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Good heavens: Stars to behave in '95

In the new national spirit of "less is more," backyard stargazers will have to make do with fewer celestial spectaculars in the new year.

The 1995 calendar is barren of both solar and lunar eclipses visible in Maryland. And the best meteor shower of the year will be washed out by a full moon.

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But for binocular astronomers and early morning or evening commuters, there will be a nice assortment of pretty groupings of bright stars and planets, and several promising meteor showers.

"Some of the old regulars will be coming back to amaze and intrigue," said Jim O'Leary, director of the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium.

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That's not to say there aren't any spectacles for people with the money to fly to exotic places.

On April 29, plan to be in Piura, a city in northern Peru, which will be at the center line of an annular, or "ring" eclipse of the sun. The moon will appear a bit too small to fully cover the sun, leaving a brilliant ring of sunlight around the rim. The path of annularity will traverse the northern part of the Amazon basin, over the city of Belem, down Brazil's northern coast and out to sea.

On Oct. 24, a true total eclipse of the sun will pass over Agra, in northern India, site of the sublimely beautiful Taj Mahal. The Mogul-style tomb, built in the 1600s, should make an unforgettable backdrop. Otherwise, eclipse-chasers might try Delhi or Calcutta, India, or even Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam. From there, the moon's shadow sweeps out over the South China Sea.

For those who stay at home, here are some of the year's stargazing highlights.

JANUARY: The best month of the year. At 6 a.m. on the 4th, Earth is at perihelion, its closest approach to the sun (91.4 million miles).

The annual Quadrantid meteor shower is due on the night of Jan. 3-4, with no moonlight to interfere. Up to 85 "shooting stars" per hour are forecast, but these "can zoom up to something higher for short periods of time," said Mr. O'Leary. Find a place with a dark sky. The best time is after midnight.

Early risers this month can enjoy Jupiter as it moves higher each morning to meet Venus, the brighter "morning star." They're closest on the 14th. Look to the east just before dawn. The reddish star Antares twinkles just below. The waning crescent moon passes Jupiter on the 26th, then brushes by Venus the next morning.

FEBRUARY: Mars makes this year's closest approach to Earth (62.8 million miles) the night of the 11th. The bright, reddish object rising in the east at sunset will be most striking on the 14th, when it rises just north of the full moon. Venus is still the brilliant morning star, rising with a crescent moon just before sunrise on the 26th.

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MARCH: The moon makes a close pass by Mars on the evening of the 13th, by Jupiter before dawn on the 22nd and by Venus on the 28th.

APRIL: Daylight Savings Time starts at 2 a.m. on the 2nd. If the 13th dawns clear, train your binoculars on Venus, rising low in the east a half-hour before the sun. Beside it in close conjunction is a much fainter Saturn. "I'm always amazed at how many people notice these conjunctions before dawn," said Baltimore's street-corner astronomer," Herman Heyn.

Easter falls on April 16, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

MAY: If it's clear at sunset sometime during the first two weeks of May, you may get a glimpse of dim Mercury just before it follows the sun below the horizon. Look low in the west-northwest, just below the fuzzy star cluster called the Pleiades. On the 1st and 2nd, a crescent moon

will be setting just to the south of Mercury. On the 15th, look east to see the full moon rise with Jupiter after sunset.

JUNE: Around the 1st is the best time to see Jupiter at "opposition," or closest to Earth. With good binoculars and a steady hand, you may be able to see the four largest moons lined up on either side of the planet. They're the same "little stars" Galileo discovered in 1609.

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Summer begins officially with the Solstice, at 4:34 p.m. June 21.

JULY: Earth is at its farthest from the sun (aphelion -- 94.5 million miles) on Independence Day. It's the sun's higher angle and more direct rays that make it so darn hot. On the 5th, look for Mercury low in the eastern sky just before dawn. It's not easy; Copernicus never saw it.

AUGUST: Saturn's rings will be "missing" from backyard telescopes Aug. 10 as Earth passes through the sixth planet's "ring plane" for the second time this year. That's when the razor-thin rings appear exactly edge-on from Earth. They have been difficult to see all year, Mr. Heyn said, but they'll be at maximum visibility again in 2001.

This is a peak year for the annual Perseid meteor shower, Aug. 11 and 12. There were 400 per hour at times last year. Unfortunately, the nearly full moon will wash out many of the "shooting stars." But "it's probably worth a look," Mr. O'Leary said.

Mars and the moon flirt in close conjunction on the 30th.

SEPTEMBER: There will be a nice grouping of the waxing moon and Jupiter on the 1st. They'll line up with the bright star Antares in the south-southwest after sunset. The Harvest Moon will rise Sept. 8. Fall arrives with the Autumnal Equinox at 8:13 a.m. Sept. 23.

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Venus becomes the very bright "evening star" at sunset late this month. Then turn around to see yellowish Saturn rising after sunset in the southeast.

OCTOBER: The Hunter's Moon will rise Oct. 8. The annual Orionid meteor shower arrives Oct. 21-22. Only 25 to 30 meteors are likely per hour, but moonlight won't interfere. The moon passes Mars on the 25th, Jupiter on the next two nights. Standard Time returns at 2 a.m. Oct. 29.

NOVEMBER: On the 18th, grab your binoculars and look to the southwest horizon just after sunset for a beautiful view of Jupiter, Venus and Mars in a cluster. Jupiter is just above Venus, with Mars much fainter above and to the left. It gets even better on the 23rd, when Venus has moved toward Mars and a crescent moon joins the dance.

DECEMBER: The Geminid shower on Dec. 13-14 can yield 95 to 110 meteors per hour. Look early before the moon rises. The Winter Solstice occurs at 3:17 a.m. Dec. 22.

On the 23rd and 24th, Venus shines in the west after sunset as a beautiful Christmas Star, joined by a slender crescent moon. Try a photograph. It might make a nice greeting card for 1996.


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