2020 visions in the sky: a preview of astronomical events to view
It won't be long after the start of a new year when Western New York astronomy buffs can enjoy the first of a few special events that will take place in the sky.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 4, the Quadrantid meteors may be seen in the northeastern sky. The radiant, or general point of origin from where most of the meteors will fall, is near the handle of the Big Dipper. This annual meteor shower has been known to produce up to 100 meteors per hour, but viewers are more likely to catch 15 to 25 per hour. The Quadrantid peak is limited, only an estimated six hours before and after its maximum.
Two more meteor showers known for their frequency will return in the second half of the year, with the Perseids peaking around August 12 and the Geminids peaking between December 13 and 14.
In March, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn may be seen in the eastern sky, not long before sunrise.
"They'll all be clustered in the east-southeast," said Tim Collins, observatory astronomer at the Buffalo Museum of Science, who told WBFO this grouping will begin around St. Patrick's Day. "It would help to have a clear horizon to see it, but on (March) 18 the waning crescent Moon is going to join the pack and you'll have four objects just sitting right there for you to stare at."
A "supermoon," when the Moon will be at its closest point to the Earth, will occur April 7. While the variation of the Moon's distance won't seem as apparent to most viewers, Earth's natural satellite will be at a perigee distance of 221,772 miles.
Mars will again offer a treat to sky watchers in October, when it reaches opposition to the Sun on the 13th of that month. It will be viewable from dusk to dawn and at a magnitude rivaling Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and planet Jupiter.
With larger telescopes, such as the Lundin telescope at the Buffalo Museum of Science's Kellogg Observatory, one may be able to see some Martian surface features. Collins is hopeful the weather, both on Earth and on Mars, will be cooperative this time.
"The last time this happened, about two years back, we ran into a global dust storm on Mars and it blocked all the surface features," he said. "Hopefully we don't have that happen again, and we'll be able to identify polar ice caps, maybe some of the features like the Valles Marineris as well."
One of the most special events viewable from Western New York will occur shortly after sundown on December 21. Jupiter and Saturn will slowly appear to close in on each other during evenings throughout the autumn but on the first day of winter, they'll be at their closest from Earth's vantage point. They'll be within one degree.
"For those not familiar with what one degree of separation really means, it's a fancy way of saying it's going to fit in the same field of view in a 40-millimeter eyepiece on your telescope," Collins said. "You can actually look into a telescope and see two planets at the same time."
Collins added if you can get your hands on a larger telescope, you'll be able to view not only Jupiter's Galilean moons but also some of Saturn's larger moons, and they will appear as though it will be hard to tell which moon belongs to which planet.
There are some other sky events happening in 2020 but to see those, you'll need to travel. On February 18, Mars will pass behind the Moon but you'll need to be in the western half of North America, where it will be seen shortly before sunrise.
If you've got some vacation time and some money to spend, there's an annular solar eclipse happening on June 21 that can be viewed in parts of Africa, Arabia, southern Asia and the southwestern Pacific. The moon will pass in front of the sun but will be too far from Earth to cover the sun entirely. What you'll get is what looks like a brilliant ring.
A second solar eclipse, this one a total eclipse, will occur December 14 but will only be seen in the lower two-thirds of South America and a very limited portion of southwest Africa.