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A guide to the galaxy for stargazers in '05


It would be stretching things to say the space spectaculars on tap for 2005 will have millions more of us out in the back yard peering up into the night sky.

That's because the most astonishing celestial events on the stargazing calendar in 2005 are likely to require more time in front of a TV or a computer than out under a sparkling dark sky.

For example, on Jan. 14, if all goes well, millions may be watching as the Huygens probe -- released Friday from the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn -- drops by parachute onto the mysterious surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, cameras blazing.

"It will be kind of exciting to see if it lands -- and if it lands on land or liquid," says Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. "It's one of those mysterious places we've always wondered about."

Science Center's Space Link exhibit will provide wall-to-wall coverage of this and other missions in 2005, including the planned launch of the space shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven, between May 12 and June 3.

That will be the first since the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven Feb. 1, 2003.

And if the scheduled Jan. 12 launch of the Maryland-led Deep Impact mission goes as planned, we may be able to watch via TV or Web cast July 4 as scientists blast an 800-pound projectile into Comet Tempel 1. Will the comet blow apart? Scientists will find out the same time we do.

"They're thinking that when it hits, the comet might get bright enough to be seen by eye, and certainly by telescope," O'Leary says. The Science Center plans a public event with whatever video hookups are available, and University of Maryland staffers on hand as guides.

But there will be plenty to look for out in the back yard, too, in 2005. One of the first will be Comet Machholz, a new visitor from the outermost reaches of the solar system.

It's not nearly as bright as comets Hyakutake (1996) and Hale-Bopp (1997). But it's already visible in Maryland's evening skies with binoculars, and getting more easily visible to the naked eye.

It is climbing northward all during January, passing just west of Orion on Jan. 7 and 8.

Follow the three stars of Orion's belt upward, past the bright star Aldebaran to the pretty Pleiades cluster. Scan with binoculars just beyond there. Look for a pale, greenish-gray fuzz ball moving a bit farther north each night. The Science Center's "First Night" event on New Year's Eve, from 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., will include a peek at the comet, weather permitting.

A solar eclipse April 8 won't be visible from Baltimore.

The moon's shadow will run across the Pacific Ocean, making landfall in Costa Rica and Panama before crossing the northern end of South America.

But if you're vacationing in Florida or the Caribbean, you'll see a partial eclipse. In Miami, more than a third of the sun's disk will be covered by the moon. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, it will max out at 60 percent.

We won't see another total eclipse of the moon in its entirety from Maryland until February 2008. But there's still plenty to see for those who take the time to look up.

January: Earth is at "perihelion" on New Year's Day -- its closest approach of the year to the sun. Sol is 7 percent brighter than in July, though it feels no warmer. At 6 p.m. we'll be "only" 91.4 million miles from the sun's toasty thermonuclear furnace.

The latest sunrise of the year occurs at 7:27 a.m. on the 4th in Baltimore.

Pale yellow Saturn is at "opposition" on the 13th -- opposite from the sun in the sky and only 750 million miles away. It rises brightly in the east as the sun sets in the west, rising high overhead at midnight. Look for it northeast of Orion, and south of Castor and Pollux, the twin stars in Gemini.

On the 23rd, the moon passes between the bright star Pollux and Saturn.

February: The winter sky offers plenty of bright stars and constellations. Start with Orion the Hunter, high in the evening sky and easily spotted thanks to his belt of three bright stars in a straight line.

The belt points down to Sirius, the brightest true star in the sky and fifth closest to Earth at just 8.6 light years. Follow the belt's line upward the same distance to reddish Aldebaran, the "eye" in Taurus, the bull. It's a giant star 40 times the size of our sun, but 60 light years away.

March: Elusive Mercury will be easiest to see at mid-month, a very small, steady dot over the western horizon a half-hour after sunset. A very slim crescent moon will stand alongside Mercury, to its left, on the 11th.

Spring arrives with the vernal equinox, at 7:33 a.m. on the 20th. That's when the sun passes northward across the celestial equator -- the plane of Earth's equator extended outward into space.

April: Jupiter is at opposition on the 2nd, rising big and bright in the east at sunset, climbing high in the sky by midnight. You can't miss it, and this is a great time to hoist some binoculars and look for its largest moons lined up on either side -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

These are the moons Galileo first saw with his crude telescope Jan. 7-11, 1610. Look again in a night or two and see how they've moved. That's how Galileo figured out they were orbiting the planet.

May: Venus returns to the evening sky in May, poking through the twilight, low in the west after sunset, by mid-month. The moon passes Jupiter on the 19th.

June: The longest day of the year (with about 15 hours of daylight) arrives with the summer solstice, at 2:46 a.m. EDT on the 21st.

That's Saturn, bright Venus and Mercury crowded into a tight cluster in the western sky after sunset on the 25th -- close enough to hide behind your fingertip held at arm's length.

The latest sunset of the year in Baltimore occurs at 8:37 p.m. on the 27th.

July: Aphelion -- the point in its orbit when the Earth is farthest from the sun -- occurs at 1 a.m. on the 5th. We'll be 94.5 million miles away, but it won't make things a bit cooler.

The crescent moon joins Venus and Mercury low in the west after sunset on the 8th. It passes Jupiter on the 13th.

August: A slim crescent moon passes bright Jupiter on the 9th.

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks around the 12th. These meteors are fast, bright and often leave persistent trails. The moon will set by the time the show starts after 10 p.m., enhancing the view.

September: On the 1st, bright Jupiter and eight-times-brighter Venus are just 1 degree apart in the western sky after sunset -- their closest since a similar conjunction in November.

The crescent moon joins the party in the following days. The dimmer star nearby is Spica -- actually a double star 245 light years away. The light you see left the star in about 1760.

The autumnal equinox brings the official start of fall at 6:23 p.m. EDT on the 22nd.

October: Mars makes its closest approach to Earth on the 29th, about 43 million miles away. The Red Planet is brilliant high above the eastern horizon in the evening. It won't be any nearer again until 2018.

It's the best time in the two planets' orbits to launch spacecraft toward Mars. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is due to lift off in August.

November: Mars is at opposition on the 6th, rising as the sun sets and high overhead at midnight, a good time to have a look through a telescope.

The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks on the 17th, but light from the nearly full moon will spoil the faintest of the meteors. Have a look after 11 p.m.

December: The sun sets in Baltimore at 4:43 p.m. on the 7th. It's the earliest sunset of the year. The shortest day is the 21st, with just nine hours and 24 minutes of daylight in Baltimore. The winter solstice arrives the same day, at 1:35 p.m.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks on the 14th this year. The Geminids drew lots of eyeballs in 2004 because of a number of bright green "Earth grazers" that plowed across the evening sky a few days before the peak. But a bright full moon will obscure many of the dimmer sort in 2005.

Venus is brilliant as the Christmas "star" this year, high in the western sky after sunset.

For information about Stargazing Fridays at the Maryland Science Center, call 410-545-2999 after 5 p.m.

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