Mark your calendar; a roundup of 2020's biggest astronomical events to watch

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Astronomical Events to Watch in 2020

Astronomical Events to Watch in 2020

New moons, dark skies and comets
Mark your calendar; a roundup of 2020's biggest astronomical events to watch

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Our solar system consists of all celestial objects bound to the sun by gravity. This includes eight planets, five dwarf planets, more than 150 moons and countless comets, asteroids and meteoroids. There is much to see, even if just from our backyards, balconies or porches. So bookmark this calendar, grab proper eyewear and gear up to watch the year’s biggest astronomical events.

Jan. 10: Wolf moon

Jan. 10: Wolf moon

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The first full moon of 2020 will be a typical January wolf moon, named for the wolves that howl louder throughout the month. On full moon days, typically once a month, the moon, Earth and sun are all in approximate alignment with Earth positioned in the middle. Sunlight brightens the moon’s surface and reflects off its side facing Earth, revealing a wholly illuminated lunar disk. Historically, America’s native populations have given names to each month’s full moon. These names, like January’s wolf moon and February’s snow moon, have been passed down for generations and are still used in the “Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Feb. 18: Lunar occultation of Mars

Feb. 18: Lunar occultation of Mars

Courtesy of NASA

An occultation refers to any instance when an object blocks or covers another. Granted clear skies during the earliest hours of Feb. 18, many across North America should expect to see Mars disappear and reappear from behind the crescent moon. The moon will pass directly between Earth and Mars, allowing an hour-long window when Mars will be covered and out of view.

March 9: Super worm moon

March 9: Super worm moon

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The moon does not orbit Earth in a perfect circle. For this reason, at some points in its orbit, the moon appears closer than at others. A regular full moon becomes a supermoon when at its closest point in orbit around Earth, thus appearing bigger than usual. Full moons in March, super or otherwise, are called worm moons — named after the worm waste that resurfaces as the winter soil softens.

April 7: Super pink moon, the biggest full moon of 2020

April 7: Super pink moon, the biggest full moon of 2020

Courtesy of NASA

The April pink moon will shine brighter and loom larger than March’s worm moon and any other full moon in 2020. Named for the color of spring flowers, not the moon’s actual coloring, the pink moon will be the biggest full moon of the year.

April 29: Asteroid 52768 passes Earth

April 29: Asteroid 52768 passes Earth

Courtesy of NASA

Asteroid 52768 has an estimated diameter of up to 4.1 kilometers, making it the largest asteroid poised to pass Earth in 2020. Traveling at a speed of 8.7 kilometers per second, Asteroid 52768 will fly 6.3 million kilometers from Earth’s center.

June 21: ‘Ring of fire’ solar eclipse

June 21: ‘Ring of fire’ solar eclipse

Sadiq Asyraf/AFP via Getty Images

During a solar eclipse, the moon moves between Earth and the sun, blocking the sun’s light and casting a shadow on Earth. There are three sorts of solar eclipses: total, partial and annular. During an annular solar eclipse, the moon is farthest from Earth and appears smaller in size. On these days, the moon cannot block the entire sun, allowing for a thin and bright “ring of fire” to shine from behind the smaller lunar disk. 2020’s annular eclipse will be most visible in parts of Africa and Asia, including in some of the year’s most popular travel destinations.

July 4: Aphelion Day

July 4: Aphelion Day

Courtesy of NASA

Aphelion Day, when Earth is farthest from the sun, falls on U.S. Independence Day — in the heat of the northern hemisphere summer. However, the planet’s proximity to the sun has no impact on the frigid or scorching temperatures we earthlings feel. Rather, the seasons are set by our planet’s tilt that angles one hemisphere nearer and another farther from the sun.

July 4: Penumbral lunar eclipse

July 4: Penumbral lunar eclipse

Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Try to notice the moon’s coloring gray a bit on July 4. Similar to a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse also involves the shadow of one heavenly body obscuring the view of another. However, during a lunar eclipse, it is Earth doing the shadowing — not the moon. At this point in Earth’s orbit, the planet is between the sun and moon. Its shadow covers all or part of the lunar disk. During a penumbral lunar eclipse, the moon must be full and the sun, Earth and moon in near-perfect alignment. The moon moves through the fainter part of Earth’s shadow, resulting in a slightly — almost unnoticeable — change in color.

July 20: Saturn at its brightest point of 2020

July 20: Saturn at its brightest point of 2020

Courtesy of NASA

When Earth passes between another planet and the sun, the second planet is said to be in opposition. Given their proximity to Earth, planets in opposition are ideal for observing and viewing. Arguably the most beautiful planet in our solar system, Saturn and its rings will shine bright in opposition on July 20. Consider this reason enough to begin planning your next big summer adventure and pack your telescope.

Aug. 12: Perseid meteor shower

Aug. 12: Perseid meteor shower

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Commonly considered the best annual meteor shower, the Perseids are well-loved for their streaking bright lights and fireballs. Made up of comet bits from Comet Swift-Tuttle, Perseids are best viewed with your naked eye — leave the binoculars and telescope at home. Opt for a large swath of open land and limited light pollution.

Aug. 18: Black moon

Aug. 18: Black moon

© Aleksandr Katarzhin/Dreamstime.com

Typically, each month has one full moon and one new moon. Remember, during a full moon, the moon’s near-side is illuminated so the whole lunar disk is lit for all of Earth to see. On the flip side, during a new moon, the moon is placed between Earth and the sun so that its far side — not visible from Earth — is lit. The sky is dark and seemingly moonless on new-moon nights. Because of the length of the lunar cycle, there are occasionally two new moons in a month. The second, bonus new moon in a single month, or in this case the third new moon in a season with an additional fourth, is called a black moon.

Oct. 6: Mars closes in

Oct. 6: Mars closes in

Courtesy of NASA

Earth will pass between Mars and the sun in October, making the planet — like Saturn before — in opposition. Although Mars opposition occurs every other year, the red planet will look brighter and bigger in the 2020 night sky than any time since 2003, when the two planets were the nearest in over 60,000 years at 56 million kilometers. This opposition year, the two planets will come closest on Oct. 6 at 62.06 million kilometers apart.

Oct. 21: Orionids meteor shower

Oct. 21: Orionids meteor shower

Brian Spencer/Shutterstock

Remnants of Halley's comet travel at 148,000 mph speeds across Earth’s atmosphere during the Orionids, leaving trails of incandescent debris behind. To view the shower, set up camp as you would for the Perseids, in open land with clear skies. Face southeast if in the Northern Hemisphere, otherwise face northeast. Your eyes may take up to 30 minutes to adapt to watching the night skies. You have from after midnight until dawn to catch a glimpse of the meteors — so no rush.

Oct. 31: Blue moon

Oct. 31: Blue moon

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The second new moon in a month is a black moon. The second full moon in a month is a blue moon. Blue moons happen, well, “once in a blue moon.” That is to say roughly every two and a half years. In 2020, the blue moon falls on Halloween. So serve a spooky dish and take in the month’s bonus full moon.

Nov. 29: Asteroid 153201

Nov. 29: Asteroid 153201

Courtesy of NASA

With an estimated diameter between 370 meters and 820 meters, Asteroid 153201 will soar 4.3 million kilometers from Earth’s center at a startling speed of 25 kilometers per second. Consider tuning in to a live webcast to catch this fast rock zoom past.

Nov. 30: Penumbral lunar eclipse

Nov. 30: Penumbral lunar eclipse

Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

In case you missed the penumbral lunar eclipse July 4, you have another chance to notice the slight change in the moon’s color. This eclipse will be visible across the Americas, Australia and East Asia.

Dec. 14: Total solar eclipse of 2020

Dec. 14: Total solar eclipse of 2020

Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images

Only visible from a small slice of Earth, in this case South America, a total solar eclipse requires the moon, Earth and sun be in a direct line. For a moment, when the bit of Earth is in the center of the moon’s shadow, the daytime sky goes dark like night.

Dec. 14: Geminids meteor shower

Dec. 14: Geminids meteor shower

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Unlike the other showers on this list, the Geminids originated not from a comet but an asteroid. Perfect for young astronomers, the Geminid shower begins about 9 p.m. Look out for yellow, the shower’s most famous meteor color.

Dec. 21: Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction

Dec. 21: Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction

Courtesy of NASA

Not since the year 2000 have the planets Jupiter and Saturn been so close. The two will be just 0.06 degrees apart on Dec. 21, a feat that won’t be repeated for another 20 years. Wherever you are in the world, stay up late into the night to watch these majestic nighttime displays, then stay awake and watch the planet’s most beautiful sunrises too.

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