Are you ready for a new year of supermoons, meteor showers, eclipses and historic planetary alignments? The year 2020 is filled with a number of exciting reasons to get out, look up and marvel at the celestial wonders above us.
As in previous years, we reached out to Dean Regas, astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory and author of "100 Things to See in the Night Sky," for some suggestions of highlights. Below are a few of his tips sprinkled with some of our own must-see skywatching events for 2020!
Wishing you clear nights and a very happy new year!
A quartet of supermoons (February, March, April, May)
A full moon rising over Roosevelt Lake in Washington state. (Photo: Rocky Raybell [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
The last gasps of winter and early hints of spring will be presided over by a rare number of supermoons. These lunar events, which look slightly larger and brighter than usual, occur when the moon is both full and at its closest approach to Earth (perigee) for a given monthly orbit. It's estimated that the light from a supermoon is roughly 16% than a standard full moon. This year's supermoons will take place on Feb. 9, March 9, April 8 and May 7.
While today's supermoons (with April's coming as close as 221,772 miles to Earth) are dramatic, they're nothing compared to what the moon would have looked like billions of years ago. Researchers believe that when the moon first formed some 4.5 billion years ago, it was orbiting as little as 15,000-20,000 miles away. Not only would that have increased its size in the night sky by more than 15 times, but its hot surface would have made it glow a dull red. Today's moon, cooled white after billions of years, continues to move away from Earth at a rate of about four centimeters per year.
'First Light Night' for oldest professional telescope in U.S. (April 14)
The Cincinnati Observatory, established in 1842, is the nation's oldest professional observatory. (Photo: Warren LeMay [public domain]/Flickr)
The Cincinnati Observatory, the oldest professional observatory in the United States (former President John Quincy Adams helped lay the cornerstone in 1843), is celebrating the 175th birthday of America's oldest professional telescope: the Merz und Mahler 11 inch refractor. This beautiful instrument, which may also be the oldest continually used telescope in the world, had its first light on April 14, 1845.
In a memoir, Founder Ormsby M. Mitchel described in enchanting detail the moment he beheld the moon through the refractor, the world's third-largest telescope in 1845, for the first time.
"At one place, a range of mountains, lifting their silver peaks above the surface, throw back the sun's rays, and running far into the dark part, their summits catching less and less of the light, look like a string of dazzling pearls," he wrote. "At another point some mighty valley, perhaps forty of fifty miles in breadth, and hemmed in by a mountain range, is sleeping in the deep shade, while the mountains which environ it are bathed in light, and throw their long and spear-pointed shadows far into the vale below."
In addition to viewings (weather permitting) through the telescope, staff will also on hand to share "the fascinating story of the people who made Cincinnati the 'Birthplace of American Astronomy.'"
Annular 'Ring of Fire' solar eclipse (June 21)
The first full day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere will feature a stunning annular solar eclipse for spectators in mid Africa, across the Middle East, northern India and south-east Asia.
Unlike a total solar eclipse, an annular eclipse occurs when the moon is at the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth (apogee) and only covers 99% of the sun's surface. As a result, a dramatic "ring of fire" is created between the two celestial bodies. Maximum eclipse (or fire ring) is expected to last only about 38 seconds. Nevertheless, unlike totality during a total solar eclipse, you absolutely must use proper eclipse glasses to view the ring of fire. Doing anything otherwise could result in eye damage similar to this cautionary tale.
International robotic missions begin launching for Mars (July)
In a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA's Mars 2020 rover on Dec. 17, 2019. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
Science-fiction often likes to paint Mars as an invader of Earth, but this coming July the tables will turn. Taking advantage of a favorable alignment for interplanetary travel between the two worlds, no less than four robotic missions will launch mid-summer. These include NASA's life-hunting Mars 2020 rover, China's Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover, the Russia-European "Rosalind Franklin" ExoMars rover and the United Arab Emirates Hope Mars orbiter.
Should all four missions successfully complete their journeys, it would push the number of spacecraft operating on or in orbit around Mars to 12.
Mars makes a glorious close approach (Oct. 6)
Mars will come within 38.5 million miles of Earth on Oct. 6, 2020. (Photo: NASA [public domain])
While not quite as close as its 2018 pass, Mars' 2020 approach will still offer a spectacular view of the red planet. For much of the month of October, Mars will glow brighter than even mighty Jupiter; becoming the third-most visible object in the sky after the moon and Venus.
Take advantage of any clear night to grab a pair of binoculars, a telescope or just look up and marvel at this rusty-orange giant. Mars won't look this good or come this close again until Sept. 15, 2035.
Full 'blue' Halloween moon (Oct. 31)
Trick or treaters on the prowl for sweets can expect a welcome assist from a haunting "blue" moon on Oct. 31. Sadly, the moon won't actually be the color blue, with the term only the second of two full moons occurring in the same calendar month. The last one occurred on March 31, 2018.
Halloween 2020's full moon will reach its maximum at 10:49 am EDT. It won't rise again on the holiday until 2035.
Japanese spacecraft returns asteroid sample to Earth (December)
Replica of Hayabusa's sample-return capsule (SRC) used for re-entry. Hayabusa2's capsule is the same size, measuring 40 cm in diameter and will deploy a parachute. (Photo: Mj-bird [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia
Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, the first to ever retrieve a subsurface sample from an asteroid, will return its precious cargo to Earth sometime in December 2020.
From June 2018 to November 2019, the plucky little spacecraft surveyed the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu utilizing a scientific payload that included four small surface rovers. In addition to surface samples, Hayabusa 2 also collected subsurface material by deploying a free-flying gun with one impactor "bullet." After the bullet struck Ryugu, the spacecraft descended and retrieved samples from within the impact crater.
Whereas surface samples are exposed to weathering from the sun and solar wind, unexposed material retains the pristine history of the solar system's birth.
"We have never gathered subsurface material from a celestial body further away than the moon," Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) project manager Yuichi Tsuda said during a press conference in July. "We did it and we succeeded in a world first."
Another world first will be returning those samples at the end of 2020. Presently, it's expected that the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will jettison its sample-return capsule over Australia in December 2020, with final descent down to the RAAF Woomera Range Complex. Once safely back in Japan, the extraterrestrial material is expected to be available to researchers around the world interested in probing the secrets of the universe.
Geminids: Best meteor shower of 2020? (Dec. 14-15)
While the Perseid meteor shower in August is often billed as the year's best meteor shower, the conditions for the Geminids in December 2020 could give it a run at the crown. The annual shower, originating from debris left behind by the asteroid Phaethon, generally produces slow-moving meteors in excess of between 120-160 per hour.
Conditions for 2020 should be exceptional, with a new moon giving way to dark sky conditions right around the Geminids' peak from Dec. 14-15.
Total solar eclipse for Chile and Argentina (Dec. 14)
If, for whatever reason, you missed out on the stunning total solar eclipse above Chile and Argentina on July 2, 2019, you won't have to wait long for the next one. On Dec. 14, 2020, the same region will experience yet another total solar eclipse –– with totality expected to cast the world into shadow for 2 minutes and 10 seconds.
According to Eclipsophile, Argentina holds the edge that time of year in terms of clear weather conditions for the eclipse. If you want to hedge your bets with some stargazing, however, Chile may just offer the "two birds, one stone" you're looking for.
Jupiter and Saturn's centuries-in-the-making 'Great Conjunction' (Dec. 21)
Over the next several months, the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn will slowly push the two planets together in the night sky, culminating on Dec. 21 in what's known as the "great conjunction." While Jupiter and Saturn perform this dance every 20 years, this upcoming event will be the closest the two planets have appeared together since 1623!
According to Space.com, the pair will be "separated by just one-fifth of the apparent diameter of the full moon!"
With even small telescopes likely able to pick out Saturn and Jupiter only 0.1 degrees apart, this is one extremely rare even you won't want to miss. Should winter clouds spoil the party, you'll have to wait until Halloween (Oct. 31) 2040 for the next great conjunction.