• Terra Observer

Dazzling meteors, twinkling planets: Your summer stargazing guide

Blazing meteor showers, scintillating planets and a celestial meeting of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are a few of the space sights Ontarians can look forward to this summer.

Jade Prévost-Manuel, Co-Editor-In-Chief

The Milky Way, visible from the Grotto near Tobermory, Ont. (Lewis Liu / Terra Observer)

For years to come, the summer of 2020 will be remembered as a slow one—void of the ground-shaking music festivals and packed Grand Bend beach weekends that usually mark its close. Despite a rough social forecast here on Earth, Ontario’s summer sky promises to be anything but dull. Great opportunities for planet-spotting and meteor-watching are there for the taking, right in your own backyard.

For millennia, people have watched the night sky with fascination. Ancient civilizations observed the movement of the planets and stars, mapping them for ceremonial purposes and inventing the calendars that transformed the way we understand time. In the modern era, our fascination has fueled space exploration and inspired science fiction. On cool northern nights, the night sky motivates amateur astronomy enthusiasts to sprawl out on patches of soft summer grass and to spend their evenings gazing at the stars.

To help you get the most out of your summer star-gazing, we spoke with Randy Attwood, former Executive Director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Here’s our guide to the best astronomical happenings coming to skies near you.

The Perseid Meteor Shower (August)

The Perseid Meteor Shower, observed in Switzerland. (Lukas Schlagenhauf / Flickr Creative Commons)

Named after the Perseus constellation from which the meteors appear to sprout, the Perseid meteor shower is an annual thrill for amateur astronomers and passive celestial observers. The shower boasts some of the brightest and fastest meteors that leave thin wakes of light and colour behind them, with peak activity generally falling on August 11 or 12.

Each year as Earth makes its orbital trip around the sun, it passes through a cloud of debris left by a comet. As these bits of debris make contact with Earth’s atmosphere, they form the brilliant meteors of the Perseid meteor shower.

“On August 12—and a couple days on either side of it—it’s a good night to put out the lawn chair and look towards the sky to see if you can see some meteors,” Attwood says. “Generally, you can see one [meteor] every couple of minutes as a rule.”

The shower’s brilliance often depends on the phase of the moon. If a full moon coincides with a meteor shower, the moon’s brightness will wash out the fainter meteors and make them tougher to spot. This year, Attwood says the moon will be in an optimal phase for viewing the Perseids. Rising after midnight and significantly less bright, the last quarter moon should make for great meteor-spotting this summer.

Jupiter, Saturn and Mars come together (August, September)

A conjunction of Venus and Jupiter alongside the moon at Paranal Observatory in Chile. (ESO/Y. Beletsky / Wikipedia)

Attwood says the real treat of 2020 will be the close positioning of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars—three of our solar system’s brighter outer planets—in the summer night sky.

“Say you have your hand outreached at arms-length with your thumb and pinky extended,” Attwood says, sketching an at-home way of measuring the distance between the three planets from end-to-end. “The distance between them will be [about] the distance between your thumb and your pinky.”

In astronomy lingo, it’s called a conjunction. Close encounters between Saturn and Jupiter, however, are great conjunctions, a phenomenon that’s only observed every 20 years. In 2020, the two planets will be the closest they’ve been since 1623. While the official great conjunction will happen December 21, 2020, July is when both Jupiter and Saturn reach opposition—that is, when they’re positioned opposite to the sun and at their brightest. Jupiter and Saturn will reach opposition July 14 and July 20, respectively.

While the summer doesn’t promise any eclipses, there will be one to glimpse in the fall. The only remaining eclipse of the year that will be visible in North America will be an eclipse of the moon. The Penumbral lunar eclipse on November 29, 2020 will be the longest of the year, lasting for around four and a half hours, though Attwood says it will be nearly invisible.

Tackling light pollution

Light pollution is one of the biggest challenges that city dwellers face when it comes to spotting stars, meteors and other celestial sights in the night sky. When artificial outdoor light is misdirected and used excessively, most commonly in urban areas, it creates the hazy dome often seen above cities. This barrier prevents humans on the ground from seeing the faint glow of faraway stars.

“It lights up the dust particles and things in the air,” Attwood says. “When those get lit up, the sky gets brighter, so you can see less stars. All the stars are still there but the light sort of masks seeing the fainter stars or seeing the dark sky.”

He says that from the Greater Toronto Area, it’s a two-hour drive to reach an area with dark sky—a significant distance that often requires an overnight stay for stargazers.

“The problem is if you drive two hours out of the city and set up your telescope and then you observe till 2 a.m. in the morning, then what do you do,” Attwood says. “You have to drive two hours back home.”

For those who don’t have summer cottages or accommodations in dark sky areas of the province, star parties—large gatherings of amateur astronomers setting up camp for a weekend of stellar observation—have become popular. With most of this year’s star parties cancelled because of COVID-19, the quest for dark skies will likely become an individual pursuit for Ontarians in 2020.

PS: Tune into the pilot episode of our podcast, The 51st Parallel, to learn more about light pollution and the best spots in Ontario for observing the night sky.