Events viewable once in a 'blue moon' Eclipses, comet on tap for stargazers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The eclipse is back.

After going without a total lunar eclipse visible from Maryland back yards during all of 1994 and last year, stargazers will be treated to a pair of them in 1996. Clean up the lawn chairs and set aside the evenings of April 3 and Sept. 26.

No solar eclipses will be visible here in 1996, and only two will be visible anywhere. Both are partial, and you'll have to spend the mortgage money to get somewhere to see them.

The rest of the year, is sprinkled with celestial events visible here (weather permitting) with the naked eye, binoculars or a small telescope. Among them are promising meteor showers, a blue moon, an approaching comet and several pretty lineups of the moon, stars and planets.

Here are highlights:

JANUARY: Earth is at its closest (perihelion) to the sun at 2 a.m. Thursday, only 91.4 million miles away, but an extra dog on the bed will do more to warm you. The latest sunrise of the winter occurs about 7:28 a.m. Friday; from then on, the dark winter mornings get brighter earlier.

The crescent moon passes Jupiter low in the east before dawn Jan. 18. It passes Venus in the west at dusk Jan. 22, and Saturn, also at dusk, Jan. 23. Saturn and Venus are most closely paired after sunset Jan. 31.

FEBRUARY: The last chance to see Saturn with its rings edge-on occurs Feb. 11 to 19. For the next 13 years, you'll see the rings from the "bottom," or southern, perspective.

Hope for clear skies the evening of Feb. 21 and watch the west after sunset for a beautiful pairing of a young crescent moon with Venus.

MARCH: Earth reaches the vernal equinox, and spring begins at 3:03 a.m. EST March 20. Venus is very high and bright in the west March 31.

APRIL: On April 3, watch for the first of the year's two lunar eclipses. Visible across most of North America, it will be a dinner-time event in Maryland. The moon will rise already in full eclipse, "which is nice," said Herman Heyn, known as Baltimore's street-corner astronomer. "It'll be sort of reddish, maybe a real big, coppery moonrise."

The moon will be entirely in the Earth's shadow from 6:26 p.m. to 7:53 p.m., when it will begin to drift back into direct sunlight. The show will be over by 9 p.m.

On April 19, look low in the west-northwest after sunset to see a crescent moon south (left) of Mercury, with brilliant Venus a bit higher. The moon will rise to pass Venus by April 21.

MAY: Venus remains the evening "star," but will pass between the sun and Earth in June and reappear in the morning sky in July. In May, it will be very bright. Good binoculars and a steady hand may reveal it as a thin crescent.

JUNE: If there's something you do only "once in a blue moon," this is your chance. A blue moon is the second full moon in one month. The last was Sept. 30, 1993. June's first full moon is on the first; the blue moon occurs just before midnight EDT on June 30.

The year's earliest sunrise occurs June 14. The summer solstice follows at 10:24 p.m. EDT on June 20, also the longest day of the year -- about 15 hours of daylight.

JULY: Jupiter is now the evening "star." It rises in the east at sunset July 4 and appears higher each night in the summer and early fall. Jupiter's four biggest moons are visible with good binoculars and something to steady them. The moons will look like pinpoints of light lined up on either side of the planet. Watch the moon pass close by July 27 and 28.

On July 5, the Earth is at aphelion -- its farthest point from the sun -- 94.5 million miles. The light you'll see left the sun 8 1/2 minutes earlier.

Venus, now the morning "star," shines in the east alongside a slim crescent moon just before dawn July 12.

AUGUST: With no moon to interfere, this should be a good year for the annual Perseid meteor shower. The meteors are debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, which last appeared in 1992. Visible for several nights, the shower will peak after midnight Aug. 12. If skies are clear, find a dark spot with a wide view of the sky, relax and enjoy. Peak rates are typically 50 to more than 100 meteors per hour.

SEPTEMBER: Fall begins at 2 p.m. EDT Sept. 22, the autumnal equinox. The year's second lunar eclipse will begin at 9:12 p.m. Sept. 26, as the Earth's shadow darkens the harvest moon. This time, the entire display will be visible from Maryland. Totality will last from 10:19 p.m. until 11:29 p.m. It's all over by 12:36 a.m.

OCTOBER: Just before sunrise Oct. 3, look for Mercury, bright Venus and reddish Mars lined up vertically over the eastern horizon. A partial eclipse of the sun will occur Oct. 12, visible if you are in northeastern Canada, Greenland, Europe or North Africa. The hunter's moon is full Sept. 26.

NOVEMBER: This year's Leonid meteor shower should peak after midnight Nov. 17, with rates of 10 to 15 an hour. Linked to comet Tempel-Tuttle, the Leonids periodically produce remarkable storms. Astronomers are expecting the next one in 1998, and Mr. Heyn suggests this year "is probably going to be a good one if the shower is building up in anticipation of a storm."

DECEMBER: The year's earliest sunset falls on Dec. 7. Bundle up for the annual Geminid meteor shower, peaking around midnight Dec. 13. The moon won't interfere. Typically between 50 and 80 per hour, this shower could outperform the Perseid. The Geminids are associated with a spent comet called 3200 Phaethon, now classified as an asteroid.

The winter solstice, and winter, arrive at 9:06 a.m. EST Dec. 21. It's the shortest day of the year, with nine hours and 20 minutes of daylight.

Davis Planetarium Director Jim O'Leary says stargazers should watch in the southwest after sunset late in 1996 for comet Hale-Bopp, which will reach peak brightness in the spring of 1997. "If it continues at its current pace, it could be the brightest seen in quite a while," visible to the naked eye even in the glare of suburban lights, he said.

Comet forecasting is notoriously risky, but some daredevils say the unusually large Hale-Bopp could be the brightest of the century. Stay tuned.

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Stargazers' calendar for 1996

* Feb. 11 to 19 -- Last chance to see Saturn with rings edge-on.

* Feb. 21 -- Young crescent moon pairs with the planet Venus.

* March 31 -- Venus is very high and bright in the west.

* April 3 -- Lunar eclipse.

* June 1 -- First full moon of month.

* June 14 -- Year's earliest sunrise.

* June 30 -- Blue moon.

* Aug. 12 -- Perseid meteor shower begins, visible several nights.

* Sept. 26 -- Second lunar eclipse.

* Nov. 17 -- Leonid meteor shower peaks.

Dec. 13 -- Annual Geminid meteor shower peaks.

* Late December -- Comet Hale-Bopp appears.

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