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Clear skies tonight; space station a no-show

My clear-sky alarm went off this morning, alerting me to good star-gazing conditions in Baltimore after 9 p.m. tonight. Unfortunately, the International Space Station will not be in our skies, so we will NOT have an opportunity to watch the ISS and the shuttle Atlantis soar over Baltimore one after the other.

Still, the clear weather offers us a good chance to see Mars again - high overhead, still a bright, ruddy "star" in the evening sky. And pale-yellow Saturn is rising earlier each night. It's low in the east by 9 p.m., moving toward opposition on the 24th. At that point it will be rising at sunset, and climbing high in the sky by midnight. By month's end, Saturn will be as close as it will be all year, prime time once again for viewing the majestic planet and its rings through backyard, streetcorner or observatory telescopes. You'll never forget your first look at this iconic orb.

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Clear skies tonight; space station a no-show

In any case, these cold, crisp winter evenings are always a great time to go outside and re-acquaint ourselves with the bright stars and constellations of the northern winter sky. Orion, left, with its easy-to-spot three-star "belt" and, just below it, the fuzzy smear (red in this image; binoculars help) of the Orion nebula; brilliant Sirius (the brightest true star) below and to the left of Orion; lonely Procyon higher and more to the left; the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.

For those who have come to enjoy watching $100 billion of your hard-earned tax dollars at play in the night sky, the International Space Station and attached shuttle will make several convenient evening passes over Baltimore next week, between the 13th and the 16th. If NASA uses Atlantis to boost the station's orbit, as expected during this mission, the flyby times will change somewhat from their current predictions. So watch this space next week for details.

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The weather? Look for a chance of showers tomorrow, and a sharp, quick cold snap Sunday night and Monday. But before and after that, we can expect mostly seasonable temperatures. There is some talk of snow showers to our north and west, but nothing to worry about down here in the urban corridor. Still no real winter in sight.

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