Reasons to keep eyes on the skies

Baltimore Sun

It's been nearly two years since Marylanders had their last opportunity to watch a total eclipse of the moon from start to finish. But at the end of 2010, they'll finally get another chance.

The stargazers' calendar for 2010 shows the lunar eclipse on Dec. 21 - when the moon slides through the Earth's shadow - will be total from 2:40 a.m. until almost 4 a.m.

It's not a convenient hour on any day, and especially taxing when it's cold and you have to work the next day. But if skies are clear, it will be well worth stepping outside to catch at least a few moments of the show.

"It will be a cold night, but the moon will be way high overhead, because ... when the sun is farthest south [at the solstice], the full moon crosses the sky very, very high up," said Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.

"The eclipsed moon is a really spooky sight," he said. It's dim and often a coppery color. But the color and brightness "depend critically on the state of the Earth's atmosphere at the sunrise and sunset line around the Earth." That's where the sun's light is filtered and bent so that it scatters dimly across the moon's face, giving it an eerie blush.

The last total eclipse witnessed in Maryland from start to finish was in February 2008, right after a snowstorm.

"It was really cold," recalls Baltimore's streetcorner astronomer Herman Heyn, who had his telescope out in Waverly to offer close-up views. Despite the cold, "we had a good number of lookers - some passersby, some knowing we'd be there ahead of time."

Marylanders who miss the 2010 eclipse will have to wait until April 15, 2014, to see the next one visible here from start to finish.

We'll definitely miss the new year's two solar eclipses - an annular or "ring" eclipse Jan. 15 visible in Africa and Asia, and a total eclipse July 11, over the Pacific. The next total solar eclipse visible in the United States is in 2017.

But there will be lots more to see in the new year. Mars and Jupiter will make brilliant appearances, sometimes in close company with Venus, Mercury and the moon. There will be some promising meteor showers, and several opportunities to see a slim crescent moon in strikingly close quarters with Venus.

Watch the WeatherBlog for more opportunities to see the International Space Station fly over Maryland, and for any unexpected events that arise.

"Most of the stuff that goes on in the sky is fairly changeless from year to year," MacRobert said. But "some of the best [events] are the ones that surprise us."

Here are the highlights:

January: The Earth is at perihelion at 7 p.m. Saturday, just 91.4 million miles from the sun, its closest approach this year. Sunrise on Monday will be the latest of the winter, at 7:27 a.m. in Baltimore. Mars is "opposite" the sun on the 29th, rising big and red in the east at sunset and visible all night. It stands beside the nearest - and biggest - full moon of the year. It's the Hunger Moon, only 56 Earth diameters away.

February: The 2nd is Imbolc, a "cross-quarter day," halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox and the "end" of winter as some reckon it. This could be a good year for the Alpha Centaurid meteor shower, on the 8th. Jupiter and Venus are a half-degree apart - less than the width of a finger held at arm's length - on the 15th. But they are so low in the west a half-hour after sunset they'll be hard to spot. The crescent moon nears Mars on the evening of the 26th.

March: Daylight saving time begins at 2 a.m. on the 14th. "Spring forward." A slim crescent moon appears close to Venus, low in the west after sunset on the 16th and 17th. Spring arrives with the vernal equinox, at 1:32 p.m. on the 20th. Saturn is at opposition - rising in the east at sunset - on the 21st. It's the best time for a memorable look at the ringed planet through a telescope.

April: Look low in the west after sunset on Easter Sunday - the 4th - for a close conjunction of bright Venus and the elusive planet Mercury. The week of the 20th is National Dark Sky Week. Turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. Rediscover the night sky. It's a good year for the Lyrid meteor shower, before dawn on the 22nd.

May: May 1 is Beltane, the old Celtic cross-quarter day, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The young crescent moon is striking on the 15th and 16th, close beside Venus in the west after sunset.

June: A busy month. Ruddy Mars and the blue-white star Regulus make a tight, mixed pair, high in the west after sunset from the 3rd to the 9th. The moon joins them on the 16th. The earliest sunrise occurs at 5:39 a.m. on the 14th in Baltimore. The summer solstice arrives at 7:29 on the 21st, followed by the latest sunset, at 8:37 p.m. on the 27th. The 21st is the longest day of the year, with 14 hours and 57 minutes of direct sunshine here.

July: At 1 p.m. on the 2nd we mark the mid-point of the year. The Earth is at aphelion on the 6th, its farthest from the sun this year at 94.5 million miles. There is a solar eclipse on the 11th. The path of totality crosses Easter Island and the southern tips of Argentina and Chile, and eclipse cruises are booking now. Mars and Saturn are less than 2 degrees apart at month's end. Look high in the southwest - above and to the left of brilliant Venus - after sunset on the 31st.

August: The 1st is Lammas, a cross-quarter day, midway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of Aug. 12/13. Venus, Mars and Saturn stand in a close triangle during the first weeks of August. Look west after sunset on the 13th. Venus is brightest, with the crescent moon below, to the left. Mars is closer to Venus, above and left. Saturn is farther away, to the right. This is the only Friday the 13th this year.

September: The crescent moon moves to within a degree of Venus, a striking pair in the west after sunset on the 11th. Mercury is highest in the western sky, after sunset, on the 19th. Jupiter is big and bright at opposition on the 21st, its closest approach to Earth in its 12-year orbit of the sun. Look southeast in the evening. Fall arrives with the equinox at 11:13 p.m. on the 22nd. The full Harvest Moon rises at sunset on the 23rd.

October: Jupiter dominates in the southwest each evening. On a clear night, take binoculars and try to spot the four Galilean moons, in a shifting alignment of dim dots on both sides of the planet. Jupiter rises with the moon on the 19th. The 31st is Samhane, a cross-quarter day, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Its echoes persist in our Halloween antics.

November: A slender crescent moon appears a half-hour before sunrise, just below brilliant Venus, in the east. Daylight saving time ends at 2 a.m. on the 7th. "Fall back." The Leonid meteor shower peaks before dawn on the 18th.

December: The year's earliest sunset occurs at 4:43 p.m. on the 7th. The full Long Night Moon will enter Earth's shadow at 1:32 a.m. It will be fully eclipsed from 2:40 a.m. until just before 4 a.m. The eclipse comes 16 hours before the winter solstice, near the longest night of the year. Jupiter is the evening Christmas Star in the west; Venus gleams before dawn in the east.

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