fainter, but its distinctive ruddy hue will give it away. If you own a small telescope, both planets should fit into your low-power eyepiece at the same time. Keep an eye peeled for Jupiter’s giant moons Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, looking like little stars shimmering beside Jupiter that morning.
Meanwhile, only 7 degrees to the east of this temporary double planet — about a fist-width held at arm’s length — Saturn awaits its turn for a dance with Mars. That chance comes 11 days later when Mars glides just 0.9 degrees below the ringed planet Saturn before dawn March 31.
It is fascinating to watch the planets actually move in their orbits from night to night and this conjunction of worlds offers the perfect opportunity. Peer out of your southeast facing window or step out onto your porch for several mornings between 4 and 5 a.m. and watch the cosmic wheels turn before your eyes. You’ll understand why the ancient Greeks called these objects “wandering stars.”
March 24, 2020: Venus at greatest elongation near the Seven Sisters
The two inferior planets, Mercury and Venus, spend much of their time too close to the sun for us to view well from planet Earth. They are the only planets that can pass both in front of the sun and behind the sun, as seen from Earth. In between those passes by the sun, an inferior planet will swing out from one side of the sun to the other during what are called its greatest elongations. It is during these greatest elongations that an inferior planet is best seen.
On March 24, Venus will reach its greatest elongation of 46 degrees on the eastern side of the sun and will dominate our western sky, remaining visible for a full four hours after sunset. Glowing as our Evening Star, Venus will outshine every other star-like object in the night sky.
This greatest elongation will provide a great opportunity to test the claim that one can actually see one’s own shadow cast on the snow by the light of the planet Venus. Choose a clear, moonless night and stand on snow-covered ground with your back to Venus, far away from any artificial lights and after twilight has completely faded to darkness.
Let your eyes adapt to the darkness for 10 or 15 minutes. Then, wave your arms, like a bird flapping its wings and see if you can spot your moving shadow on the snow. Just don’t let the neighbors see you standing outside in the snow flapping your wings.
During the last week of March and first week of April, watch nightly as Venus approaches the magnificent little star cluster of celestial siblings called the Seven Sisters. Also known as the Pleiades, Messier 45 and the Subaru (in Japan), the seven main stars of the cluster form a tight little dipper-shaped smattering of stars. On the evening of April 3, Venus will be superimposed right on the eastern edge of the Seven Sisters cluster.
This is a very rare event. Venus only approaches the Seven Sisters once every eight years, inching closer and closer with each pass until, in the year 2036, it will pass through the heart of the cluster.
For an unforgettable view of Venus’ visit with the Seven Sisters, pull out those binoculars and aim them skyward. The sight of the dazzling Goddess of Love surrounded by several dozen glittering stars is unforgettable.
July 14 and 20, 2020: Jupiter and Saturn reach opposition together
Jupiter and Earth are in a perpetual race around the sun, a race that the faster Earth will always win. Once every 13 months, the Earth gains a lap on Jupiter and pulls up alongside it in an event called opposition. It is during opposition that an outer planet is closest to the Earth and therefore best visible in our sky.
This year, Jupiter reaches opposition July 14. At a distance of 385 million miles, this will be the closest opposition of Jupiter since December 2012.
Saturn and Earth are also in a race around the sun. Once every 12 1/2 months, Earth gains a lap on Saturn for an opposition.
This year, as fate would have it, Saturn reaches its opposition July 20, only six days after Jupiter does. This means that both of the giant outer planets will be big, bright and beautiful at the same time in our evening sky. The gleaming planets will appear only 7 degrees apart on the sky, about the width of your clenched fist held at arm’s length.
Saturn will be 836 million miles from Earth at this year’s opposition, more than double Jupiter’s distance. Still, this will be the closest Saturn has come to the Earth since May 2015.
Opposition is the best time to observe a planet through a telescope, too. If you own one, take a look at Jupiter’s cloud stripes and giant moons and Saturn’s icy rings in the weeks surrounding this double opposition. The very best observing time would be around midnight, when the two planets are as high in the sky as possible.
July 17, 2020: The launch of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission
NASA is taking us all back to Mars again with its MARS 2020 mission, and this time, we are prepared to search for evidence of Martian life, not just Martian water.
At the present time, the launch date for the mission is July 17, 2020, but as you probably know, many things can delay one of these launches. If all goes according to plan, the 2314-pound MARS 2020 rover will touch down on the red planet Feb. 18, 2021, using the amazing sky-crane technique developed for the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012.
The landing site is inside of the 30-mile diameter Jezero crater, which once was filled with water in Mars’ distant past. The word jezero means lake in several Slavic languages. The sediments laid down within this lake bed potentially could hold a record of ancient Martian microbes, if they ever existed on Mars.
The car-sized rover has the ability to take core samples of interesting rocks and soil and stockpile the samples for a future mission to retrieve and return to Earth for detailed study. It also has the ability to recognize the chemical markers of fossilized life, if, indeed, such fossils exist.
This will mark the first time since the twin Viking landers of 1976 that a spacecraft on the surface of Mars has had the ability to search for markers of life. All of the others were simply looking for evidence of liquid water and the conditions necessary to sustain life.
Also new to this Mars mission is a miniature helicopter — the Mars Helicopter Scout — that will test the technology of flying in the atmosphere of Mars. If successful, it will be the first craft to fly on another world and set the stage for future drones to explore the Red Planet from the air.
The MARS 2020 rover will be receiving a catchier moniker after a winner is chosen from a student naming contest. The public will be given the chance to vote on the final name choices in January 2020. Previous Martian rovers have been named Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity.
Aug. 12, 2020: The Perseid meteor shower
The annual Perseid meteor shower almost always makes my top 10 list of celestial events. It is the “Old Faithful” of our annual meteor showers and occurs during the warm nights of summer. There’s nothing like lying back on the ground, staring straight up into the sky and counting the meteors as they zip by.
We experience this shower of “shooting stars” every August because the Earth plows head on into the dust stream left behind by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, this dirty snowball orbits the sun once every 133 years, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. The particles shed by the comet are exceedingly small, not much larger than grains of sand, but when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere traveling 37 miles per second, they burn up in brief but brilliant streaks of light.
If the sky is dark and clear, a single observer usually can count between 60 and 90 meteors per hour, about one a minute, during the shower’s peak hours. I’ve noticed that the Perseids tend to shoot across the sky in flurries of two or three, with a few minutes of calm in between. Many of the bright ones leave glowing trails behind them that can last for several seconds. The meteors will seem to spring out of the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, just below the familiar W-shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia.
This year, peak activity is expected in the hours before dawn Aug. 12, but a large number of meteors can be seen about a week on either side of this peak, as the shower ramps up to maximum and back down. More meteors can be expected in the hours after midnight, when the Earth has us facing into the direction of the oncoming dust swarm.
The 23-day-old crescent moon will rise around 12:22 a.m. and stick around until dawn, but its glow shouldn’t interfere too much with some of the best meteor-watching of the year.
Oct. 13, 2020: Mars at opposition
Mars will be the third outer planet to reach opposition in 2020. When at its closest, Mars will shine brighter than the dazzling planet Jupiter and, with its rusty-red color, it will be a spectacular beacon in our autumn sky. Both Jupiter and Saturn will be shining brightly nearby, only three months after their own oppositions.
It takes an average of 780 days for the faster Earth to gain a lap on Mars and pass between it and the sun for an opposition, so, close approaches to Mars only happen once every two years. Also, because of Mars’ lopsided orbit, some oppositions are closer and more favorable than others. Under the most favorable conditions, Mars can come as close as 34.6 million miles, as it did in 2003.
When Mars reaches opposition Oct. 13, it will be 39.0 million miles from Earth, a very favorable opposition. Closest approach to Mars will happen a week earlier, on Oct. 6, when Mars will be 38.6 million miles from Earth. This year’s opposition doesn’t put Earth and Mars quite as close together as they were in 2018, but Mars itself will appear much higher in our sky and hindered less by atmospheric distortion. Mars will be glowing prominently in the constellation of Pisces, the Fish, during opposition this year.
Through a medium-sized telescope, Mars will look like a flaming red ball but look more closely and you might be able to make out some of its dark-colored deserts and maybe even its snowy white south polar ice cap. Glimpsing these Martian features through your own backyard telescope is a thrill that doesn’t present itself very often, so make the most of it. The best time for telescopic observing is around midnight, when Mars is highest in the sky.
Mars won’t be this close to Earth again until Sept. 15, 2035.
Dec. 13, 2020: The Geminid meteor shower
In spite of the cold December nights, the annual Geminid meteor shower is my favorite shower of the year. Its numbers equal or even surpass the August Perseids and the bright stars of winter form a wonderful backdrop.
No Geminid meteors were ever reported before the year 1862, but ever since then, the shower has increased in strength every year.
The source of the Geminid meteors was unknown until 1983, when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite found a small asteroid following the same orbital path as the meteor swarm. Named 3200 Phaethon, it is the only known asteroid that generates a meteor shower. All other meteor showers are associated with icy comets.
When Phaethon makes its close pass by the sun once every 1.4 years, the solar heat bakes and crumbles the asteroid’s surface, leaving a trail of dusty debris in its wake. It is this dust swarm that the Earth moves through every December to create our Geminid meteor shower.
Under ideal dark sky conditions, a single observer can expect to see between 90 and 120 meteors per hour at the peak of activity. The meteors seem to shoot out of the sky near the twin stars of Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini, hence the name of this shower. This year, the moon is in its “new” phase Dec. 14, so it won’t interfere at all with meteor watching.
Don’t just watch for Geminid meteors on the night of the expected peak. Dozens of meteors can be seen for a night or two on either side of the peak. In fact, observers have noticed that in the days after the peak, there are more bright fireballs than before the peak.
Dec. 21, 2020: The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn
Once every 20 years, the solar system’s two giant planets converge in the sky for what is called a great conjunction, and the year 2020 culminates with the greatest great conjunction of the last 400 years. On the evening of Dec. 21, Jupiter will pass only 0.1 degree from Saturn, the closest great conjunction since July 16, 1623.
Although Jupiter and Saturn were slightly closer for the great conjunction of 1623, the planets were too close to the sun to be observed, much to the dismay of Renaissance astronomers like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler.
Great conjunctions have fascinated astronomers for centuries. It has been suggested that the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the spring of 7 B.C. is what the Magi observed and interpreted as the Star of Bethlehem.
Jupiter and Saturn are in a slow-motion race around the Sun. Jupiter requires 12 years to circle the sun and slow-moving Saturn requires almost 30 years. As a result, Jupiter gains a lap on and passes Saturn every 20 years, giving us a great conjunction.
The most recent great conjunction was on May 30, 2000, but this one occurred when the planets were close to the sun in the sky and were very difficult to observe. You have to go back to July 30, 1981, for the last easy-to-observe great conjunction.
So, to observe the great conjunction of 2020 on the night of closest approach, find a location where you have a clear view to the horizon toward the southwest. Start looking for the planets soon after the sun sets at 4:44 p.m., about a single handspan above the horizon. Binoculars will help.
By 5:44 p.m., the planets should be easy to see in the fading twilight but now only a fist above the horizon. At first, the object you spot might look like a single planet but look more closely, and you’ll see that it is two objects very close together. Fainter Saturn will appear at the 2 o’clock position, relative to Jupiter. You’ll have about two hours after sunset to view the planets before they set together around 7 p.m.
As stunning as the sight of two planets almost touching will be to the naked eye, the view through a small telescope will be even better. Not only will both of the giant planets be visible at the same time in the eyepiece, but you might also see three of Jupiter’s giant moons — Io, Europa and Callisto — and Saturn’s single giant moon, Titan.
The rings of Saturn and the dark cloud stripes of Jupiter should be visible, too. It’s a view that comes around once in a lifetime, if you are very, very lucky. And, we are.
Don’t just wait for the main event on Dec. 21. Jupiter and Saturn will be sky companions all year, inching closer and closer towards the great conjunction. The two planets will be within 1 degree of each other from Dec. 12 until Dec. 30, shining through the evening twilight.
You will have to wait until March 15, 2080, to see Jupiter and Saturn this close together again.
Jimmy Westlake’s “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. His new “2020 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events can be found on his website at jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astrophotos and a day-by-day listing of cool celestial events.
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