The stars of 1992 Meteor shower opens the year's events in astronomy


GOT THE Recession Blues?

Well cheer up. The cupboard isn't entirely bare for 1992, at least not for backyard sky-watchers.

There will be a nifty meteor shower Saturday and two eclipses of the moon later in 1992. The best will be a total lunar eclipse on Dec. 9.

And it's all free.

Make plans now to blow out of bed at 3 a.m. or so on Saturday morning, Jan. 4, to catch the annual Quadrantid meteor shower.

Astronomers say this should be an excellent year for the Quadrantids, which peak in the hours before dawn. There will be no moon, making conditions ideal.

Find a dark place, away from urban lights, and allow 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Under ideal conditions, you may see 50 to 100 meteors an hour radiating from a point high above the northern horizon, and peaking about 5 a.m.

As for solar eclipses, it is going to be a lean year. The 1992 crop includes an annular, or ring eclipse at sunset on Jan. 4, visible almost exclusively from San Diego, Calif., with partial eclipses visible from the Rockies west.

For a total eclipse, you'll have to pack for the South Atlantic (June 30) or Alaska (Dec. 23). If you have money to burn, Scientific Expeditions Inc., of Venice, Fla., is offering an eclipse-chasing jet ride for just $5,000 per person. Call 1-800-344-6867.

Those of us who must stay home will have to pray for clear skies on Dec. 9, for what could shape up as one terrific dinner-hour eclipse.

The full moon will rise that day at 4:15 p.m. At 4:49 p.m., while it is still big and low in the eastern sky, it will enter the darkest part of the Earth's shadow and gradually be swallowed up by it.

From 6:06 p.m. until 7:21 p.m., the entire disk of the moon will be in darkness. If it is visible at all, it will appear only as an eerie, coppery disk, dimly lit by the indirect sunlight scattered into space by the halo of the Earth's atmosphere.

After the period of totality, the moon will slowly re-emerge into direct sunlight, becoming fully lit again at 8:30 p.m.

A partial eclipse on June 14 will darken 68 percent of the moon's face. Details on the June eclipse, and other events in 1992, are listed below.

JANUARY: Baltimore's "Street-corner Astronomer," Herman Heyn, recommends the bright constellation Orion for January viewing. It's high in the night sky. Look for Orion's belt, composed of three stars arranged in a strikingly straight line. With binoculars or a small telescope, look just below the belt for the Great Nebula, a hot cloud of luminous gas. "It's 1,500 light years away, but bright enough to see quite nicely with binoculars," he said. "People are so impressed by it they say, 'That's a slide.'"

FEBRUARY: Venus and Mars are in conjunction (at their closest) the morning sky Feb. 19 and 20. But you'll need a clear view and perhaps binoculars because they will rise as the morning sky is brightening. Venus is the bright "Morning Star" very low in the east; Mars is the faint reddish object about the width of two moons to the south. On the 28th and 29th, Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent moon will gather in the twilight sky, with Venus rising at 5:15 a.m. Mars and Saturn will be dimmest and hardest to spot.

MARCH: A good opportunity to spot tiny and elusive Mercury comes on March 6. Look about eight moon-widths south of the moon just after sunset. Spring arrives at 3:48 a.m. March 20.

JUNE: A partial lunar eclipse, covering 68 percent of the full moon, will be visible from Maryland between 11:27 p.m. EDT June 14 and 2:27 a.m. June 15. Summer arrives at 11:14 p.m. June 20.

JULY: Jupiter is the bright "Evening Star" this month, a pleasure to observe on clear, balmy evenings. With binoculars and something to steady your hands, try to spot the planet's four largest moons. They'll appear as tiny dots of light laid out in a straight line on either side of the planet. They are Callisto (farthest from Jupiter), Ganymede, Europa and Io (the closest).

AUGUST: With the trusty Perseid meteor shower blotted out by a nearly full moon this year, try waiting for a dark night to scan the Milky Way with binoculars. In summer, you're looking through dense clouds of stars in the "Sagittarius Arm" of our spiral galaxy, toward the crowded galactic center. In winter, the view is toward the galaxy's sparser outer reaches.

SEPTEMBER: The Harvest Moon shines Sept. 11. Fall begins at 2:43 p.m. Sept. 22.

OCTOBER: The Hunter's Moon is Oct. 11. The Orionid meteor shower is due on the 21st. It may produce a fair show of 25 meteors per hour before the moon rises and brightens the sky around midnight. The night of the 20th may also be worth watching, for this is a long event.

NOVEMBER: The annual Leonid meteor shower will occur on the nights of Nov. 17 and 18. The Leonids aren't the best, with just 10 per hour, but can surprise. Light from a quarter moon may obscure much of the display after midnight.

DECEMBER: The month's highlight will be the total lunar eclipse on the 9th. Venus is a brilliant Christmas star in the west this year, joined by Saturn on the 20th and 21st. If you prefer your Christmas stars in the east, reddish Mars will be brightening in December, rising in the east as the sun goes down. Winter begins officially at 9:43 a.m. Dec. 21.

What's up?

* Jan. 4: Quadrantid meteor shower

* Feb. 19-20: Venus and Mars in conjunction

* March 6: Mercury is visible

* March 20: Spring arrives at 3:48 a.m.

* June 14: Partial lunar eclipse

* June 20: Summer arrives at 11:14 p.m.

* Sept. 11: Harvest moon

* Sept. 22 Fall arrives at 2:43 p.m.

* Oct. 21: Orionid meteor shower

* Dec. 9: Total lunar eclipse

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