What to look out for in 2020

  1. The much touted comet of the century – C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) – was a let down. Hailed  as possibly being a naked object from the city, it broke up as it approached the sun.  However, hopes emerged that C/2020 F8 (SWAN), or Comet SWAN, might take its place. It has been imaged from the UK, but it is low in the north east sky in the wee small hours, made worse by the fact that the sky in this direction never really gets dark this time of year.  Adding to its woes it too seems to be fading. We are overdue a good comet in the northern hemisphere, but unfortunately neither of these qualified.
  2. 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 best places in the world to see them.  Look north one hour after sunset, or before sunrise.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 end of October.  It really does look red and will become very bright – outshining even 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.
  8. 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.
  9. The fantastic North Pennines 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Jupiter and Saturn have been close to each other in the sky all year, but on the 21 December they surpass themselves. They will come within one tenth of a degree and easily fit into the field of view of a telescope. Technically this is called a Great Conjunction and the last time the two giants of the solar system appeared this close was 1623!  However, the dynamic duo will be low down in the west so it’s best glimpsed soon after the sun sets and the sky is reasonable dark, say 16.30 GMT.  But be quick as both will be heading below the horizon soon after.   For the record, this conjunction is a line of sight effect.  Saturn is much more distant from the sun than Jupiter.
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