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Star-struck

You say the economy's in the tank, your credit card's maxed out, and you can't afford a movie ticket, much less a Wii?

Well, lift your head up high! Go ahead, look up! The new year holds in store all kinds of celestial entertainment for Maryland stargazers. And they're all free.

There are spectacular moonrises and moonsets, a string of promising meteor showers and planetary conjunctions rivaling the Dec. 1 triple conjunction of the moon, Venus and Jupiter.

We do seem to be in a sort of "eclipse recession," however. There are two solar eclipses on tap. But neither will be visible from North America. There are also four lunar eclipses, but three are "penumbral" - barely visible to anyone. The last, on New Year's Eve 2009, is only partial, and none of it will be visible from Maryland.

Even so, when the moon, sun and planets don't perform, we can look forward to more flyovers by the International Space Station and the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission. Maybe. If it does finally launch in May, we can watch the drama unfold on TV as four spacewalkers attempt one last multimillion-dollar repair and upgrade for the world's greatest space telescope.

Back out under the stars, there is a string of fine meteor showers on tap - most without serious interference from the moon. For mid-November's Leonid shower, astronomers predict "near-storm" activity - up to 500 meteors per hour - as the Earth sails through a field of dust laid down by a comet in 1466.

If cold keeps you indoors, grab a book and read about history's greatest backyard astronomer. In November, we'll celebrate the 400th anniversary of the night in 1609 when Galileo first turned his little telescope on the moon and changed our perception of our solar system, and ourselves, forever.

Here are the stargazers' highlights for 2009:

January

1 - Mercury stands just to the upper left of bright Jupiter, low in the southwest after sunset. The smallest and the largest planets seem to converge.

3 - Brave the cold after midnight for a look at the Quadrantid meteor shower, which peaks this morning. Far from urban lights, you may see more than 60 meteors per hour.

4 - Earth is at perihelion at 10 a.m. EST, only 91.4 million miles from the sun, its closest approach this year. This day also marks the latest sunrise of the year, at 7:27 a.m. EST, in Baltimore.

10 - The moon is nearly full, and at its second-closest approach to Earth this year. Look for unusually high tides.

26 - An "annular" solar eclipse reduces the sun to a blinding ring of fire, but the spectacle is visible only from the southern Indian Ocean and Indonesia.

29 - A beautiful pairing of brilliant Venus and the crescent moon, in the west after sunset.

February

2 - Groundhog Day, also Candlemas, first of the year's cross-quarter days - this one midway between the winter solstice and vernal (spring) equinox.

13 - The first of three Fridays the 13th this year. There's another next month; the third is in November. Luckily, that happens in only 14 or 15 years each century.

15 - Venus is at its brightest through the end of February.

17-23 - Mars, Mercury and Jupiter are in conjunction, less than a pinkie's width (held at arm's length) apart, low in the east in the hour before sunrise. The crescent moon joins them on the 22nd and 23rd.

March

8 - Daylight saving time starts at 2 a.m. Spring forward one hour. Saturn is at opposition tonight, its closest and brightest appearance of the year. Catch a look through a street-corner telescope or local observatory open house now through May.

20 - The vernal equinox arrives at 7:45 a.m. EDT, when the sun crosses the equator on its journey north toward summer.

April

12 - Easter Sunday, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Easter can fall between March 22 (next time, 2285) and April 25 (next time, 2038).

22 - Bright Venus is in a close pairing with the crescent moon, low in the east before sunrise.

26 - Best evening to try to spot elusive Mercury, low in the west after sunset, just below the crescent moon and Pleiades star cluster. Try binoculars.

May

1 - Happy Beltane, the second cross-quarter day of the year, halfway between the vernal equinox and summer solstice.

6 - The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in the hours before dawn as Earth passes through the dust trail of Halley's Comet.

21 - The crescent moon, Mars, Venus, Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune are all aligned, east-to-southeast, across the pre-dawn sky. Only Uranus and Neptune are too dim to see with the naked eye.

June

6 - Brilliant Venus is at its highest above the pre-dawn eastern horizon.

14 - The earliest sunrise of the year, at 5:39 a.m. EDT, in Baltimore.

19 - Up early? Dim Mars and blinding Venus stand in a close pairing, in the east, 45 minutes before sunrise. The crescent moon hangs above them.

21 - The summer solstice arrives at 1:45 a.m. EDT, the sun's northernmost point above the equator of the year. From now until December, the days grow shorter.

27 - Latest sunset of the year, at 8:37 p.m. EDT, in Baltimore.

July

3 - Earth is at aphelion at 4 p.m., its farthest from the sun this year, at 94.5 million miles.

21 - The moon is at "perigee," its nearest approach to Earth of the year at 222,128 miles (or 56 times the Earth's radius). The moon is also nearly new, so watch for unusually high tides.

August

6 - At the beach? Watch the full moon rise over the ocean with Jupiter just four finger widths (held at arm's length) to the right.

10-13 - The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks, with the best viewing hours between midnight and dawn. The Perseids are fast, often bright, and many leave persistent trails. Warm weather helps, but face away from the moon's glare.

14 - Jupiter is at opposition - rising in the east as the sun sets in the west. It is high and bright all night. It's the best time of year to see Jupiter through a telescope.

September

4 - The full moon rising at 7:20 p.m. EDT in Baltimore is not the Harvest Moon. That honor goes to the full moon closest to the Sept. 22 equinox. This year, that's the Oct. 4 full moon.

16 - Early risers: Look for Venus and the crescent moon in a fine pairing, in the east before dawn.

20 - Grab binoculars for a look at Venus and the bright bluish star Regulus, extremely close in the east about 4 a.m.

22 - Autumnal equinox occurs at 5:19 p.m. as the sun descends below the equator en route to the winter solstice in December. Fall begins.

October

2 -16 - If you're an early riser, this is the best chance this year to see elusive Mercury, low in the east 30 minutes before sunrise. Saturn comes within a pinkie's width (held at arm's length) of Mercury on the 8th. Venus is higher, but very close.

4 - The full Harvest Moon rises over Baltimore, in the east, at 6:37 p.m. EDT.

16 - The crescent moon joins Mercury, Venus and Saturn, low in the east before dawn.

21 - The Orionid meteor shower peaks around this date. This shower produced many startling meteors and fire-balls in 2008. With no moon to interfere, this should be another good year.

31 - Halloween, the fourth cross-quarter day of the year, halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.

November

1 - First Sunday in November. The U.S. returns to Standard Time.

3 - The moon passes through the Pleiades star cluster. Binoculars improve the view.

10 - On this night 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei turned his new telescope toward the moon and began a series of discoveries that would change man's perception of the cosmos.

17 - The Leonid meteor shower peaks as Earth passes through the dust trail of comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle. With no moon to interfere, more than 100 meteors per hour are possible, midnight to dawn.

December

7 - The earliest sunset occurs on this date, at 4:43 p.m. EST, in Baltimore.

13 - The Geminid meteor shower peaks this morning. It's one of the best of the year, with more than 120 meteors per hour under ideal conditions, if you can stand the cold.

18 - A good night to spot Mercury, a white dot low in the west after sunset, just below the moon.

21 - The solstice arrives at 12:47 p.m. EST, marking the shortest day and start of the northern winter.

25 - Jupiter is the Evening, or Christmas, Star in the west after sunset.

31 - A full moon lights the way for New Year's revelers. The night's partial lunar eclipse won't be visible from North America. The next one visible here will be Dec. 21, 2010.

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