What to look out for in 2020

  1. Whilst Autumn is prime Milky Way season, you can still glimpse this wonder early evening at the start of winter.  But you will struggle to see it from light polluted areas.  Get into the countryside, choose a moonless night, and look up with your naked eye for a band of hazy light.
  2. Here’s a great opportunity to see both the nearest and furthest planet from earth with binoculars! Hot Venus and icy Neptune very close on 27 Jan. Look west at nightfall. Venus dazzlingly bright. Neptune will look star-like, but with blue/green tint.
  3. Bag an elusive planet on 10 February when Mercury – the solar system’s inner most world –  strays a decent distance from the sun.  Look for the planet low in the western sky just after sunset. Will look like a bright star.
  4. The UK’s biggest Dark Sky Festival takes place between 14 February and 1 March centred on the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Howardian Hills and Nidderdale AONBs and the South Downs.  Hundreds of fantastic events under the stars.  Check out http://www.darkskiesnationalparks.org.uk
  5. On 24 March brilliant Venus is high above the horizon. You will not mistake it for anything else. Look to the west. Besides the moon this is the brightest object in the night sky. It’s also the nearest planet to the Earth, which explains why it is so prominent. You will see it as a sphere in binoculars.
  6. As you can tell it’s a big year for Venus and on the night of 3 April it will be set amongst the stars of the far more distant Pleiades star cluster. Should look fantastic in binoculars.
  7. The biggest full moon of the year occurs on 7 April, a so called Supermoon. It’s only marginally bigger than normal, but that won’t stop the press bigging it up! Even so it’s a great excuse to look at our nearest neighbour, a source of endless fascination.
  8. The Lyrids Meteor Shower peaks overnight on 22/23 April. This is the only worthwhile shower before Autumn and is produced by tiny dust particles shed by comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher burning up at rapid speed in the earth’s atmosphere. The moon will be absent (which is good) so fingers’ crossed for a decent number of shooting stars – dark locations favoured after midnight. Look towards the east. Use your naked eye.
  9. Look out for ghostly, electric blue noctilucent clouds from late May to early August.  These swirling clouds glow in the dark and are the highest that can form in the atmosphere.  The effect is caused by ice particles being illuminated by the sun’s modest distance below the northern horizon during summer nights at mid northern latitudes.  Suffice to say the UK is one of the few – and best – places in the world to see them.  Look north one hour after sunset, or before sunrise.
  10. The biggest planet in the solar system – Jupiter – is at its best on 14 July (defined as being at its closest to Earth).  But you will see it many months before and after this date. Visible all night long, it will be rather low in the south for UK observers. Very bright, binoculars will reveal its four largest moons as starlike points of light.
  11. Hot on the heels of Jupiter, the ringed world of Saturn is closest to us on 20 July, again low in the south.  Looking like a bright yellow star, a small telescope with 36x magnification will begin to show its show-stopping rings.   It stays just to the left (east) of the brighter Jupiter during the summer – a real treat!
  12. The second week of August sees truly dark skies return to much of northern Britain.  That means we see many more stars and get a good view of the well placed Milky Way overhead at nightfall.
  13. Coinciding with a return to starry skies is the Perseids Meteor Shower, which peaks overnight on 12/13 August. The waning moon rises late so hopefully we will see plenty of shooting stars. Best viewed from a dark location. Recent showers have been excellent so it is one to look out for.
  14. Mars puts on its best show since 2012 with a very close approach to earth on 13 October. It’s also reasonably high in the sky.   Of course it will be visible many months before and after this date, but the prime viewing slot is mid September to the the end of October.  It really does look red and will become very bright – outshining Jupiter – and unmistakable in the night sky.  Modest telescopes will reveal dark markings on the Martian surface.  A fleet of space probes is set to launch in the summer to take advantage of the Red Planet’s proximity. At a mere 38 million miles away, Mars won’t come this close to the earth again until 2035.
  15. The superb Orionid Meteor Shower peaks on 22/23 October. It is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Halley entering the earth’s atmosphere and burning up. The crescent moon sets before midnight,  which is perfect as the wee small hours are the best time to view the display.  As always the darker your location, the more you will see.
  16. The fantastic North Pennine Dark Sky Festival runs from 23 October to 1 November. This is one of the best dark sky locations in England. There’ll be scores of events for all the family run by the North Pennine AONB, energetic supporters of dark sky conservation.
  17. The final two meteor showers of 2020 are the Leonids (17/18 November) and the Geminids 13/ 14 December. The latter is the best of the year and if you only have inclination to see one meteor shower make it this one. Plenty of shooting stars should be visible with the moon largely absent.  Wrap up warm, be patient and ideally go somewhere dark.
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