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STAR BILLING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's 2001 at last, stargazers, and we have a space station. Cue the orchestra and bring up the "Blue Danube" waltz.

OK, so NASA's gawky International Space Station can't spin gracefully to the Strauss waltz, as Stanley Kubrick's big space-wheel did in his 1969 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

But at least this space station is real. It's permanently inhabited now and visited regularly by shuttles and supply craft from Earth. Best of all, you can see it easily from your back yard. It's sure to be one of the new year's most reliable targets for backyard stargazers.

The 2001 calendar also lists a host of beautiful morning and evening groupings of planets, and a good chance in November for a spectacular return of the Leonid meteor shower.

Sadly, there isn't another total lunar eclipse visible here until 2003. The new year offers Marylanders just one solar eclipse, brief and partial, in December. And if there's a naked-eye comet en route for 2001, no one has spotted it yet.

By comparison, sighting the International Space Station is a snap. And if you miss it, or clouds spoil the view, there is always another chance in a few days.

The space station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of 240 miles. It's visible anytime the station is in sunshine and observers below its orbital path are in darkness - before dawn or after sunset.

Its new, 240-foot solar panels have not boosted its visibility as much as many had hoped. But it is still pretty easy to find, even amid urban lights.

The space station is moving at 17,500 mph, so it's more likely to be mistaken for a jetliner than a star. It hustles across the sky in just three or four minutes.

You can get ISS sighting predictions, customized for your hometown, on the Internet at www.heavens-above.com. Just follow the instructions on the main page. The site will calculate the dates and times for your location and tell you where to look. Just print it out and post it on the fridge.

Be outdoors a few minutes early, with a wide, clear view of the sky. When you finally spot the ISS, you'll be astonished by the realization there are people sealed up in that thing.

Here is the rest of the backyard stargazing calendar for 2001:

January: The third millennium really began at midnight Jan. 1. The sun is at the peak of its 11-year activity cycle this winter. Be alert to news of a big solar storm that could bring the Northern Lights south to our latitude. You'll need a dark location to see them.

Tomorrow the Earth makes its closest approach to the sun, just 91.4 million miles away. The light you see left the sun 8 minutes and 10 seconds ago. The latest sunrise of the winter (7:27 a.m. EST) is on the 6th. Venus is glorious, high in the west after sunset.

February: The moon approaches Saturn late in the evening of the 1st, and brilliant Jupiter early evening on the 2nd. Your toddlers will be grown before these two giant planets are this close together again. On the 3rd, the moon passes the star Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull, 68 light years from Earth. Venus brightens all month.

March: Early risers on the 4th will see Mars brightening just above the dimmer star Antares (424 light years more distant) in the southern sky. Both are reddish, but Antares (literally, "Mars' rival") twinkles. Mars doesn't. The Vernal Equinox occurs at 8:31 a.m. EST on the 20th.

April: The Lyrid meteor shower peaks before dawn on the 22nd, with 15 or more meteors per hour and no moonlight to interfere. A thin crescent moon passes Saturn on the 25th and bright Jupiter on the 26th. Look southwest after sunset.

May: Look again on the 6th and 7th as swift Mercury rises to Saturn's upper right. Jupiter shines just above, the brightest of the three. Mercury moves up to Jupiter's upper right on the 15th. These are the year's best opportunities to see elusive Mercury in the evening sky.

June: A busy month. The full moon is just four degrees above bright Mars all evening on the 6th. Look in the southeast. The year's earliest sunrise is on the 14th, at 5:39 a.m. EDT.

On the 21st, rust-red Mars rises in the east at sunset, making its nearest and brightest appearance since the 1980s - just 42 million miles from Earth. Also on the 21st, summer arrives with the solstice at 3:38 a.m. It's also the longest day, about 15 hours in Baltimore.

July: The Earth is at aphelion - farthest from the sun - on the 4th. Sunlight needs 8 minutes and 27 seconds to traverse the 94.5 million miles to Earth. Venus and Saturn rise hand-in-hand - less than a degree apart - on the 15th. Look for them low in the east in the hours before dawn. The crescent moon makes it a threesome on the 17th.

August: Fickle Venus joins Jupiter in the east, and they make a brilliant pair after rising at 2 a.m. on the 6th. The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of the 12th. The Perseids typically produce 100 meteors per hour under ideally dark skies, but a waning moon will wash out much of the show.

September: The moon tours the planets, passing near Saturn early morning on the 10th, then Jupiter before dawn on the 12th and Venus on the 15th. It will pass a fading Mars in the evening of the 24th. Fall arrives with the Autumnal Equinox at 7:04 p.m. EDT on the 22nd.

October: The Harvest Moon - the full moon closest to the Equinox - rises fat and full in the east at sunset on the 2nd. Roust yourself from bed just this once, anytime between Oct. 28 and Nov. 7, for a year's-best look at bright Venus and a dimmer Mercury. They'll be less than a degree apart in the east-southeast, a half hour before sunrise.

November: Top forecasters - and they're getting better - say the 2001 Leonid meteor shower, after midnight on the 18th, will be the most spectacular of recent years for eastern North America. Some 2,500 meteors per hour, perhaps more, could fall as the Earth passes through dust left behind by the 1767 passage of comet Tempel-Tuttle. Find a dark spot far from city lights. The shower peaks after 4 a.m., and no moon will interfere. A better display is forecast for 2002.

From 7:39 p.m. to 8:39 p.m. on the 30th, the moon will pass in front of Saturn.

This "occultation" should be visible in the eastern and southern United States. The moon's glare will demand binoculars, at least. The Science Center will offer a telescopic view.

December: Saturn and Jupiter are at their brightest this month, appearing evenings in the southeast above the familiar constellation Orion. The Geminid meteor shower peaks after 4 a.m. on the 14th. Scientists think the Geminids are bits of an asteroid, not comet dust. Later on the 14th, if skies are clear, a partial solar eclipse (26 percent in Maryland) will be visible for 30 minutes before sunset.

The 21st will be the year's shortest day, with just 9 hours, 20 minutes of daylight. Winter arrives at 2:21 p.m. EST.

Jupiter is this year's "Christmas Star," rising at sunset, westward-leading all night. Cue carolers. Roll the credits.

In a graphic that appeared in yesterday's Today section, two planets were in the wrong order. The correct lineup is Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Also, the caption for the International Space Station was inaccurate. The space station is visible periodically, not daily. The Sun regrets the error.
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