Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter — all the naked-eye planets except Saturn — will crowd the pre-dawn eastern sky in May, changing partners in a slow celestial dance that will continue for weeks.
There are several man-made events we can look forward to, as well, including periodic flyovers by the International Space Station.
On March 18, NASA's Messenger spacecraft returns to the planet Mercury. After three fly-by visits in 2008 and 2009, the Maryland-run mission will climax with mankind's first attempt to orbit a spacecraft around Mercury.
If it works, Messenger will settle in for at least a year of orbital studies of the planet closest to the sun. And Maryland will become the headquarters for those scientific investigations.
The new year will also likely see the last two launches of the space shuttle. Discovery, which was supposed to lift off in November, is now on the card for February. Endeavour would be next — and last — perhaps in April.
After that, manned U.S. space flight will be limited to Soyuz launches from the Russian space center at Baikonur Cosmodrome, and visits to the International Space Station.
So here's the rundown. Clip and tape to your fridge:
January: The Earth is closest to the sun (perihelion) on the 3rd, about 3 million miles closer than on July 4. Watch for the Quadrantid meteor shower in the early morning of the 4th. A new moon and hourly rates of 120 meteors under dark skies make this one of the best of the new year.
The year's latest sunrise follows, at 7:27 a.m. on the 5th. It all gets brighter from here on out. Brilliant Venus and — below and to the left — much dimmer Mercury are highest in the east an hour before dawn on the 8th and 9th.
Venus and a crescent moon join up in the east before dawn on the 30th.
February: Bright Jupiter and the young crescent moon are close in the west after sunset on the 6th. The first-quarter moon passes just south of the Pleiades star cluster on the 11th. Binoculars will help. On the 19th, the just-past-full moon stands at perigee, its closest approach to Earth this month. The event can result in extreme tides.
March: Daylight Saving Time begins on the 13th. Spring forward.
On the 15th, look for dim, steady Mercury very close to the right of bright Jupiter, low in the west 45 minutes after sunset. Three days later, on the 18th, NASA's Messenger spacecraft arrives, and Maryland engineers try to put it into orbit around Mercury for a year of scientific study.
Spring arrives with the vernal equinox at 7:21 p.m. on the 20th. Mercury is highest and brightest on the 22nd.
April: Saturn is at "opposition" — opposite the sun — on the 3rd, rising as the sun sets. It is the planet's closest and brightest appearance of the year. So the weeks surrounding the event are the best times to see the planet and its rings with a telescope.
Visit the Maryland Science Center any Friday night, weather permitting, for a free look at Saturn and its rings through the rooftop observatory's classic Clark telescope. Call 410-545-2999 to check the hours and weather.
May: Saturn might rule the night in May, but the other four naked-eye planets rule the dawn. It might be the planetary jamboree of a lifetime as Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury join in a month of close dancing, low in the east before dawn.