This year will feature a series of spectacular sky scenes, both close to home and around the world. Dazzling meteor showers, otherworldly eclipses and other celestial marvels will grace the heavens. Here are some of the most impressive events expected in 2020.
Feb. 18: Lunar “occultation” of Mars from North America
An “occultation” is not quite an eclipse, but it’s still noteworthy.
An eclipse occurs when one object passes in front of the other. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth intercepts sunlight bound for the moon. Solar eclipses happen when the moon blocks the sun for a narrow path here on the Earth.
Sometimes, though, smaller objects can disappear behind the moon or behind one another. Colloquially, we call these occultations. Technically, an occultation is any time one object hides another — so a solar eclipse is actually an occultation of sorts.
On Feb. 18, a lunar occultation of Mars will greet many North Americans during or just before sunrise.
According to EarthSky, Mars, which will look like a bright star flanking the moon, will disappear behind the lunar surface at 7:34:47 a.m. on Feb. 18 in New York City, about 45 minutes after sunrise. The moon will be 22 percent illuminated. Mars will “enter” behind the moon on the sunlit crescent side. It will reemerge from behind the moon around 9:04 a.m. in the southwest sky. By then, it will probably be a bit too bright outside to spot Mars anyway.
When it comes to this occultation, the theme is “West Coast, best coast.” They’ll get to enjoy the full event before the sun interferes. Because it will be nighttime there, it’s safe, and even encouraged, to use binoculars to improve your view.
EarthSky reports that Mars will disappear behind the moon at 3:37:08 a.m. in Los Angeles, reappearing about 50 minutes later.
This will be the dimmest of five occultations of Mars visible from Earth this year, but it’s the only one that can be seen from the contiguous United States.
June 21: Annular solar eclipse in Africa, Asia
As the East Coast marks the summer solstice at 5:44 p.m. local time June 20, millions in Africa will be hours away from awakening to an extraordinary sunrise.
A disk-shaped sun will climb first over Congo, then pass over South Sudan and Ethiopia before shining over the Arabian Peninsula. The interceding moon won’t fully block out the sun, which would constitute a total solar eclipse.
Instead, much as was the case over the United Arab Emirates, southern India and portions of Oceania on Dec. 26, the moon will be briefly “swallowed” by the sun. Emblazoned behind will be a disk-shaped formation known as an annulus.
This time, the annularity won’t last as long — about a minute at its peak. India, China and Taiwan will all enjoy the show (weather permitting). Outside the narrow strip treated to an annular eclipse, others will still get to see a partial eclipse.
Aug. 11-12: Perseid meteor shower
For this event, you don’t have to hop on a plane!
The most prolific meteor shower of the year for the Northern Hemisphere is slated for the evening of Aug. 11 into Aug. 12.
Some of our recent meteor showers have featured a glaring, showstopping moon, stubborn clouds or bitterly cold weather. But not the Perseids.
The moon won’t rise until roughly 12:30 a.m. in most of the United States, allowing the colorful specks of light to streak across the sky with little competition. If you can find a clear, dark location, it’s reasonable to expect to spot a few dozen meteors per hour.
As a bonus, folks in northern areas might catch a few fireflies, too; it’s the perfect recipe for a simple yet sublime evening.
Dec. 13-14: Geminid meteor shower, worldwide
If you’re gearing up for a meteor shower, it seldom gets better than this. The annual Geminid meteor shower will slingshot dozens of emerald-green meteors across the skies on the night of Dec. 13. The new moon falls on Dec. 14. That means we won’t be dealing with a stitch of pesky light pollution … other than from the Earth’s surface, that is.
Of course, it would be great if the shower didn’t fall at the start of the workweek, but we can’t be too picky.
Dec. 14: Total solar eclipse and meteor shower in Chile and Argentina
After a mesmerizing total solar eclipse on July 2, Chile and Argentina will once again find themselves fortunate enough to bask in the moon’s narrow shadow. But this time, the scene will be made even more incredible by its timing: during the height of the Geminid meteor shower.
Imagine standing at the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile. Smoke or steam may stream off the snow-covered peaks. And as the sun’s milky-white corona fans out from behind the moon, meteors may streak overhead.