The night sky is packed with gems and many can be observed with the naked eye. But you can also use binoculars to help you learn your way around the sky and investigate some objects that wouldn’t otherwise be visible, or probe deeper with a telescope and discover some beautiful objects, such as clusters, galaxies, nebulae and planets.
Here are 20 of the best night-sky sights 2020. See how many you can observe.
The Lunar X and V
The Lunar X and V are transient lunar features visible once a month for about four hours, close to first quarter phase. The letter ‘X’ is caused by light illuminating the rims of craters Blanchinus, La Caille and Purbach.
The ‘V’ is caused by light illuminating the Ukert crater. They are visible at night from the UK on 2 January around 20:30 UT and again on 22 November at 17:00 UT. You will need binoculars or a small scope to see them.
Mars will put on a great show this year. It returns to the southeastern dawn sky at the end of March, when it rises shortly before sunrise and will rise earlier each day throughout the summer, until reaching opposition on 13 October. During October, Mars will be visible all night long. Its apparent size and magnitude can vary enormously depending on where Earth and Mars are relative to each other in their orbits.
During the 2020 closest approach, Mars will be 62 million km from Earth. At farthest approach, it will be 325 million km away; you can see why its appearance changes so much. Between March and October, the disc of Mars will increase from 6 arcseconds to 22.6 arcseconds and the magnitude will increase from mag. +1.5 to mag. –2.6. Although the apparent size of Mars isn’t quite as large as it was during the 2018 apparition, it will be situated 31˚ higher, making it easier to observe.
Constellation of Auriga
Auriga, the Charioteer is visible all year round but is better placed for observing from January to April and August to December. It’s worth investigating with binoculars as it is packed with open clusters, including M36, M37 and M38.
Asteroid 4 Vesta
Vesta reached opposition last November, but it is still well placed for observation through binoculars during January and February. In January, mag. +7.5 Vesta is visible in the constellation of Cetus to the south, from sunset until it sets at around 02:30 UT.
By the end of February, Vesta will fade to mag. +8.0, setting around midnight. If you track the asteroid over several days, you’ll see its movement relative to the background stars.
Constellation of Orion
Orion, the Hunter is a highlight of winter. During January and February it dominates the southern sky, making it easy to spot. Look for the colour difference between the red giant star Betelgeuse on the top left and the blue supergiant star Rigel on the bottom right.
If you observe Orion’s Sword with binoculars, you will see that the middle ‘star’ is actually M42, the Great Orion Nebula; a great astrophotography target for beginners. We lose Orion in late March but it returns in October.
The Milky Way
July and August are the best months to view the Milky Way from the UK. You don’t need binoculars or a telescope, but you will want to find a dark sky and a moonless night. While the band of the Milky Way sweeps across the whole sky, the portion that is close to the Galactic core is situated low in the south so you will need a clear southern horizon to see it.
During the summer of 2020, Jupiter and Saturn are located to the left of the southern Milky Way and this will make a great photo opportunity.
The Pleiades, M45
This beautiful star cluster is well placed for observation from January to March, and from October to December. It contains hot, young, blue stars less than 100 million years old.
They are surrounded by a reflection nebula of gas and dust, and through binoculars the blue colour is really apparent, while long exposure photography can pull out the detail.
The dazzling planet Venus puts on a great show during the first few months of 2020. In January it will be visible for about two hours after dusk. From January to April it climbs higher in the southwestern sky and by April it sets around half past midnight. If you look at Venus through binoculars or a telescope over these months, you’ll see its phase change from gibbous in January to crescent in April.
Throughout this time its magnitude will change from mag. –4.0 to mag. –4.5. During this apparition several conjunctions will present excellent photo opportunities. On 27 February and 28 March, the waxing crescent Moon will be to the lower left of Venus, with the Pleiades above them in March.
From 2 to 4 April, Venus will actually lie within the stars of the Pleiades, creating a rare and stunning spectacle.
Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in conjunction
During late March and early April, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter put on a show in the dawn sky. On 20 and 21 March, the three planets rise at around 4am in the southeast. Mag. –2.0 Jupiter will lie just 0.75˚ from mag. +1.0 Mars with mag. +0.7 Saturn to the left.
You should be able to see both Mars and Jupiter in a 40-inch (1,000mm) scope. Over the subsequent days, Mars drifts closer to Saturn and on the mornings of 31 March and 1 April Mars and Saturn lie just 0.9˚ apart.
Constellation of Hercules
Hercules is well placed for observation from March to July. In March it rises in the east at around 22:00 UT and remains visible all night long, but by July it will already be high in the sky after sunset. Hercules is home to two gorgeous globular clusters that are perfect for binocular or telescope observing.
The larger of the pair, M13, lies about a third of the way down from the top right star and has a magnitude of +5.8. But don’t forget to hunt down often overlooked M92. M92 is located to the upper left of the central square of stars, known as the Keystone, and at mag. +6.3, it too is an impressive globular cluster.
Full Moon, Spica and Arcturus in conjunction
The April full Moon occurs on 8 April, when the Moon is at its closest point to Earth, known as perigee. Perigee full Moons – also known as supermoons – can appear 14 per cent bigger and about 30 per cent brighter (but you won’t be able to notice this with the naked eye).
On 8 April the Moon rises at around 21:30 BST and remains visible all night long. The bright star to its right is Spica, the brightest star in the otherwise faint Virgo. The bright, orange-coloured star to the upper left of the Moon is the red giant star Arcturus.
The Beehive Cluster, M44
The Beehive is a beautiful open cluster located in Cancer, which makes a great target for binoculars and small telescopes. It is well placed in the southern sky from January to May.
Because it is located near to the ecliptic, every month the Moon passes close to M44 during spring. The closest of these passes is on 6 March when the waxing gibbous Moon lies only about 1º away.
Moon, Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction
Jupiter and Saturn are located close together for most of 2020, but there are two occasions when the Moon joins them, making a lovely grouping. On 5 July, during a full Moon, the trio is located to the left of Sagittarius, and they rise in the southeast at about 23:15 BST, remaining visible until dawn.
On 22 October a 41%-lit waxing crescent Moon joins Jupiter and Saturn. They will become visible in the southern sky after sunset and set about 23:00 BST.
Noctilucent Clouds (NLCs)
One of the highlights of the summer months, when there are so few hours of observing time, is the appearance of noctilucent or ‘night shining’ clouds. These clouds are made of tiny ice crystals so high in the atmosphere they’re on the edge of space.
They are seen low in the northwest 60-90 minutes after sunset, or in the northeast 60-90 minutes before sunrise. Because they are so high, they remain illuminated by the Sun and seem to glow.
The Andromeda Galaxy, M31
Located 2.5 million lightyears away, the Andromeda Galaxy is the most distant object visible to the naked eye and is well placed for observation from August until December. At mag. +3.4, M31 is visible to the naked eye from a dark-sky site, appearing as a faint smudge. Through binoculars you will see an oval shape, but a telescope will reveal more detail.
You can also use a small telescope to photograph this beauty, so it’s a great beginner’s target. Use the Square of Pegasus to help you locate M31 and see if you can spot the two satellite galaxies, M32 and M110.
The Eyes of Clavius
When the Moon is about 8.5 days past new, the Sun rises over one of the largest lunar craters, Clavius. While the crater floor is still in shadow, the rims of two of its craterlets, Clavius C and Clavius D, become illuminated.
These white circles shining out from the shadows give the spooky impression of two eyes staring out at you. The Eyes of Clavius are visible at 22:00 BST on 25 September. The Moon will be low in the south at this time, but you should be able to see the eyes using binoculars.
Brocchi’s Cluster, also known as The Coathanger, is a quirky little open cluster nestled within the band of the Milky Way. It is not a true cluster as its stars aren’t gravitationally bound to each other; it’s just a line of sight effect.
It is located half way between Vulpecula and Sagitta and is well placed from June until September. You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to spot it visually. Although small, it makes a great telescope photography target.
Geminid meteor shower
Almost all of the principal meteor showers in 2020 are affected by moonlight, but the Geminids is the one exception. This shower, caused by Earth passing through the debris stream left behind by the asteroid Phaethon, is active from 4–17 December, peaking on the night of 13/14 December.
This is a prolific shower with a Zenithal hourly rate of about 120 meteors per hour; this equates to a visual rate of approximately 30–50 meteors per hour. The radiant is well placed all night plus the peak coincides with a New Moon, making 2020 a promising year for winter meteors.
Saturn and Jupiter: 2020’s great conjunction
Saturn and Jupiter spend much of 2020 close together, but during December they pass very close to each other in the sky. On the evening of the Winter Solstice on 21 December, the two planets will be separated by only 6 arcminutes, so they will look like one planet to the naked eye. They will both fit within the field of view of a moderate scope.
It will be a huge treat to see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s cloud belts and Galilean moons in the same field of view. They become visible in the southwestern sky soon after sunset at about 17:00 UT. As they will be just 9˚ above the horizon you will need an unobstructed horizon. They will continue to sink lower until they set at around 18:15 UT. Don’t miss this opportunity, as Saturn and Jupiter conjunctions are rare and the next one won’t happen until 2040.
Albireo A & B
Albireo is the second brightest star of Cygnus, located at the end of the Swan’s ‘neck’ at the opposite end of the constellation from its brightest star, Deneb. It is in fact a double star and is probably the most magnificent colour-contrasting double star in the Northern Hemisphere.
When viewed through a telescope, the primary star, Albireo A, is a golden yellow colour. In stark contrast, Albireo B looks a much cooler blue colour. This double star is well placed for observing from June to September.