An Astronomically Unusual Year

by Gary P Caton

Despite the attention they often receive in the popular media, planetary retrogrades are relatively unusual. The Sun and Moon are never retrograde. Venus and Mars are retrograde less than 10% of the time; Mercury is retrograde less than 20%; Jupiter and Saturn are only retrograde roughly one third of the time. This means that direct motion accounts for approximately 86% of all motion for the seven visible planets. Put more simply, this means that on average, at any given moment, we should expect only one of the seven classical planets to be retrograde.

However in 2020, there are only two months–February and March–which fit the average of one of the classical planets being retrograde. For six months of the year, we will have at least two planets retrograde at the same time, and during June, there will be one week where four of the five classical planets are retrograde simultaneously. This is quite unusual, and only made possible by the fact that we have an unusual conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn–which only happens every twenty years.

In addition to having more than just the above average number of retrogrades, this year is even more unusual in that all of the classical planets cross the ecliptic plane. It is not unusual for planets closer to Earth to do so, in fact on average Mercury crosses the ecliptic about eight times each year, Venus about three and Mars once. Jupiter and Saturn only cross the ecliptic twice in their cycle, so this means every six and 14 years, respectively. It’s only at longer intervals of 30 and 60 years that Jupiter and Saturn cross the ecliptic within a year of each other. The last time all the classical planets crossed the ecliptic within a year was in 1990 and before that in 1960-61. 

Even the casual history buff will note that those years contained a relatively high number of historically important events. In 1960, we saw 17 African nations gain independence and the civil rights movement gained steam in the United States. In early 1961, Eisenhower severed relations with Cuba and warned the public of the dangers of the military industrial complex. Months later, the Cold War became entrenched as Kennedy approved the CIA invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs. Thirty years later, in 1990, Cold War relations were moving in the opposite direction, with the re-unification of Germany, the independence of the Baltic states and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Another major development in 1990 was the first web server and the foundation for the World Wide Web.

Looking closer, we can see these two astronomical phenomena are related. When planets are retrograde, they are at their closest approach to Earth. And retrograde motion is not a simple matter of moving backward. Before and after the retrograde, planets actually perform wide looping forays from the ecliptic. There are eight basic shapes these loops assume (see diagram), depending on the relationship between the location of the particular retrograde and the location of the planet’s nodes, namely the points where their path crosses the Sun’s path. 

Because of the different shapes, there are at least eight different types of retrogrades. They vary in shape, more so with the planets closest to Earth. During their retrogrades, Venus, Mercury and Mars come closer to Earth than the Sun, thereby penetrating the interior heart space of our system. Their retrogrades are more extreme as each planet moves farther away from the ecliptic, which makes their loop shapes more exaggerated. Venus, Mercury and Mars usually cross the ecliptic a couple times during their retrograde loops. However, when they are near their nodes, they cross the ecliptic only once in a “Z” shaped loop. 

On the other hand, Jupiter and Saturn are retrograde more frequently, about a third of the time, but their loops shapes are more flattened and less extreme. Also, Jupiter and Saturn cross the ecliptic in the two “Z” shaped loops near their nodes. As mentioned earlier, the last times both these planets performed “Z” shaped loops where they crossed the ecliptic were in 1990 and 1960-61. The reason we can so easily see an increase in the socio-political activity is that the ecliptic is basically the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. So, planets directly on the ecliptic are at the points where they most directly influence the Earth plane. Thus, we can easily see both the unifying powers of Jupiter and the separating powers of Saturn at work during these years.

What’s really incredible is that, in fact, all five planets perform “Z” shaped loops this year! Jupiter and Saturn cross the ecliptic near their South Nodes in February. Then Venus does a South Node dance in June. After this, it is Mercury’s turn, and it crosses the ecliptic in a “Z” loop near it’s North Node in October. Not to be out-done, Mars crosses the ecliptic in an upward “Z” near it’s North Node in December. This is something that did not happen in either 1990 or 1960-61, which makes 2020 a very unusual astronomical year indeed!
Recommended Reading

Gregory Rozek, “Retrograde Planets and their Number in the Natal Chart.” Accessed online 9/11/16  First appeared as “People with Many Retrogrades” in The Astrological Journal, published by the Astrological Society of Great Britain, March 2014.

Gary P. Caton - Astronomer, Writer, Forecaster

Growing up in a rural setting outside Leesburg, Virginia, Gary developed passions for gardening and farming early in life and has lived on working farms.

In 1993 Gary was initiated into the planetary mysteries by seeing alignments in a dream. His deep love of nature fuels his enthusiasm for stargazing and astrophotography. Gary claims it has been a true joy combining his lifelong passion for learning with the tasks of completing the calculations and contributing to the forecasts for this calendar. Based on more than two decades of experience, he incorporates several new elements into this text, including consideration of the sextile aspect and a look at the deeper mysteries of the retrograde loops of Venus and Mars.

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