Marylanders will have plenty of reasons to step outdoors during 2008 and find a dark spot where they can gaze into the night sky.

The new year brings the first total eclipse of the moon, visible here from start to finish during evening hours, since October 2004.

The new year also promises two total eclipses of the sun, but you'll need plenty of dough and vacation time: The first occurs Feb. 7 and is visible south of Australia, and the second Aug. 1 visible in Siberia and China.

Even so, if skies are clear, we can stay home in 2008 and witness several beautiful and brilliant pairings of Jupiter with Venus. We'll see some three-way planetary conjunctions in August and September, and a fine complement of meteor showers.

We can't list them here, but there will also be frequent opportunities to spot the International Space Station during the year.

And, with luck, maybe another comet will flare to naked-eye visibility, as Comet Holmes did unexpectedly in 2007.

Armchair astronomers won't be left out in the cold, either. They can sit by the computer screen and watch as the Maryland-built Messenger spacecraft flies past the planet Mercury on Jan. 14. Scientists are hoping to snag their first closeup pictures of the planet since 1975.

In August, barring delays, NASA plans to launch its fifth and final manned servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The expedition to repair and upgrade the observatory should extend its lifetime and expand its powers of discovery.

The big lunar eclipse begins at 8:43 p.m. Feb. 20 as the full moon slips into the lower half of the circular shadow the Earth casts into space, gradually taking on a dim, eerie, copper color - the reflected light of all Earth's sunrises and sunsets.

There will be more to see that night. Saturn will stand just above and to the left of the moon during the eclipse, which reaches its midpoint at 10:26 p.m. and ends just after midnight. The bright star Regulus will be above and to the right. You can also use those markers during the eclipse to measure the moon's slow drift eastward along its orbit.

This will be the last total lunar eclipse visible here until Dec. 21, 2010 (for lottery players, that's 12/21/2010). We'll just have to will the clouds to stay away.

Here are more of the year's highlights. No telescopes needed.

2: It won't feel any warmer, but Earth is at perihelion - closest to the sun - at 7 p.m. (only 91.4 million miles).

4: The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks at 2 a.m. Should be a good show, if skies are clear.

5: The winter's latest sunrise is at 7:27 a.m. in Baltimore. Things only get brighter from here.

Venus rises with a crescent moon around 5 a.m. on the 5th.

19: The moon and Mars are closest - separated by a half-degree, or less than the width of your finger held at arm's length.

21: Mercury is low in the west after sunset. This week is our chance to spot the tiny planet just days after Messenger's flyby.