Things are looking up for 1993 -- eclipses, meteors, planetary conjunctions


OK, so you didn't get that 10-inch, $2,500 Schmidt-Cassegrain LX200 telescope you asked for, and the Space Telescope Science Institute laughed at your request for time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Not to worry.

If you can crane your neck in the backyard or steady a pair of binoculars on the roof of your car, there will be much to see in the night sky in 1993.

Mark your calendar for a series of promising meteor showers, a pretty conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in early November and a total eclipse of the moon just after Thanksgiving.

Also, 1993 is not too soon to start thinking about where you'll be the second week of May 1994 and how you'll get there.

On May 10, 1994, a solar eclipse -- a total annular, or "ring," eclipse in which the moon appears too small to block light from the sun's rim -- will race across the country from El Paso, Texas, to upstate New York and northern New England. In Maryland, it will appear as a partial solar eclipse.

As for 1993, the new year will be a washout for solar eclipse aficionados, though a partial eclipse of the sun will be visible May 21 north and west of a line from Texas to northern New York state. It will not be visible in Maryland.

Also, no bright comets are known to be headed our way in 1993. But backyard astronomers are an ever-hopeful group.

"Anything is possible," said Herman Heyn, Baltimore's "street-corner astronomer." "In fact, we are long overdue for a visit by a comet bright enough to be deemed spectacular. Maybe we will be treated to such an event in 1993."

For the country's lunar-eclipse watchers, the year holds two offerings. The first, on June 4, will be visible only from the West Coast, however. The second will be visible here, weather permitting, beginning at 11:40 p.m. Nov. 28.

With this lunar eclipse, and some convenient evening appearances of brightly lighted planets, "it's really working out to be a pretty good year," said Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center.

Details of those events and more:

JANUARY: Last night at 10, Earth was at perihelion -- its closest approach (91.4 million miles) to the sun. The year's latest sunrise came this morning at 7:27 a.m.

Mars is at opposition -- its closest to Earth (58 million miles) and brightest -- Thursday, rising when the sun sets. Look for a bright, reddish-orange "star" rising in the east. The twin bright stars accompanying Mars as the new year begins are Castor and Pollux.

FEBRUARY: Venus, now the evening star, will be at its brightest Feb. 24. Look to the west after sunset that night for a beautiful pairing of Venus and the waxing moon. With binoculars, good eyes and a steady hand, you may see the planet's delicate crescent phase, similar to the moon's.

MARCH: The vernal equinox, and spring, arrive officially at 9:41 a.m. on the 20th. Jupiter is at opposition on the 30th, rising brightly in the east at sunset. With binoculars, look for as many as four of Jupiter's moons -- tiny pinpoints of light on either side of the planet.

APRIL: Easter -- defined by Western tradition as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox -- falls on April 11 this year.

MAY: Venus, having passed in front of the sun, is now the morning star and reaches its brightest on May 7. Look eastward before dawn.

JUNE: The earliest sunrise of the year occurs at 5:36 a.m. on the 14th. The summer solstice occurs at 5 a.m. on the 21st. The year's latest sunset comes at 8:38 p.m. on the 27th.

JULY: Earth is at aphelion -- its farthest from the the sun, about 94.5 million miles -- at 6 p.m. on July 4.

AUGUST: The Perseid meteor shower is due the night of Aug. 11-12. The recent passage of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the source of the material in the Perseid shower, could mean a rewarding display.

"It's worth making an effort to see," Mr. O'Leary said.

For this and all meteor showers, find a dark spot and allow 20 to 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust.

Yellowish Saturn is at opposition Aug. 19, the brightest object in the east as it rises at sunset.

SEPTEMBER: Fall arrives at 8:22 p.m. on the 22nd. The harvest moon on Sept. 30 will also be a blue moon -- or second full moon in a month. The first full moon will be Sept. 1. A blue moon occurs once every 2.7 years, Mr. Heyn said, but it's not actually blue.

OCTOBER: The hunter's moon will rise at sunset on the 30th.

NOVEMBER: Kick yourself out of bed early Nov. 8 to see a lovely conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the east before dawn. Venus is the brighter of the pair, headed lower into the sun each morning as Jupiter rises higher.

The annual Leonid meteor shower is due on the 17th. It's not generally a big producer, Mr. O'Leary said, "but it has briefly, in certain years, produced rates of thousands or tens of thousands per hour." But as those dates approach, the show may get better. "It's one to watch," he said.

The total lunar eclipse on Nov. 29 will be visible high in the sky beginning at 11:40 p.m. and ending at 3:12 a.m.

"If you missed the recent [Dec. 9] lunar eclipse, here's your chance to make up for it. No optical aid is required," Mr. Heyn said.

DECEMBER: The earliest sunset of the year occurs at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 7. The Geminid meteor shower is due the night of Dec. 13 and could bring as many as 60 meteors per hour. It begins an hour after sunset. There will be no moonlight to compete with the display. Winter begins at 3:26 p.m. on the 21st.

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