CUAS observatory

The Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society’s observatory in southwest Champaign is seen at sunrise.

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At first glance, it looks like a good year for eclipses with two solar eclipses and four lunar eclipses on the calendar. However, the path of the moon’s shadow for the annular solar eclipse on June 21 crosses Africa then southeastern Europe and China.

The Dec. 14 total solar eclipse track invades the south Pacific then moves through Chile and Argentina. So we’re on the wrong side of the Earth for both!

All four lunar eclipses (Jan. 10, June 5, July 5 and Nov. 30) are “penumbral,” meaning the moon passes through the lighter part of the Earth’s shadow. You may notice a faint shading on the moon, but it won’t be obvious unless you’re really looking for it. In other words, these aren’t great public events. Of the four, only the penumbral eclipses in July and November are visible from central Illinois.

Speaking of the moon, we’ll have “supermoons” on Feb. 9, March 9, April 9 and May 7.

True, the moon is closer during these full moons but only about 6% more than an average moon.

The bottom line is that the public won’t notice the difference. Astronomers don’t care about “supermoons.” Also insignificant are “blue moons” though we’ll have one this year on Halloween.

The moon won’t be blue, but it will be the second full moon of the month.

The planets will “wander” through the zodiacal constellations throughout the year as they orbit the sun. The best time to see an outer planet is during “opposition” when the planet is opposite the sun and closest to the Earth.

Several weeks on either side of an outer planet’s opposition date is prime observing time. This year, opposition for Jupiter is July 14, Saturn follows on July 20, Neptune is on Sept. 11, and Uranus is Oct. 31.

Of special note is the opposition of Mars, which we experience every 26 months. It occurs on Oct. 18. The 2018 opposition was very close with Mars at 35.3 million miles from us. The 2020 opposition places Mars at 38.1 million miles on Oct. 6.

Though not as close at 2018, Mars will still look great through a backyard telescope this fall. In 2022, Mars will be farther still.

The inner planets, Mercury and Venus, never stray very far from the glare of the sun, so you will have to catch them on one side of the sun or the other (after sunset or before sunrise).

Venus is in the southwest as we begin the year and it will remain there (but get higher in the sky) until the beginning of May. It’ll then appear to plunge fairly rapidly sunward. It’ll be difficult to see by the end of May.

Venus passes between the sun and Earth on June 3. Venus then invades the morning sky, rising in the east as the twilight begins at the beginning of July.

At this time, binoculars will also show the planet cutting through the Hyades star cluster. The crescent moon is near Venus on the evenings of Jan. 28, Feb. 27, March 28 and April 26, then the mornings of July 16, Aug. 15, Sept. 14, and Oct. 14.

Mercury has two favorable views in the evening sky, those being the end of January through the beginning of February and then again mid-May to mid-June. On May 21, Venus and Mercury are a degree apart, though they are very low in the west, the pair setting just before the end of evening twilight. If you’re an early-riser, the best times to see Mercury are early July through early August and then again at the beginning of November to the end of that month.

Given the planets move at different speeds, they often catch and pass each other. The big “conjunction” this year occurs at the end of 2020 when Jupiter and Saturn come to within 0.1 degree of each other on Dec. 21. A crescent moon zips by five days before closest approach in the southwest. The last time they were this close was in May of 2000 (but the sun was nearby). The next close gathering of these two planets will be Oct. of 2040!

Mars passes Jupiter and Saturn in the morning sky of late March. Mars is closest to Jupiter on March 20 but, two days before this, a crescent moon makes a beautiful trio in the southeastern morning sky. Mars and Saturn are closest on the morning of March 31.

Meteor showers are fun to watch since you don’t need any equipment besides a blanket or lawn chair. A dark sky is best and usually the hours before dawn are prime. The Lyrids (April 22) occur during new moon (that’s good!). The May Eta Aquarids will be washed out by a waxing gibbous moon. The Perseids (Aug. 11-12) suffer the same fate with a last quarter moon in the morning sky. Both the Draconids (Oct. 6) and Leonids (Nov. 17) are normally pretty weak events, though some feel we may see outbursts of activity in 2020.

The moon is better placed for the Leonids. The Orionids (Oct. 21) occur when the moon is a waxing crescent. The best shower of the year (for its potency and the moon is out of the sky) could be the Geminids, though they reach maximum on Dec. 14.

Unless a new discovery is made, it appears to be a poor year for comets. Our best bet may be Comet PanSTARRS. From Jan. 26-31 it should pass over the Double Cluster in Perseus. By May it’s near the galaxies M81/M82 near the Big Dipper when the comet may easily be within range of binoculars.

As far as space missions go, humanity likes to launch missions to Mars when Mars is close. There will be four missions to the red planet this year. The Europeans will launch the ExoMars mission in July, which will place a rover on the Martian surface. Also in July, China will launch an orbiter and a rover. The United Arab Emirates will send Mars Hope. NASA will launch the Mars 2020 mission on July 17. It is due to land in Jezero Crater (30 miles in diameter) in the Martian northern hemisphere on Feb. 18, 2021. In addition to a surface drill, 23 cameras and two microphones, Mars 2020 will also bring a solar-powered drone to fly above the Martian surface. The rover will also collect samples for a future sample-return mission.

In other spacecraft news, China may launch a space station, the Hayabusa 2 rendezvous mission to a near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. It will return to Earth with surface samples in December. NASA asteroid-rendezvous mission Osirus-Rex will hopefully land on the asteroid Bennu to collect samples to return to Earth in 2023. On a sad note, the Spitzer Space Telescope will be deactivated after being in space 17 years. The Spitzer observed the sky in infrared wavelengths, which means the craft had to be cooled with liquid helium. The James Webb Telescope (Hubble’s replacement) is currently due to be launched in 2021.

Locally, the CU Astronomical Society meets on the second Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College. Observatory open houses (free to the public) are held on the Saturday closest to the first quarter moon, starting March 28, weather permitting. CUAS telescopes will visit the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve on April 18. See cuas.org for more information. The UI Observatory is open to the public on the second Friday of the months classes are in session.

Look for details of these events in your Sunday News-Gazette. Clear skies, everyone!

David Leake is the former director of the Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College in Champaign. Visit parkland.edu/planetarium to learn more about its programs.