Sky Gazing This Month

September 2020 – the month of the equinox. The sky is in transition. Soon, it will be dominated by the winter constellations. June, July and August were some of the best months this year for sky gazers. The annular solar eclipse in June, Comet NEOWISE in July, and the Perseid meteor shower in August put up a great show in the heavens above. But what about the night sky of September 2020? Is there anything worth watching? Yes! Here are the top astronomy events of September 2020.

To read how to spot all the planets in the sky of September 2020, please read this article.

September 1: Venus reaches highest point in Morning sky

The Roman Goddess of Love dazzles in the pre-dawn sky. Venus is the brightest planet. In the absence of the Moon, it becomes the brightest ‘speck of light’ in the night sky. Venus rises in the east at around 02:30 and dominates the sky before sunrise. It is currently in the constellation of Gemini. On September 1, Venus will reach its maximum altitude in the sky. The image below shows an illustration of the planet in the sky of 1 September 2020.

Venus in September 2020
Venus dominates the sky before sunrise in September 2020 (Image credits: Dominic Ford, in-the-sky)

September 2: Full Corn Moon

The Moon will reach full phase on 2 September 2020. At this time in its monthly cycle of phases, the Moon lies almost directly opposite the Sun in the sky, placing it high above the horizon for much of the night. The Full Moon of September is also called the Full Corn Moon because this is when crops are gathered at the end of the summer season. At this time, the Moon appears particularly bright and rises early, letting farmers continue harvesting into the night.

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September 6: Lunar Occultation of Mars

The flagship astronomical event of September 2020: the lunar occultation of Mars. The Red Planet will be ‘eclipsed’ by the Moon on September 6. An occultation is an astronomical event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer. In other words, when the object in the foreground blocks the view of the object in the background, it is called an occultation.

lunar occultation of Mars in September 2020
Mars will be eclipsed by the Moon on 6 September 2020 (Credits: NASA)

This is the second occultation in just 28 days. The last occultation took place on August 9. Lunar occultations are only ever visible from a small fraction of the Earth’s surface. Since the Moon is much closer to the Earth than other celestial objects, its exact position in the sky differs depending on your exact location on Earth due to its large parallax. The position of the Moon as seen from two points on opposite sides of the Earth varies by up to two degrees or four times the diameter of the full moon.

This means that if the Moon is aligned to pass in front of a particular object for an observer on one side of the Earth, it will appear up to two degrees away from that object on the other side of the Earth. For the rest of the world, the Moon will appear to pass very close to the Red Planet in the constellation of Pisces.

The map below from in-the-sky shows the places where the occultation can be seen from Earth.

Credits: in-the-sky

September 9: Epsilon-Perseid meteor shower

The only meteor shower of September 2020, epsilon-perseids will peak on the night of September 2020. The shower is active between September 5 – September 21. It can produce up to 5 meteors per hour. The radiant of the shower, from which all the meteors appear to originate, lies in the constellation of Perseus. The closest star to the radiant is epsilon persei, hence the name.

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Image showing the radiant of the meteor shower (Created using Stellarium App)

The Moon, in Taurus, will be around last quarter phase at the shower’s peak, presenting significant interference in the pre-dawn sky after it rises at 21:57. You can use the space apps described in this article to locate the radiant quickly.

September 12: Neptune at opposition

Neptune will make its closest approach to Earth in September 2020. In celestial mechanics, a planetary opposition occurs when the Earth lies between the Sun and the planet with Earth being on the same side of the planet as shown below.

During opposition, the planet lies opposite to the Sun. Hence, it rises around the sunset, reaches the highest point in the sky around midnight, and sets at dawn. This is the best time to observe a planet. Jupiter and Saturn were at opposition on July 14 and July 21 respectively. You can read this article to know how to watch them together.

Neptune at opposition in September 2020
Neptune on September 12 at opposition (Image credits: Dominic Ford, in-the-sky)

On this occasion, Neptune will lie at a distance of 28.92 AU which is about 168 million km closer than average. Neptune will rise soon after sunset in the constellation of Aquarius. Since its magnitude will be 7.8, you’ll need a telescope to observe it.

September 17: Comet 88P/Howell reaches its maximum brightness

Comet 88P/Howell is back after 5.5 years. It was discovered on 29 August 1981. The comet will be at perihelion on 26 September 2020 and it is expected to reach its brightest on September 17. On this occasion, it will be at a distance of 1.37 AU from the Earth. It is expected to reach its peak magnitude of 8, which means you’ll not be able to see it with the naked eye.

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September 17: New Moon

The Moon will pass close to the Sun and become lost in the Sun’s glare for a few days. Over the coming days, the Moon will rise and set an hour later each day, becoming visible in the late afternoon and dusk sky as a waxing crescent which sets soon after the Sun. By the first quarter, in a week’s time, it will be visible until around midnight.

September 22: Autumn Equinox

Autumn Equinox September 2020
Solstice and Equinox (Image credits: in-the-sky)

This day marks the first day of autumn for anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of spring for the ones in the Southern Hemisphere. On this day, sunlight falls directly over the equator. On this day, every part of the world experiences 12 hours of day and night each. The Sun will lie in Virgo on the day of the equinox.

September 28: Mercury reaches its highest point in evening sky

Mercury in the evening sky (Image credits: Dominic Ford, in-the-sky)

Another special thing about September 2020 is that all the planets will be visible in the sky with Mercury joining the party later this month. On September 28, Mercury will reach the highest point in the night sky. It will be shining brightly at mag -0.0. The planet will be in the constellation of Virgo.

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