Celestial Events To See in 2020

The Inn on Mill Creek is surrounded by Pisgah National Forest, which means a lot of things: We’re off the beaten path and you drive an unpaved road to get here. You get to stay in a beautiful forested “neighborhood populated with a lot of wildlife including birds… when we talk about “tweets,” we’re usually talking about one of our winged neighbors, not Twitter. And there are no skyscrapers, flashy neon lights or streetlights. That last amenity makes for really good stargazing opportunities.

If looking at a beautiful night sky sounds like a stellar way to spend an evening, check your 2020 calendar and the weather forecast and make plans to stay with us during one of the following celestial events:

METEOR SHOWERS

Several meteor showers take place each year, and some are better than others at giving you the chance to wish upon a shooting star. Here are the dates for the 2020 meteor showers. The first date is late evening; the second date is during the wee hours of the morning:

  • Quadrantids (up to 40 meteors per hour) – peaking Jan. 3/Jan. 4
  • Lyrids (up to 20 meteors per hour) – peaking April 22/April 23
  • Eta Aquarids (up to 60 meteors per hour) – peaking May 6/May 7
  • Delta Aquarids (up to 20 meteors per hour) – peaking July 28/July 29
  • Perseids (up to 60 meteors per hour) – peaking Aug. 12/Aug. 13
  • Draconids (up to 10 meteors per hour) – peaking Oct. 7/Oct. 8
  • Orionids (up to 20 meteors per hour) – peaking Oct. 21/Oct. 22
  • Taurids (up to 10 meteors per hour) – peaking Nov. 4/Nov. 5
  • Leonids (up to 15 meteors per hour) – peaking Nov. 17/Nov. 18
  • Geminids (up to 120!! meteors per hour) – peaking Dec. 13/Dec. 14
  • Ursids (up to 10 meteors per hour) – peaking Dec. 21/22

FOUR SUPERMOONS IN 2020

We get four full moon supermoons in 2020 – February 9, March 9, April 8, and May 7. What’s a supermoon, you ask? Well, short answer: it’s when the moon is approaching its closest point to the earth during one of its trips around the earth. For those of you wondering why the supermoon happens, we need to first talk a little bit about orbit and phases:

The moon travels around (orbits) the earth every 27.3 days, or about 13 times a year. The moon’s path around the earth is elliptical, like a stretched out circle, so at times the moon is closer to earth than at other times. If the moon comes within 90% or more of its closest point to the earth during an orbit, it qualifies to be a supermoon.

Each time the moon orbits the earth, it goes through eight phases, when the sun lights up different portions of the moon. When the moon is sitting between the earth and the sun, the earth blocks the sun from lighting up the moon, and so you see no moon at all. That’s called a “new” moon, the start of the eight phases. This Phase 1 “new moon” is the best one to have during a meteor shower. Sometimes you see a sliver of the moon, called a “waxing crescent” (getting larger during Phase 2) or a “waning crescent” (getting smaller during Phase 8) moon. Sometimes you see half the moon, and not to confuse you, but the two half-moon phases are called “quarter” moons since it has gone one quarter in Phase 3, or three quarters in Phase 7, around the earth. There are two phases of an almost-but-not-quite-full moon (“waxing gibbous” during Phase 4 or “waning gibbous” during Phase 6). And there is Phase 5, the fully round moon phase – the full moon.

When you see a full moon at the same time the moon comes within 90% of its closest approach to earth during its orbit, this makes for a very, very, very slightly larger full moon. That’s your full moon supermoon. Supermoons can also happen during the no-moon “new moon” phase and we get three of those in 2020, in the fall. But since we don’t see the moon during the “new moon” phase, new moon supermoons aren’t as fun.

BLUE MOON ON HALLOWEEN

The moon has a bunch of nicknames. There’s the supermoon, of course. You may also have heard of a Snow Moon, which is a full moon in February, a Harvest Moon (happening in the fall, but more precisely the full moon that occurs closest to the Autumn Equinox), or a Blood Moon, which is another name for a total lunar eclipse. Another of the moon’s nicknames is the Blue Moon, which has come to mean the second full moon in a calendar month.* Have you heard the phrase “once in a blue moon?” It means rarely or not often, and that makes sense for the Blue Moon, which we see about every 2.7 years.

In 2020, we get a Blue Moon on October 31. And to give the moon one more nickname, this Blue Moon will be a micromoon – the opposite of a supermoon – meaning it the moon will be at its furthest point from the earth during its orbit around the earth.

* The original meaning of a Blue Moon was not the second full moon in a calendar month. For a deeper dive into the origin of the Blue Moon nickname, see https://www.space.com/16776-blue-moon-explained-infographic.html.

TWO PENUMBRAL LUNAR ECLIPSES IN 2020

On July 4 and November 29, the sun, earth and the full moon will be aligned, with the earth in the middle blocking the sun’s light from reaching the moon. It won’t be a perfect alignment, however, and so when the moon goes behind the earth and into its shadow, the moon will be covered by just part of earth’s shadow – the outer part called the penumbra. A penumbral lunar eclipse makes the moon look somewhat darker, but it’s a subtle change. This is different from a partial lunar eclipse, during which it looks like a piece of the full moon goes missing, and a total lunar eclipse, where the full moon turns red.

VENUS IN THE MORNING AND NIGHT SKY

On the evening of March 24, Venus will be at its highest point above the horizon, making it the best time to view the planet after sunset. This is due to Venus being at its greatest eastern elongation, or at the maximum angle between the sun and earth. On the morning of August 13, Venus will be at its greatest western elongation, meaning its highest point above the horizon in the morning.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH JUPITER AND SATURN IN JULY, AND MARS IN OCTOBER

Stars aren’t the only bright objects you see in the night sky. Sometimes the planets seem to shine just as brightly. Let’s hear it for Jupiter and Saturn, who will be seen in the sky in July, and Mars, which will be shining in October. This is called being at opposition – the planets will be on one side of the earth, while the sun will be on the other, opposite, side of earth. When a planet is at opposition, the sun sets in the west, and the planet will rise in the east and be visible all night long. And when a planet is at opposition, it is near its closest approach to the earth plus we see the planet’s sunlit, daytime side, so it appears bright in the night sky.

In 2020, Jupiter will be at opposition on July 14, Saturn on July 20, and Mars on October 13, with the planets also shining brightly in the weeks before and after those dates.

JUPITER AND SATURN UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH EACH OTHER IN DECEMBER

When planets pass near each other in their orbits, it’s called a conjunction. We’ll see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky on December 21. Because the conjunction of these two big guys is not frequent (the last time it happened was in 2000), it’s known as a great conjunction. They’ll appear so close to each other in the western sky that they’ll look like one big star or double planet.

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