Astronomical Events of 1990: A Stargazer's Almanac

Take a look back at the astronomical events of 1990, including sunspots, solar flares, Northern Lights, eclipses, meteor showers and comets, and the planetary year.

| January/February 1990

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    In 1990 the moon will come as close to Earth as will get for the rest of this century, and we'll witness two full moons in the same month: December.
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    In 1990, our sun is expected to enter a period of unusually high activity—perhaps the highest in centuries—producing many sunspots and solar flares.
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    Sunlight, reaching the moon from the upper left in this illustration, creates its phases: 1) new moon, 2) crescent, 3) first quarter, 4) gibbous, and 5) full. The moon then wanes through the sequence in reverse.  
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    The red planet, Mars, will shine with uncommon brilliance in the night skies this summer and fall.
  • Neptune
    The Hubble Space telescope may answer the riddle of Neptune's Great Dark Spot.

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  • Neptune

Whether you're an accomplished amateur astronomer or simply a casual observer, 1990's night skies will offer some real treats. Among the astronomical events of the months to come are the best look at Mars we'll get until 2001, and many striking conjunctions (close pairings) of the moon with major planets. Topping the list, though, is the likelihood that the sun will reach an unusually high peak of activity rivaling even 1957–58's record maximum. One result will be brilliant displays of northern lights visible virtually everywhere in the United States.

Sun and Northern Lights

The sun reaches a period of "maximum" activity—sunspots, flares, etc.—every 11 years or so. However, this year's anticipated maximum—expected around March—may present us with a higher level of activity than almost any other year in recent centuries. 

That's the logical conclusion, at least, to be drawn from 1989's activity, which produced dozens of naked-eye sunspot groups and counts of over 260 sunspots at a time by expert observers. (Never view the sun directly unless you have the proper filters and the expertise to use them.) Last year, solar flares disturbed radio and electrical systems all over the world (6 million people in Quebec temporarily lost their electricity thanks to one of the March flares). And on the nights of March 12 and 13, 1989, the northern lights shone spectacularly, casting glowing, fluctuating patches of red light across all the U.S. and as far south as Central America! [Editor's note: For a thorough discussion of the northern lights, details on when and where to look for auroral displays, and tips on observing and photographing the phenomenon, see "Northern Lights Over America."] 


On December 2 this year, the moon will be as close to us as it will get in the final quarter of the 20th century. On that day the distance from the moon's center to Earth's will be just 221,545 miles—only 93 miles more than its absolute closest approach during the period 1750 to 2125. Also in December, the moon will be full twice in the same month—a situation not to be repeated until August 1993.

Even more intriguing than the near moon, though, are 1990's opportunities to see breathtakingly slender lunar crescents. Back on May 5, 1989, using 11 × 80 binoculars, Robert C. Victor in East Lansing, Michigan, set a new world record for seeing the moon soonest after the invisible new moon phase: 13 hours, 28 minutes after new. On May 24, 1990, observers on the East Coast of the U.S. will have an opportunity to see a moon even "younger" than Victor's. And April 25 and November 18 will also provide chances to see thin crescent moons low in the west after sunset. Superb charts for helping find all the year's slender crescent moons (as well as others for locating and viewing the stars and planets) can be found in Guy Ottewell's excellent atlas-sized Astronomical Calendar.


For most Americans, this will be a poor year for viewing eclipses. January 26's annular solar eclipse won't be visible at all from the U.S., and the total lunar eclipse of February 9 and partial lunar eclipse of August 6 will be visible in the United States only from parts of Alaska. Likewise, July 22's total solar eclipse will appear as just a small partial eclipse near sunset in the U.S., and then only for observers on the Pacific Coast and in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Northwest.


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