Meteor showers, brilliant planets and great conjunctions: Here’s a sneak peek of the astronomical phenomena that will capture our attention in January and over the next twelve months.
Does watching a meteor shower on a fine winter’s night sound tempting to you? Then bundle up and head outside to catch the Quadrantids, which are expected to peak at around 3:20 a.m. the night of January 3-4, 2020. This meteor shower is one of the two most prolific of the year and is even more intense than the famous Perseids in August, but its peak activity only lasts a few hours. The waxing gibbous Moon will set around midnight, making for perfect viewing conditions: This should actually be an excellent year for the Quadrantids, since the peak’s timing is favourable for observers in eastern North America. The Quadrantid meteor shower is known for its bright, medium-speed meteors. Its radiant—located in the northern part of the constellation Boötes, near Draco (the dragon)—rises in the northeastern sky in the second half of the night. If you find yourself under very dark skies, far from light pollution, you could be treated to a memorable show of about fifty meteors per hour at maximum.
The other major annual meteor shower is the Geminids, which are expected to peak around 8 p.m. on December 13. The moonless sky (the new Moon occurs on the 14th) will provide near-perfect conditions for observing the shooting stars as darkness falls. In fact, the Geminid radiant is visible all night long and culminates around 2 a.m., which means this could be a banner year for the meteor shower… as long as the weather cooperates! Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the hugely popular Perseids: The last quarter Moon will put a damper on the show, leaving only a tiny window of dark sky between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. on the night of August 11-12, in the hours leading up to the peak.
You may already have noticed that Venus has been ruling our early evening skies for the past few weeks. The dazzling Evening Star sparkles brightly as dusk sets in, drawing our attention approximately 20 degrees above the southwestern horizon. Over the winter and spring, Venus gradually creeps toward the right along the horizon, from the southwest to the northwest, and continues to gain altitude: In the second half of March, Venus will dominate the sky at nightfall, hanging more than 40 degrees above the western horizon as twilight begins and setting more than four hours after the Sun. But in April and May, it quickly sinks back into the glow of sunset. After June, Venus moves into the morning sky, where it shines in all its glory at the end of the night and at dawn, right through the end of the year.
A small telescope will allow you to track the evolution of Venus’s appearance: From now to May, as Venus draws closer to Earth and turns its back to us, its apparent size will increase and the part of the planet illuminated by the Sun will change form, transitioning from gibbous to quarter to a progressively thinner crescent. That’s because Venus has phases like those of the Moon—a fascinating observation made by Galileo more than 410 years ago!
Mars is now visible at the end of the night and at dawn. The planet can be found above the southeast horizon as of 5 a.m., appearing as a somewhat faint, ordinary orange star due to its current distance from us. On the morning of January 20, the waning Moon will be 4 degrees to the upper right of Mars, making it easy to spot. Despite its discreet presence, the Red Planet will generate a lot of buzz in a few months, what with 2020 being a Mars opposition year: The planet will be close to us from September to November, appearing large through a telescope and very bright in the sky—the undisputed star attraction this year!
Mars oppositions happen about every 26 months. For two or three months, the Red Planet comes close enough to Earth to offer us a view of its surface details through our amateur telescopes. The rest of the time, it is simply too far away and too small to reveal anything interesting. No wonder opposition years are the stuff of dreams for stargazers! And the 2020 Mars opposition promises to be extraordinary. Despite the Red Planet being slightly farther away and smaller than during its last opposition in 2018 and even its record opposition in 2003, it will nonetheless be much higher in the sky this time around, and that altitude will have a hugely positive effect on the viewing experience. Mark your calendars for next fall!
This year, Jupiter and Saturn are celestial neighbours, close to the border between Sagittarius and Capricornus. This section of the sky never gets very high above the horizon, making telescope viewing of the two planets difficult. Nevertheless, they will be at their best in the weeks around their opposition this July. Since Jupiter orbits the Sun at a faster speed than Saturn (orbital period of 12 years compared to more than 29 years), you’ll notice that the giant planet is gradually catching up to the ringed planet. Their big meet-up will come in December: From the 17th to the 25th, the two planets will lie less than ½ a degree apart, low in the southwest at twilight, one hour after sunset. Jupiter and Saturn will be in conjunction on December 21, only 6 arc minutes apart or 1/10th of a degree (five times smaller than the apparent diameter of the full Moon). The two giants can actually be viewed, and admired, in the same telescope field of view—truly spectacular!
Tiny Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, never moves very far away from our star, and the periods during which it is easily visible occur only a few times a year. Mercury puts in a first good appearance in the evening sky from January 23 to February 18, when the planet is visible above the west-southwestern horizon 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Take note: Mercury is considerably brighter at the beginning of this viewing period and quickly dims after February 15, as its plunges back toward the horizon; the prime viewing window extends from January 25 to February 15. We’ll be treated to other excellent apparitions of Mercury later in 2020, particularly in May and June (again in the evening sky) and then in November (in the morning sky).
Eclipses and occultations
Of the six solar and lunar eclipses in 2020, only two penumbral lunar eclipses, barely noticeable with the naked eye and fairly unremarkable, will be observable from Quebec. One takes place the night of July 4-5 and the other in the early morning hours of November 30. (Another similar eclipse is set to occur by night’s end on January 10, but will only be visible from eastern Quebec.)
Experienced amateurs can nonetheless try their hand at catching a glimpse of two rare planetary occultations, which are like eclipses except that they occur when the Moon passes in front of another planet in the Solar System. For example, the morning of February 18, the waning Moon will occult Mars. The phenomenon will take place in broad daylight (hence the technical difficulty), about 20 degrees above the southern horizon. Then, in the early hours of June 19, the Moon encounters Venus: Approximately one hour before sunrise, the brilliant planet will gradually emerge (in about 1 minute 40 seconds) behind the dark side of the lunar crescent. This time, the phenomenon will take place very low in the sky, less than 2 degrees above the east-northeastern horizon, just after the Moon rises.
Finally, remember that things are not always what they seem, such as the fact that Earth is closest to the Sun during boreal winter! In fact, our planet reaches perihelion on January 4, 2020, at 9:48 p.m. EST, at which point the Earth-Sun distance will be 147,091,144 km, approximately 5 million kilometres less than at aphelion on July 4. The explanation for the seasons and resulting temperature variations has to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis.
Happy astronomical year 2020 and happy skygazing!