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Planet Watch 2020

by Perry Pezzolanella

Every evening this year will dazzle, with radiant Venus kicking it off, blazing Mars ending it, and Jupiter and Saturn sparkling close together like celestial jewels dominating mid-year. There will be at least one bright planet each evening throughout the year demanding attention. The night sky is capable of surprising everyone with vibrant aurora, radiant meteor showers, and a ghostly comet or two. There will be beautiful lunar and planetary conjunctions, countless asteroids, satellites, and the International Space Station. The Moon is often forgotten when there are no eclipses involved, but finally it has been getting more attention thanks to the media announcing Super Moons. Each year will always have a Super Moon where the Full Moon is at its closest to Earth for the year, and therefore at its biggest and brightest.

There are no lunar or solar eclipses for 2020. The next lunar eclipse is a total one and occurs on May 15-16, 2022 centered close to midnight and lasting 85 minutes. The next solar eclipse will be a deep partial occurring on June 10, 2021 at sunrise with the Sun rising as a stunning crescent around 77% eclipsed.

A busy 2020 starts off with Venus as the lone dazzling beacon in the evening shining bright enough to possibly cast shadows onto newly fallen snow. Neptune and then Uranus will descend into the twilight by March followed by Venus in May. Mercury will briefly come into view low in the northwest during late May into early June when Jupiter and then Saturn will rise not long after sunset. Both will dominate the summer and early autumn evenings, and will not be too far apart for an added visual treat. Mars will become visible in the east by September and dominate the evenings through the holidays while Jupiter and Saturn descend into the twilight by November. Uranus and Neptune will be at their best from September through the end of the year, although never bright. Here is the breakdown for each planet in the evening sky during 2020:

Mercury: This is an elusive planet because it is always so low to the horizon and immersed in bright twilight, but it is easiest to see in the evening from May 22-June 11, being highest above the horizon on June 4. It will be easier to find this year as the weather will tend to be pleasant compared to past years when the favorable evening elongations occurred in February and March. Mercury will grow steadily through this period from 6 to 10 arcseconds across as it approaches Earth, but its magnitude will dim from -1 to +2. It will go through phases like a tiny, coppery version of the waning Moon, from nearly full to a thin crescent.

Venus: This year has an excellent evening apparition for Venus as it will be at its highest possible point on March 24 and brighten to magnitude -4.5 only a few weeks later. It plunges into the twilight during May and passes inferior conjunction on June 3 reappearing in the morning sky a few weeks later for an equally beautiful morning apparition. It will gradually fade and become lower towards the end of the year. Venus always makes beautiful pairings with the crescent Moon in the evenings and mornings.

Mars: This is another excellent opposition year for Mars when it reaches opposition on October 13, but due to its highly elliptical orbit, it will be closest to Earth on October 6 when it will be an impressive 22.6 arcseconds across and blaze at magnitude -2.6 in Pisces. It should be possible to see the bright south polar ice cap and dusky surface features if, hopefully, the dust storms stay away this time. Mars will steadily shrink to less than 8 arcseconds across and grow dimmer than magnitude 0 after the holiday season ends, slowly sinking into the west well into 2021.

Jupiter: The giant among the planets has been growing larger and brighter with each passing opposition. Jupiter is at opposition on July 14 in Sagittarius, with an angular diameter of 47.6 arcseconds across and shining at magnitude -2.7. Jupiter rises in the east during the evening by June and is consistently huge through the telescope making it rewarding to observe and photograph with its various cloud belts and two polar hoods. The Great Red Spot can be challenging, but can sometimes appear quite obvious depending on the brightness of the clouds near it. It might be possible to see the tiny discs of the larger moons, Callisto and Ganymede, and watch them and their shadows transit Jupiter. The largest planet will become lost in the evening twilight by November as it fades to magnitude -2.0 and shrinks to 33 arcseconds across.

Saturn: This is yet another excellent year for Saturn as it maintains its beauty during 2020 with the rings only closing slightly, which are always a hit at star parties during the pleasant warmer summer nights. The rings will provide plenty of detail with the Cassini Gap being the obvious feature. Saturn is at opposition in Sagittarius on July 20 when it will be 18.5 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +0.1. The comfortable summer nights will allow an excellent opportunity to study its belts, polar hood, and locate the Cassini Division. The largest moon, Titan, is usually visible, shining around 8th magnitude. Saturn will slowly fade to magnitude +0.5 and shrink to around 16 arcseconds across in November when it becomes lost in the evening twilight.

Uranus: The mesmerizing turquoise hue of Uranus’ small disc readily reveals it among the stars. It is at opposition on October 31 in Aries when it will be 3.7 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +5.7. Uranus rises before midnight during September and gradually fades into the evening twilight by April 2021.

Neptune: The chilly bluish tint of Neptune’s tiny disc makes it easy to confirm. It is at opposition on September 11 in Aquarius when it will be 2.4 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +7.8. Neptune will rise before midnight during August and disappears into the evening twilight during February 2021. A finder chart for Uranus and Neptune will appear in the August issue of Telescopic Topics.

Pluto: The quest for finding Pluto is a challenge many take, and fail, but it is only going to get worse in the years ahead as it moves further away from Earth and grows fainter; therefore, successfully finding it will be the trophy of a lifetime. It is at opposition on July 15, southeast of the Teaspoon asterism of Sagittarius among thousands of stars and will shine like a faint spark at magnitude +14.3 and will be only 0.1 arcseconds across.