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2007 offers plenty of sights for stargazers

The Baltimore Sun

A new year arrives next week with a new set of wonders for anyone willing to step outdoors and look up.

Maryland's 2007 calendar for backyard stargazers includes two total lunar eclipses; a leisurely guided tour of four planets led by a May moon; striking assemblies of bright planets; and several fine meteor showers with no interference from the moon's glare.

The lunar eclipses are due March 3 and Aug. 28. Unfortunately, the March full moon rises already in full eclipse, while the August moon will set in full eclipse. We'll have to wait until 2008 to see a total lunar eclipse from start to finish.

No matter. Fair Luna will make it up to us in May, when she leads stargazers on a tour of Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter as the month glides by. Can't find Saturn? The moon will lead you there May 22.

If that doesn't work, wait until July 1, when a brilliant Venus will stand beside the ringed planet in the West, after sunset.

So you've never seen a meteor? Mark your calendar for the annual Perseid shower in August. The moon will be nearly new, so its glare won't dim the shooting "stars" in 2007. And astronomers say the Leonid shower in November will be the last one in this century that could produce a storm of up to 200 meteors per hour.

Closer to home, two more orbital launches are planned in 2007 from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va. The Minotaur-1 launch Dec. 16 was a hoot to watch from Baltimore. Check The Sun's Weather Page for alerts.

Here's the 2007 stargazers' calendar. Clip and save:

January --Earth is at perihelion on Jan. 3, "only" 91.4 million miles from the sun, and the closest of the year. The latest sunrise of the year follows at 7:27 a.m. on the 4th.

Venus makes a welcome return to the western sky after sunset this month, further easing a scarcity of naked-eye planets in recent months.

February --Groundhog Day is Feb. 2. Halfway between the solstice and the equinox, it was called Imbolg by the Celts, literally "in the belly," a reference to pregnant ewes and the start of spring.

Saturn is at opposition on Feb. 10, on the opposite side of Earth from the sun. It's up all night, rising as the sun sets. It's our best opportunity to see the ringed planet in 2007. No one ever forgets his first telescopic view of Saturn. Go find a street corner astronomer. The planet's rings will be edge-on to us by 2009, and you won't see them at all.

March --There's a total eclipse of the moon on March 3. The moon will rise in Baltimore at 5:57 p.m., already in full eclipse. If skies are clear, we can watch an hour later as the moon emerges again from the Earth's shadow and into full sunlight.

Remember: Daylight Saving Time begins on March 11 in 2007, not the first Sunday in April.

The vernal equinox marks the beginning of spring, at 8:07 p.m. EDT on March 20. Venus dominates the western sky after sunset. The moon passes Saturn as midnight approaches on the evening of the 28th.

April --Easter falls on April 8. It's usually defined as the first Sunday after the first full moon (April 4) on or after the vernal equinox (March 20).

On the darker side, the first of 2007's two Fridays-the-13th occurs this month. (In 2009 we'll have three.)

The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks on the 22nd. Look after 10:30 p.m. The moon's glare will fade after midnight.

May --Follow the moon this month on a tour of the planets. Look west on May 17 and see a slim crescent beside elusive Mercury. On the 19th, it climbs past a gleaming Venus - a striking pair. And on the 22nd it passes Saturn. Finally, on May 31, the full moon rises at sunset beside a brilliant Jupiter.

June --A busy month. June 1 will be one of the best opportunities in 2007 to spot Mercury, that small, steady "star" above the western horizon an hour after sunset. Venus gleams high above it.

Jupiter is at opposition - closest - on the 5th, a great time to have a look through a telescope. Or, steady your binoculars on something solid and see the four largest Jovian moons lined up on either side. Return over several nights, as Galileo did, and discover how they move in their orbits.

Expect the earliest sunrise at 5:39 a.m. in Baltimore on the 14th. The summer solstice arrives at 2:06 p.m. EDT on the 21st. It's also the longest day, about 15 hours of sunlight. The latest sunset occurs at 8:37 p.m. on June 28.

The 30th will also witness the second full moon of the month - what has come to be called a "Blue Moon."

July --Brilliant Venus cozies up to Saturn in the hour after sunset on July 1, less than the width of your pinky held at arm's length. Look in the western sky. You can't miss Venus. A much dimmer and more-distant Saturn stands above and to the right. Try binoculars.

As hot as it feels, the Earth is at aphelion on the 6th - its most distant from the sun in 2007 at 94.5 million miles. The seasons, of course, are caused by our hemisphere's tilt toward (or away from) the sun in winter and summer, not the planet's proximity to old Sol.

The second Friday-the-13th of the year occurs this month.

August --A new moon on Aug. 12 will keep the skies dark for 2007's annual Perseid meteor shower. The shower's peak is timed nicely for the Americas in 2007. It's a great year for this event, if the weather cooperates. Look after midnight on the 13th.

There's another total eclipse of the moon on the 28th. But once again we'll only see part of it, and it's way too early in the morning. Totality begins at 5:52 a.m., but the moon sets in Baltimore at 6:34 a.m. The next time Marylanders get to watch a total lunar eclipse in its entirety will be Feb. 21, 2008.

September --Just after 2 a.m. on Sept. 3, observers in North America can watch a last-quarter moon plow through the northern stars of the crowded Pleiades cluster. A telescope is best but binoculars will work.

Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish New Year 5768, begins at sunset Sept. 12 - as does Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

The northern autumn begins with the autumnal equinox at 5:51 a.m. EDT on the 23rd. Venus brightens the eastern sky for pre-dawn commuters.

October --Brilliant Venus, Saturn and a crescent moon cluster on Oct. 7 in the eastern sky before dawn. Saturn and Venus are closest on the 14th. That's the bright star Regulus to the upper right of the pair.

Look for the annual Orionid meteor shower to peak late on Oct. 20 and early on Oct. 21. Venus is at its highest above the sunrise on the morning of the 28th.

November --Turn your clocks back when you wake up Nov. 4 - the first Sunday in November. Watch the eastern sky before dawn on the 5th for another striking view of a crescent moon beside Venus.

The moon will set just before 1 a.m. on the 18th, darkening the skies for the annual Leonid meteor shower. This is expected to be the last chance for a major Leonid display this century - as many as 200 "shooting stars" per hour if we get lucky.

December --Look for the Geminid meteor shower on the nights of Dec. 13-14. The year's earliest sunset occurs at 4:43 p.m. on Dec. 8. Mars is nearest Earth - "only" 54.8 million miles away - on the 18th, although opposition won't occur until Christmas Eve.

The 21st is the shortest day of the year. Then the solstice arrives, and winter begins officially at 1:08 a.m. EST on Dec. 22. A full moon shines on last-minute Christmas shoppers the evening of the 23rd.

Did Santa bring you a telescope? Try it out on Mars. It rises in the East at sunset and stays up all night on Christmas night, outshining even the brightest star - Sirius. This is Mars' closest approach to Earth until 2016.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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