Another year of skywatching is upon us, and there's a lot to look forward to in 2020!
Here are the 10 most noteworthy sky events. Two amazing meteor showers, several close pairings of bright planets, a "ring of fire" and a total solar eclipse are among the celestial highlights that will take place in the new year.
Of course, Space.com's Night Sky column will provide more extensive coverage of these events as they draw closer.
An exceptional year for the Quadrantids
On the morning of Jan. 4, a strong display of Quadrantid meteors is likely for Europe and North America. In the United States and Canada, eastern observers are favored;maximum activity is expected at about 5 a.m. EST (1000 GMT), when the radiant of the shower, located in the constellation Boötes, will be well up in the dark northeastern sky.
At the greatest activity level, more than 100 shower members per hour will be visible. However, the Quadrantids influx is sharply peaked; six hours before and after maximum, these blue meteors appear at only a quarter their highest rates.
Feb. 18: Mars behind the moon
As the waning crescent moon rises in the small hours of this morning, telescope and binocular users will be preparing for an unusual event: The moon will glide in front of reddish, starlike Mars for viewers across North America, Central America, extreme northern South America, Cuba and Haiti.
This event will occur prior to sunrise across the western half of North America; for the eastern half of the continent the moon will cross in front of Mars in daylight, when the Red Planet isn't visible.
April: "Glory nights" for Venus
Early April finds Venus near the peak of its highest evening apparition and close to the Pleiades star cluster — just as it was in April 2012 (eight years ago) and will be in early April 2028 (eight years hence).
On the American evenings of April 2 and 3, the bright, magnitude -4.5 lantern of a world will be on the edge of the cluster, and nearly overwhelm the naked-eye view of the Pleiades. With sufficient telescopic magnification, the dazzling, golden-white, thick crescent of Venus floating near the blue-white stars of the cluster will be visible.
Venus will also remain in the sky unusually late into the night ... depending on your location, it sets close to, or even after midnight. By late April, Venus will be approaching its awesome maximum brightness – but also its mighty fall – from evening skies.
April 7: Biggest full moon of the year
On April 7 at 2 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT), the moon will arrive at its closest point to the Earth in 2020: an extreme perigee distance of 221,772 miles (356,907 kilometers) away. Eight hours and 35 minutes later, the moon will officially turn full. In addition, the near coincidence of this full moon with perigee will result in a dramatically large range of high and low ocean tides.
While this will be the "biggest full Moon of 2020," (colloquially referred to as a "supermoon") the variation of the moon's distance is not readily apparent to most observers viewing the moon directly.
June 21: Annular eclipse of the sun
The first of two solar eclipses in 2020 will be visible from parts of Africa, Arabia, Pakistan, northern India, southern China, Taiwan, the Philippine Sea and Pacific Ocean. North America will not see any part of it.
Although the new moon will pass directly across the face of the sun, it will not cover it entirely because the moon will farther than average from the Earth and the moon's resultant apparent size will be 0.6% smaller than that of the sun.
As a consequence, an exceedingly thin ring of sunlight will shine around the dark silhouette of the moon, resulting in an "annular" eclipse, derived from the Latin annulus, meaning "ring shaped." A good analogy would be to place a penny on top of a nickel, the penny represents the moon and the nickel represents the sun.
Over northern India, the width of the path of the annular eclipse measures just 13 miles (21 km) wide, and the ring of sunlight will last just 38 seconds. A partial eclipse will be visible from virtually all of Asia, Africa and northern Australia.
Aug. 12: Perseid meteor shower
The Perseids are the "Old Faithful" of meteor showers. That's worth remembering, even if a last-quarter moon will interfere somewhat with this beloved meteor display at peak activity, which is expected on the morning of Aug. 12. Otherwise, an observer might witness more than a meteor a minute in a clear, dark sky.
Most of these "shooting stars" would be identifiable as Perseids because their paths, extended backward along the line of flight, would intersect near a point in northern Perseus. Better viewing conditions will come a few mornings after the 12th, when predawn skies are darker, but the shower will be much diminished by then.
October is the month of Mars
As was the case in 2018, the year 2020 will be a spectacular year for Mars. The Red Planet arrives at opposition to the Sun on Oct. 13, in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces, visible from dusk to dawn and shining at an eye-popping magnitude of -2.6, a full three times brighter than Sirius; brighter than even mighty Jupiter! So bright does it become that between Sept. 29 and Oct. 28 it will supplant Jupiter as the second-brightest planet and become the third-brightest object in the nighttime sky (next to the moon and Venus).
Mars will also be 30 degrees higher in the sky compared to 2018, and will be far better accessible for Northern Hemisphere observers. On Oct. 6 at 10:18 a.m. EDT (14:30 GMT), its distance from Earth at that moment will be 38.57 million miles (62.06 million km). Not until September 2035 will it come so close again.
Dec. 13-14: A "gem" of a meteor shower!
Those who constantly scan the sky for meteors now feel that the Geminids in December are the best of the annual showers, surpassing even the August Perseids. The Geminids are scheduled to reach their maximum late on the night of Dec. 14 into the morning hours of Dec. 15, when 60 to 120 slow, graceful meteors per hour may be seen under ideal dark-sky conditions.
The moon is new that day and will have no adverse effects on visibility (unlike in 2019, when a nearly full moon squelched visibility of all but the brightest meteors). Viewers should start watching after 10 p.m. local time; a fair number of meteors should be visible thereafter, but the very best time to watch will be around 2 a.m. local time. Expect small, faint meteors to dominate on the nights prior to the peak; during and after the peak, however, bright meteors and fireballs should appear.
Dec. 14: Total eclipse of the sun
The final eclipse of 2020 will be visible only from the lower two-thirds of South America and a narrow slice of southwestern Africa. North America will not see any part of it.
The narrow path of the total eclipse starts over the South Atlantic Ocean, takes about 25 minutes to sweep southeast through the Patagonia section of Chile and Argentina, then continues out over the South Atlantic Ocean, coming to an end at local sunset about 230 miles (370 km) southwest of the coast of Namibia.
The regions of Chile and Argentina traversed by the total eclipse are, unfortunately, rather sparsely populated. The point of greatest eclipse is 18 miles (29 km) northwest of Sierra Colorada, a village and municipality in Río Negro Province in Argentina (pop. ~1,300). Here, the path width is 55 miles (90 km) and the total eclipse will last 2 minutes 9.6 seconds.
Dec. 21: Jupiter and Saturn's "great conjunction"
Jupiter and Saturn are in conjunction with each other on an average of once about every 20 years. When they come closest to each other they are usually separated by about a degree or two. But on Dec. 21, Jupiter and Saturn will provide a rare opportunity to both in the same view of a high-powered telescope! In fact, this will be the "tightest" conjunction of these two worlds since 1623; they will be separated by just one-fifth of the apparent diameter of the full moon!
- Space Calendar 2020: Sky Events, Missions & More
- How to Catch the Next Eclipse: A List of Solar and Lunar Eclipses in 2020
- The Brightest Visible Planets in the Night Sky: How to See them (and When)
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.