While it’s been a terrible year in a lot of ways, 2020 has had some impressive astronomical occurrences. Remember Comet NEOWISE? Or when Betelgeuse dimmed in night skies? Those were just a couple of the celestial highlights as we stumbled our way around the sun during these 366 days (it was a leap year, too).
So now, with only 10 short days to go before the year comes to a conclusion that many people will relish, we will be treated to no fewer than three astronomical occurrences on the same day: a great alignment of our solar system’s largest planets, the winter solstice and a meteor shower at its peak.
Jupiter and Saturn line up in the night sky.
Some call it the Christmas star. But it’s really two gas giants — Jupiter and Saturn, our solar system’s mightiest worlds — appearing to align in the night sky.
The two planets will be about one-tenth of an angular degree apart, or about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length, according to NASA.
All you need to enjoy it are your eyes and cloud-free night skies; no fancy telescopes or binoculars required — although they’ll help if you’d like to pick out Saturn’s rings or some of Jupiter’s heftier moons.
Read more about how to enjoy this “great conjunction” here:
Earth leans away from the sun in the winter solstice.
The good news: The days get longer from here on in.
The bad: If the sun setting too early is getting to you, this will be a long short Monday.
It already feels like winter in much of the Northern Hemisphere, especially after last week’s nor’easter. But the winter solstice is something like the official start of the season, as this side of the planet tilts as far from the sun as it gets during its annual journey around the star.
The solstice means more time to enjoy the night sky. It’s also a fine moment to reflect on our planet’s gradual lurching one way or another as it spins. Other worlds in our solar system have much more extreme solstices than what we experience, and it may be that life as we know it would be impossible without our planet’s particular tilt.
One last decent meteor shower.
Earth passes through numerous meteor showers as it travels around the sun. Some can be real stunners. But many are too dim to be seen without specialized equipment.
Still, with the Ursids, which peak Monday night into Tuesday’s dawn, you could have a decent opportunity. They are leftovers of a comet, 8P/Tuttle, and are not known for putting on the most spectacular show in night skies, compared with other showers like the recent Geminids.
But if you’re out enjoying Jupiter and Saturn’s courtship in the night sky, perhaps stay up a bit later and try to observe a fireball or two. Robert Lunsford of the International Meteor Organization, which forecasts annual meteor shower activity, wrote in a post last week that the Ursids could potentially be more active in 2020 than in previous years.