No major eclipses or planetary transits are visible from Maryland in 2020, but with clear skies and some luck, there will still be plenty of celestial sights to see.
Look out for all five of the planets that are visible with the naked eye. For the first time since 2018, all of them can potentially be spotted in the same early-morning sky around mid-July. Look for them while waiting for meteors or the International Space Station to streak across the sky, or just on any pleasant, clear evening.
Look forward to a “micro” and “blue” full moon on Halloween night, and an April “super moon." Track the changes in sunlight as Earth makes its way around its star.
This calendar was compiled using resources available to anyone planning a night under the stars — bookmark sites such as amsmeteors.org, EarthSky.org, and TimeandDate.com, in case astronomers adjust forecasts for meteor showers or discover new comets or asteroids. Sites such as Heavens-Above.com have interactive star maps and, along with spotthestation.nasa.gov, keeps track of when the space station is flying over different parts of the world.
For the most close-up views, the Maryland Science Center welcomes stargazers to its observatory for free every Friday, clear skies permitting, from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. You can also see features of celestial objects including the moon, Saturn and Mars with just a modest telescope or binoculars.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is best viewed the night of Jan. 3 into the morning of Jan. 4, but its peak is short, over a period of hours. For the best chance to catch dozens of meteors per hour, look in the pre-dawn hours. With any meteor shower, it’s best to watch from somewhere far from urban light pollution. Give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness to spot the most meteors.
Because Earth’s orbit around the sun is elliptical, the distance between the two bodies isn’t constant. It will be at its shortest, a point known as perihelion, at 2:47 a.m. Jan. 5. That same morning, the latest sunrise of the year occurs in Baltimore: 7:26 a.m.
Spot all five of the visible planets in February. Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will appear in the southeast in the pre-dawn hours, though Saturn, appearing closest to the horizon, could be hard to spot in the morning twilight for the early part of the month. Jupiter is the brightest of the three. The waning crescent moon will appear among them Feb. 18-20. Find Mercury and brilliant Venus in the west during the evening twilight, though the innermost planet will be too close to the sun to be seen by the end of the month.
The first of a pair of “super moons” comes March 9. Super moon isn’t a proper astronomical term but has become popular among some skywatchers who assign it to full moons that occur when the moon is relatively close to Earth in its elliptical orbit. It’s hard to tell with the naked eye, but a super moon can appear about 6% bigger and brighter than a typical full moon.
The vernal equinox falls on March 19 this year, arriving at 11:49 p.m. At that point, Earth’s axis is oriented such that the northern and southern hemispheres are receiving equal sunlight, and the length of day and night are roughly equal. In Baltimore, the sun will stay up for more than 12 hours each day starting March 17.
Occasionally planets appear so close to each other, as viewed from Earth, it can be easier than usual to spot them amid a backdrop of stars. Jupiter and Mars will appear side by side March 20; the gaseous giant will be the brighter of the two. Look in the southeast sky before dawn, and spot Saturn nearby and Mercury close to the horizon, too. Mars and Saturn will appear nearly as close to one another March 31.
The year’s biggest and brightest super moon comes April 7. Known alternatively as the Pink Moon, Grass Moon or Egg Moon, it arrives at 10:35 p.m., when the moon will be less than 222,000 miles from Earth, about 7% closer than average.
The Lyrid meteor shower peaks around April 21-22. Astronomers expect meteors to appear most numerously before dawn April 22, with as many as 15 meteors visible streaking across the sky each hour. Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate, but you don’t need to find that constellation to see the “shooting stars.”
As many as 50 Eta Aquarid meteors have been known to streak across the sky at that shower’s peak, which this year is expected the night of May 6 and morning of May 7. The meteors are actually bits of dust and debris in the path of Halley’s Comet, which orbits the sun once every 75-76 years.
Venus and Mercury will appear in close conjunction May 22. Look low in the west-northwest just after sunset. Venus is by far the brightest object in the night sky, besides the moon.
The summer solstice, known as the longest day of the year, actually arrives at a moment when Earth’s axis tilts the Northern Hemisphere farthest toward the sun. This year, it occurs at 5:43 p.m. on June 20. The sun will be up for nearly 15 hours that day — 5 1/2 hours more than at the winter solstice.
The earliest sunrise of the year comes a week earlier, at 5:39 a.m. June 13, and the latest sunset comes June 27, at 8:37 p.m.
The moon will block out all but the outer edges of the sun’s face in an annular solar eclipse June 21. But the “ring of fire” will be visible only across central Africa, Saudi Arabia, northern India and southern China.
Of the easily visible planets, only the “superior” ones — those outside Earth’s orbit around the sun — can easily be spotted in June. Saturn and Jupiter appear in the southeast by midnight, and Mars rises in the early morning. All three appear in the southern sky until sunrise.
Though the sun’s heat is most intense on this side of the world at this time of year, Earth actually reaches its farthest point from its star July 4. What is known as aphelion comes at 7:34 that morning.
The first of two lunar eclipses that are technically visible from Baltimore this year occurs from about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. July 4 to July 5. Unfortunately, both are what is known as a penumbral eclipse, when only the outer edges of Earth’s shadow are cast upon the moon. That makes the moon slightly dimmer, but it can be difficult — if not impossible — to tell with the naked eye.
July is a prime month for spotting planets with the naked eye, though. First, Venus reappears in the early morning sky and reaches its greatest brightness July 8. Then, Jupiter and Saturn will be at their brightest July 14 and July 20, respectively, with both planets making their closest approaches to Earth and their faces fully illuminated by the sun. It’s a good time to see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s four largest moons with a telescope.
Look for Venus and Mercury in the east and Mars toward the south before dawn; Saturn and Jupiter will be visible all night long, moving across the southern sky. Around the middle of the month, you might be able to see all five visible planets in the early morning, if you have an unobstructed view of the horizon. Mercury will be low in the east, near Venus, and Saturn and Jupiter low in the southwest, with Mars in between.
The Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in late July. As many as 20 meteors per hour can appear in a fully dark sky after midnight around July 27-30.
The Perseid meteor shower provides one of the best celestial shows of the year, capable of producing 60 or more “shooting stars” per hour in a dark sky. Some meteors can be visible from mid July into late August, but the peak is expected the night of Aug. 11 into the morning of Aug. 12. The meteors come from a trail of debris in the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle.
While watching for meteors, look for Saturn and Jupiter in the southern sky, Mars in the east after midnight, and Venus in the east before sunrise.
Fall begins with the autumnal equinox at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 22, when Earth’s hemispheres again receive equal sunlight for a moment. In Baltimore, day and night will be roughly equal Sept. 25, and after that, nighttime will last longer than daytime until next spring.
Mars is out all night in September, sharing the night sky with Saturn and Jupiter and the early morning sky with Venus.
The red planet will be at its brightest in October, even brighter than Jupiter, as it makes its closest approach to Earth. With a telescope, some details of the Martian terrain can be visible.
As many as 20 Orionid meteors per hour may appear the night of Oct. 21 into the morning of Oct. 22. Like the Eta Aquarids, the Orionids come from the orbit of Halley’s Comet.
If skies are clear, children will trick-or-treat by the light of a full moon this Halloween, which falls on a Saturday. Some would call it a “micro” moon (the opposite of a super moon) because it comes as the moon is farther than usual from Earth in its elliptical orbit.
It’s also a “blue moon," the second within a calendar month. There is a full moon Oct. 1, which could be considered the Harvest Moon because it’s the closest one to the autumnal equinox, or the Hunter’s Moon, the name more typically given to October’s full moon.
Trick-or-treaters will also get an extra hour for mischief, or sleep, this Halloween night. Daylight saving time ends at 2 a.m. Nov. 1, the earliest since clocks shifted back an hour on that date in 2015.
The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak around Nov. 16-17. It is known for producing storms of meteors, but just up to about 15 meteors per hour are expected this year. Still, Leonids are known for burning brightly. They come from the trail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle.
A second penumbral eclipse occurs Nov. 30 in the early morning hours, from about 2:30 to 7. Maximum eclipse comes at 4:42 a.m., when Earth’s penumbra, the term for the outer edges of its shadow, covers most of the moon’s face.
The earliest sunsets of the year come Dec. 6 and 7, at 4:43 p.m. The “shortest” day of the year comes a couple of weeks later, when the sun spends 9 hours and 24 minutes above the horizon Dec. 21. The winter solstice is at 5:02 that morning.
There is a total solar eclipse Dec. 14 to cap off 2020, but it is visible only in South America. There will be a couple other sights left to see from Baltimore before the year ends, though.
The Geminid meteor shower, usually the best of the year, peaks the night of Dec. 13 and morning of Dec. 14. The meteors, known for being intensely colorful at times, can number 150 per hour in a fully dark sky. They come from an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon.
The night of the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will come together in a conjunction that could make them appear almost as if they were a single bright object. Look in the southwest just after sunset.