Anyone who was in the contiguous United States in August 2017 for the solar eclipse dubbed the “Great American Eclipse” knows just how awe-inspiring a celestial event can be. Even a full moon can be a profound experience for a skywatcher. Not all stargazers know what to look for, or when to focus their gaze on the skies, however. To make your skywatching experiences as optimal as possible in 2020, we’ve put together a list of this year’s can’t-miss astronomical events in chronological order, from the best and brightest meteor showers to the eclipses worth traveling for. These are the celestial events you don’t want to miss this year.
1. January 3-4: Quadrantid meteor shower
January marks the annual Quadrantid meteor shower, like a celestial celebration of the new year. This year’s shower began on December 27, 2019, and will continue through January 10, 2020, with the peak falling between the third and fourth of the month. Northern Europeans will have the clearest views, but skywatchers in the northeastern United States will also have the opportunity to see as many as 50 to 100 shooting stars per hour, assuming the sky is relatively dark and cloudless. Keep an eye out just north of the Big Dipper’s handle around 4:00 AM ET to see the shower in full swing.
2. April 7: The year’s brightest supermoon
Supermoons, a colloquial term, occur when a full moon coincides with perigee, meaning the moon orbits closest to Earth. The result is a big, beautiful moon that looks even fuller than normal. April’s won’t be the first or only supermoon of 2020, but because the full moon falls on the exact day of perigee that month, it’ll be the most impressive. If you’re determined to see every supermoon this year, also look to the skies on February 9, March 9, and May 7.
3. June 21: Annular solar eclipse
On June 21, one day after the 2020 summer solstice, there will be an annular solar eclipse during which the moon will pass between Earth and the sun, obscuring all but the sun’s outer edge. Though the eclipse won’t be visible in the United States, anyone lucky enough to experience it in the parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, northern Australia, South and Southeast Asia, Central Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula where it will be visible can expect a striking “ring of fire” effect.
4. July 4: Penumbral lunar eclipse
A penumbral lunar eclipse is a phenomenon in which the sun, Earth, and moon are slightly misaligned. As such, Earth blocks some of the sun’s light from hitting the moon, resulting in a shadow on the moon’s face and a slight change in its color. In 2020, one such eclipse will occur on the Fourth of July. Though it’s a relatively subtle astronomical event, there’s a good chance fireworks will have you staring up at the sky that evening anyway. Look out for the shaded moon around 11:30 PM ET.
5. July 14: Jupiter at opposition
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, but it can still be hard to spot. It’s most brightest and most visible when at opposition, meaning it’s closest to Earth and its face is lit up by the sun. In 2020, Jupiter will be at opposition on July 14, giving skywatchers with mid-sized telescopes the opportunity to get a solid glimpse at the planet and its moons. Though you won’t make out any details with just binoculars, you should be able to see Jupiter and its largest moons even if you don’t have a telescope handy.
6. July 21: Saturn at opposition
Saturn will be at opposition a week later, so you can see the second-largest planet at its brightest in July, as well. Point a mid-sized telescope at the sky on July 21, and you’ll get a view of the ringed planet and some of its moons at their most visible.
7. August 11-12: Perseid meteor shower
One of the flashiest meteor showers of the year is the Perseid shower which is created by debris from the mammoth Swift-Tuttle comet. It might also be the most pleasant meteor shower of the year given that it falls on balmy summer nights, perfect for stargazing. Skywatchers can expect up to 100 shooting stars per hour during the Perseid meteor shower, including fireballs that leave behind brilliant, colorful streaks of light. This year, the flurry of shooting stars will peak on August 12 around 8:00 PM ET, though you’re all but guaranteed a good show between August 11 and 13.
8. October 8-9: Draconid meteor shower
The Draconid meteor shower isn’t generally one to plan an evening around, but every so often, it produces an impressive amount of shooting stars. This year is expected to be a big year for the shower, with prime viewing opportunities in the evening of October 8 and into the morning of October 9.
9. October 31: A rare blue moon
The phrase “once in a blue moon” is rooted in an astronomical phenomenon. There are different definitions for what the event is, but in this case, it refers to a second full moon that appears within a calendar month. On October 31, you can witness the once-in-a-blue-moon event for yourself, which occurs roughly once a year — if that. Don’t expect the moon to actually be blue in color, however.
10. December 13: Geminid meteor shower
Together with the Perseid meteor shower, the Geminid shower is the most impressive of the year, with up to 120 colorful shooting stars raining down per hour at its peak, which will fall between late evening on December 13 and the early morning of December 14 in 2020. Though stargazing may be less enticing in winter given the lower temperatures, the Geminid shower is worth braving the cold for, particularly given that the new moon preceding it will ensure dark skies that are prime for stargazing. Expect to see meteors diffusing from the Gemini constellation, but have no fear: Even if you’re not a constellation expert, shooting stars should be visible across the night sky.
11. December 14: Total solar eclipse
A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely overshadows the sun, leading to complete darkness during daylight hours. This year’s total solar eclipse won’t be visible in the United States, but any skywatchers willing to travel for the event should head to South America, namely Chile and Argentina. A partial eclipse will be visible in Brazil and Uruguay.
12. December 21: Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction
Every 20 or so years, Jupiter and Saturn align close enough to almost appear as a single, bright light in the night sky. This year, on December 21, the two planets will experience the rare conjunction, making both far more visible to the naked eye than they typically are.