2020 Astronomy Guide

As things do from time to time, new ideas pop into my head, and a pursue what of them that I can. Writing a guide like this seems like a great way to gather many sources into one, easy to use location.

As can be seen in this article, and in the Events Calendar, 2020 will be an astronomically busy and interesting year!

The Best Meteor Showers

Meteor showers occur as a result of Earth passing thorough a comet’s orbital path, which is strewn with debris that were left behind as its ices vaporized during close passes of the Sun. Some key points to note when going out to observe a meteor shower is the date and and time of day for peak meteor rates, Moon’s phase, meteors per hour and location in the sky. Some showers begin a week or more before the peak, but the peak will be the best opportunity for a great show. The time of day is important, and most are best observed around midnight, or in the pre-dawn hours. As most meteors are quite dim, the Moon’s phase/location in the sky is a factor. If the Moon is full, which means that it is bright and up all night, at the time of a shower many meteors will be washed out. A dark sky location is important for this same reason. The important clue to the location in the sky is the meteor’s name. All meteors associated with a named shower will appear to radiate from the constellation for which it is named. Leonids’ radiant, for instance is in the constellation Leo. Concentrating on the area of the sky halfway between the radiant and the zenith seems to work best for most showers. And a word about comfort. Dress warmly and perhaps use blankets or a sleeping bag. It is colder than you think, even in the summer. Also, a patio lounge chair will eliminate strain on the neck.

Planets

The planets can be observed wandering among the stars. Movements of the fast-moving inner planets, Mercury and Venus, can be detected from one night to the next. Mars, slower and farther out, can be seen to move in the course of a month. Jupiter and Saturn require several months before noticeable movement is detected. This movement, always close to the ecliptic, occasionally results in interesting conjunctions with other planets, the Moon, or bright stars that lie along the ecliptic.

An interesting position for the inner planets is greatest elongation (from the Sun). Because Mercury and Venus’ orbit lies inside Earth’s, the size of their orbit limits how far these two planets can be separated from the Sun as they wander. Mercury is most easily seen within a few days of this event, and Venus is near its brightest.

An interesting position for the outer planets is opposition (from the Sun). This is the point where the Sun, Earth and a planet fall in a straight line with Earth in the middle. Where ever the Sun is, look in the opposite direction to see the planet at opposition. This is when the planet is closest to Earth, and therefore it appears larger and more detailed in the telescope, and it is at its brightest.

Planetary Movements to Watch.

Mercury will make three evening appearances in the western twilight and three morning appearances in the pre-dawn eastern twilight. Look for this elusive planet about 15 minutes after sunset, or 30 minutes before sunrise at the times of it’s greatest elongation from the Sun.

Greatest eastern elongations (evening) are March 23, July 22, November 10.

Greatest western elongations (morning) are February 10, June 3, and October 1.

Venus will already be two months into an evening apparition as 2020 begins. It will be bright well-placed for observation until mid-April, at which time it will be at its greatest elongation, and appear telescopically as a “half” Venus. Venus will coincidentally be near its brightest near greatest elongation. As it continues along its orbital path, it will grow larger, and will present an increasingly thinner crescent as it begins to grow dimmer and move closer to the Sun as this apparition ends in May. It will be prime for telescopic views as it enters its crescent phases in mid-April.

Mars begins the year as a morning object in an apparition that will last until 2021. Look for a lunar occulatation in February. It starts the year rising at 4 am, and it will continue to rise earlier each morning until it begins rising before midnight, thus becoming an evening object in mid-May. Mars reaches opposition in mid-October, which is when it will be closest to Earth, and it will present its brightest appearance. Near opposition, amateur astronomers with modest telescopes can observe the redder and darker areas of the planet to detect its daily rotation, and polar ice caps can be observed.

Jupiter begins apparition in that will last into 2021 when it emerges from behind the Sun in mid-January. It rises earlier each morning until it becomes an evening object rising before midnight on May 11th. Jupiter reaches opposition on July 13, when it is closest to Earth. Watch Jupiter as it is chased across the sky by Saturn all summer and fall, culminating in a spectacular and exceedingly close conjunction at about 1/10° separation on December 21st. Telescopically, changes in Jupiter’s bands, transits of The Great Red Spot, and movements of the Galilean moons are among the most interesting planetary phenomena for amateur astronomers.

Saturn also begins its next apparition in January, just a few days after Jupiter. It reaches opposition on July 20th, just a week after Jupiter. Read about Jupiter in the paragraph above for information about Saturn – Jupiter interaction this year. Saturn’s rings are the solar system’s show stopper, even in small telescopes. Bands on the planet’s surface, and some of its moons can be observed with a modest telescope.

This site’s Events Calendar can be monitored for dates of the events described here, and others.

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