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Stargazers' calendar for 2011

One of the most complex convocations of planets in memory will be the highlight of the new year for Maryland's backyard stargazers.

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.

The year holds no eclipses for Marylanders. But it will be graced by a series of beautiful pairings of bright Venus and a crescent moon, as well as a couple of fine meteor showers. And there's always a chance that one of the comets anticipated for the new year, or a new comet, will become bright enough to see with the naked eye.

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.

"We say the planets wander through the sky," said Jim O'Leary, director of the Science Center's Davis Planetarium. "The neat thing about that is we can actually see, from night to night, that they've shifted positions, from our perspective, as they move and we move, too."

Jupiter and Venus are the easiest to see. They're closest on May 9-13, within 3 degrees — 3 finger-widths held at arm's length. Venus is the brighter of the pair. Venus and Mercury are tight from the 7th to the 20th. Mars makes it a trio May 21, all within a 3-degree circle.

June: The earliest sunrise occurs on the 14th, at 5:39 a.m. in Baltimore. Summer begins at the summer solstice, at 1:16 p.m. on the 21st, followed by the latest sunset, at 8:37 p.m. on the 28th. On the 27th and 28th, look low in the east around 5 a.m. for (from lower left to upper right) bright Venus, dim Mars, the waning crescent moon and bright Jupiter.

July: Earth stands at aphelion on the 4th — its farthest from the sun in the year, 94.5 million miles.

August: It's a bad year for the annual Perseid meteor shower. It peaks on schedule, overnight on the 12th-13th, but it's also the night of the full moon — the Green Corn Moon. And that will wipe out our view of many fainter Perseids. Still, a warm night under the stars and a few bright meteors can be memorable.

September: This will be one of the year's best chances to spot Mercury, low in the eastern sky an hour or so before sunrise. Look on the 8th and 9th, when Mercury will be within 2 degrees of the bright star Regulus. The fall equinox occurs at 5:05 a.m. on the 23rd. Look that morning for Mars, just above and left of the waning crescent moon, in the east before dawn. The moon is new and closest to Earth on the 27th. Watch for high tides.

October: The full moon on the 11th is at apogee — farthest from Earth — and appears the smallest of the year. A very young crescent moon and bright Venus are paired in the west after sunset on the 27th. Jupiter is at opposition on the 28th, rising as the sun sets. It's the giant planet's closest approach of the year. Wait a couple of hours, then grab your binoculars and look for up to four Galilean moons, aligned on either side of the planet.

November: Daylight Saving Time ends Sunday, the 6th. Fall back. Midmonth, look for reddish Mars close beside the blue-white star Regulus, in the east after midnight. The pairing shows off the color difference. The moon spoils the Leonid meteor shower on the 15th/16th. But it makes a nice couple with Venus, in the west after sunset, on the 26th-27th.

December: The earliest sunset in Baltimore occurs at 4:43 p.m. on the 8th. Winter arrives with the solstice, at 12:30 a.m. on the 22nd. It's a great month to look at Saturn through a telescope, in the east before dawn. The planet's rings are tilted now by 14 degrees from edge-on, quite a sight. Venus is the Christmas Star. Look southwest after sunset.

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