While most people are setting resolutions to mark the new year, why not set one to get out and enjoy the amazing natural resource of the night sky? 2020 is going to be a great year for astronomical events – and in this post, we’re rounding up 20 of the best events in the night sky in 2020.
If you’re just starting out in astronomy, using planets and stars to ‘star hop’ and find what you’re looking for is a good way to get familiar with the night sky. You’ll notice that for some of the astronomical events we mention, we recommend using the moon to help find the astronomical sight; in other cases, you might want to use a night sky app. We love Night Sky for iOS.
For some of these, you can spot them with your own eyes. For others, you’ll need stargazing equipment like a telescope or binoculars. We’ve got recommendations on the best telescopes for any budget.
Ready to learn about the best astronomical events in 2020? Read on for the top 20 night sky events happening all year long.
Portions of this article are reproduced from our brand new ebook The Night Sky in 2020: When to Go Stargazing All Year Long.
If you like what you read and want to learn even more about astronomical events in 2020, grab your own copy here for just $3.99.
January 4 – Peak of the Quadrantids Meteor Shower
Starting the year off with a bang, the Quadrantids meteor shower will peak on the night of January 4th. On that night, look for a maximum of 80 meteors per hour radiating from a point in the northern sky. It’s important to note that the Quadrantids, while an active shower, may see maximum activity for only a few hours on the peak night – so if you have clear skies, be sure to check if you can see any.
As a tip, you don’t need to look at the northern sky to see the meteors. Instead, scan the whole northern half of the sky to try and see these somewhat faint meteors as they appear.
February 18 – Close Approach of Mars to NGC 6530
The first deep space object you can try to spot in 2020 is NGC 6530, an open star cluster in the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) in the constellation Sagittarius. It’s also the best deep space viewing opportunity of the year, which is why we’ve featured it in this round-up.
In the photo above, NGC 6530 can be seen near the center of the nebula; if you want to see it with your own eyes – through a telescope – plan to try and spot it on the night of February 18, 2020.
On this night, you can use the planet Mars to find NGC 6530; they’ll pass within 1° of each other in the early evening hours. As the moon will be 25 days-old, it shouldn’t interfere with your ability to spot this deep space object.
March 18 – Close Approach of the Moon with Mars, Jupiter & Saturn
The night of March 18th is a triple-whammy: over the course of this night, the moon will make a close approach with three different planets – and it can all be seen with the unaided eye.
The moments of ‘closest approach’ actually occur throughout the day (between pre-dawn and dusk), but on the night of the 18th you should be able to spot all of these solar system objects in close proximity to one another. The moon will be roughly 50% illuminated, which may create some light pollution, but it’ll still be obvious that our planetary neighbors are all hanging out in the same part of the night sky.
March 24 – Optimal Night for Messier Marathon
If you loved trying to spot NGC 6530 on the night of February 18th, plan for a whole night of deep space gazing on March 24th. This is the night of the new moon in March, also called the Worm Moon – and it’s the ideal night to try and ‘run’ the Messier Marathon.
What’s the Messier Marathon? It’s when you try to spot all 110 astronomical objects in the Messier catalog of deep space objects. These range from nebulas and supernovas to star clusters of all kinds. Here’s a guide to how to try and run the Messier Marathon in 2020.
April 2 – Asteroid Juno at Opposition
On April 2, 2020, asteroid Juno will be at opposition. Juno was one of the first asteroids ever discovered, and is the 11th largest we’ve found. While it is stony, Juno is also large enough to see from earth. On the night of opposition, you can try to see Juno in the constellation Virgo.
April 22 – Peak of the Lyrids Meteor Shower
The Lyrids meteor shower occurs from from April 19th-25th this year. More importantly, April 22nd will be the night of peak activity. On this night, you can look for up to 10 meteors per hour.
The radiant point of the meteor shower is in Lyra, near the bright star Vega, in the northeastern sky. Scan the northern and eastern skies to spot meteors as they streak away from this area. Keep your eyes peeled for Lyrid Fireballs which burn brighter and leave a shadowy trail in the sky!
May 4 – Comet C/2017 T2 (PANSTARRS) at its Brightest
The first of two comets you can spot in 2020 is C/2017 T2 (PANSTARRS). This cumbersomely-named comet will appear at its brightest on May 4, 2020. Since its discovery in 2017, this comet will be moving closer to the sun; on May 4th it will be only 1.6 AU from the sun, and may reach as bright as 7.0 magnitude.
You’ll need a pair of binoculars at minimum to try and spot C/2017 T2 (PANSTARRS). It will be moving through the northern sky, near Polaris – the north star.
June 21 – Annular Solar Eclipse
On June 20, 2020, there will be an annular solar eclipse across parts of East Africa, the Middle East, northern India, and China. During this ‘ring of fire’ eclipse, viewers in the path of totality will see the sky move through twilight as the moon blocks the sun, then a vibrant circle of the sun will appear in the sky as the moon blocks the central part of the sun in the sky.
July 15 – Pluto at Opposition
Yes, yes, we know: Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. But it was once considered the ninth planet, so it still has a soft spot in our hearts.
While Pluto is not the only celestial body that was downgraded to dwarf planet status (Ceres was reclassified from planet to asteroid it the mid 19th Century and changed again to a dwarf planet in the early 21st Century) nor the largest dwarf planet (that’s Eris), it is the most common dwarf planet to try and spot.
In 2020, you can spot Pluto on two nights. The best night is on July 15th, when will Pluto will be at opposition and appear at its brightest in the sky.
July 26 – Mercury at its highest in the Morning
After Mercury gained the spotlight in November 2019 during its transit across the sun, 2020 is a quiet year for those who want to spot our smallest planetary neighbor. (The next transit won’t occur until 2032.)
Instead of passing across the face of the sun, your best chances to see Mercury in 2020 are on those rare times that is high enough in the sky that you can spot the planet before the sun rises or after it sets on any given day. The morning of July 26th is one such good morning; Mercury will rise before the sun, and be relatively ‘high’ in the sky (but still near the horizon).
August 12 – Peak of the Perseids Meteor Shower
If you love the night sky, you already know what makes the night of August 12th so special – it’s the peak of the Perseids! The Perseids meteor shower peaks every year in mid-August; in 2020, this peak is expected to occur on the night of August 12th. On this night, you can expect to see up to 80 meteors per hour! This, combined with warm weather in the northern hemisphere, makes it the most popular meteor shower of the year.
The Perseids Meteor Shower is caused when the Earth passes through a stream of debris left by the Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle has a 133-year orbital period, but we experience a yearly meteor shower due to variations in the earth’s orbit and width of the debris stream.
To spot the Perseids, look for them radiating from a point in the northeastern sky. Unfortunately, the moon will at last quarter and 50% illuminated. This may interfere with seeing some of the meteors. Nevertheless, it should still be one of the best meteor showers of 2020.
August 28 – Ceres at Opposition
If you want to see the dwarf planet Ceres, mark your calendar for August 28th. Ceres is the only dwarf planet and largest object in the main asteroid belt; on this night it will be at opposition and appear at its brightest for the year.
Look for Ceres in the constellation Aquarius – it should be far enough from the nine day-old moon to see with a telescope or binoculars.
September 11 – Neptune at Opposition
At over 30 times further from the sun than Earth, Neptune is the final planet in the solar system, and a truly mind-boggling distance away. It’s also the only planet in the solar system which we can never spot with the unaided eye – so in order to see Neptune in 2020, you’ll need to have binoculars or a telescope.
In 2020, there are two dates when Neptune may be visible. The better night is September 11th, when Neptune will be at opposition. On this night, Neptune will be at its brightest – a good opportunity to try and spot its methane blue hue.
September 17 – Comet 88P/Howell at its Brightest
After trying to spot C/2017 T2 (PANSTARRS) on May 4th, the other comet you may be able to see in 2020 is 88P/Howell. On the night of September 17, 2020, 88P/Howell will be only 1.37 AU from the sun, and may reach a peak brightness of 9.0 magnitude. This comet has an orbital period of 5.5 years, so it has reached perihelion like this 7 times since its discovery in 1981.
As a bonus incentive to get you out to try and spot 88P/Howell, September 17th is the new moon in September. Even if you can’t see the comet, there will be plenty of stars to enjoy.
October 7 – Draconid Meteor Shower
Radiating from the constellation Draco, the dragon, this northern hemisphere constellation will be spotted near the bright star of Vega on the night of October 7th when the meteor shower is expected to peak.
The Draconids meteor shower isn’t as active as other meteor showers – including the Orionids later in the month. However, on some years, the Draconids experience an ‘outburst’ where you can see up to 100 meteors per hour, more than 10x more than a normal year. 2020 may be one such year!
Unfortunately te moon will be over 50% illuminated on the night of October 7th. That may interfere with your ability to view – but if the skies are clear it’s worth the effort.
October 21 – Peak of the Orionids Meteor Shower
The greatest night sky event in October is undoubtedly the Orionids meteor shower, which is expected to peak on October 21st this year. While the meteor shower occurs from October 16th to 30th, there may be up to 25 meteors per hour on the peak night. The best time to watch the Orionids will be in the pre-dawn hours of 3:30 am-5:00 am.
The Orionids are easy to spot since they originate from a point in the night sky near the highly-recognizable constellation Orion. Look for Orion in the eastern sky if you’re trying to see this meteor shower. The moon will be located in the southern sky and hopefully won’t create too much light interference.
November 17 – Peak of the Leonids Meteor Shower
As the end of the calendar year gets closer, there are more meteor showers to enjoy! Why? That’s just how our orbit works, as we cross the debris paths of comets and asteroids during our celestial dance.
The Leonids meteor shower is occurring through most of November, but the night of peak activity is November 17th. If you’re out this night, look for up to 20 meteors per hour depending on your location. It’s also possible to see Leonids each night between November 15th and 20th; the November new moon is on the 15th, which will help reduce any light pollution in the sky.
The Leonids appear from a radiant point in the constellation Leo, which will be in the northeastern sky for most people. If you can spot the Big Dipper/Plough, you’re in the right part of the sky to spot some shooting stars.
December 7 – Asteroid Psyche at Opposition
On December 7th, asteroid Psyche will be at opposition. One of the 10 largest asteroids we’ve discovered, Psyche is also one of the targets for future NASA missions. Psyche is large, at over 200km in diameter, and some believe it is an ancient protoplanet! Look for Psyche in the constellation Taurus on the night of opposition.
December 14 – Peak of the Geminids Meteor Shower
The night of December 14th is arguably one of the best nights of the year for stargazing and astronomy. In addition to being the new moon, the Geminids meteor shower will peak with up to 120 meteors per hour – it’s a great show!
Look for meteors coming from the constellation of Gemini. Use the bright stars of Castor and Pollux to spot the constellation in the Northeastern sky (for most viewers). Meteor activity is expected to peak around 11:00pm local time.
December 14 – Total Solar Eclipse
The final must-see event of the 2020 astronomical calendar is a total solar eclipse which will pass across the southern part of South America. This eclipse is close to but not exactly overlapping the path of the July 2019 total solar eclipse.
We’ll have a guide about how to travel for this eclipse published in late June 2020, so stay tuned if you want to try and make the trek down to Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego to try and spot totality.
Which of these 2020 astronomical events is on your must-see list? Let us know in the comments!
Did you know? These are just 20 of almost 100 astronomical events worth seeing in 2020! There are many other interesting events and good nights for stargazing all year long.
Learn more and get your copy of The Night Sky in 2020: When to Go Stargazing All Year Long for just $3.99.
Featured photo credit: Lukas Schlagenhauf via Flickr