Look! Up in the sky! It's...

The Baltimore Sun

Marylanders will have plenty of reasons to step outdoors during 2008 and find a dark spot where they can gaze into the night sky.

The new year brings the first total eclipse of the moon, visible here from start to finish during evening hours, since October 2004.

The new year also promises two total eclipses of the sun, but you'll need plenty of dough and vacation time: The first occurs Feb. 7 and is visible south of Australia, and the second Aug. 1 visible in Siberia and China.

Even so, if skies are clear, we can stay home in 2008 and witness several beautiful and brilliant pairings of Jupiter with Venus. We'll see some three-way planetary conjunctions in August and September, and a fine complement of meteor showers.

We can't list them here, but there will also be frequent opportunities to spot the International Space Station during the year.

And, with luck, maybe another comet will flare to naked-eye visibility, as Comet Holmes did unexpectedly in 2007.

Armchair astronomers won't be left out in the cold, either. They can sit by the computer screen and watch as the Maryland-built Messenger spacecraft flies past the planet Mercury on Jan. 14. Scientists are hoping to snag their first closeup pictures of the planet since 1975.

In August, barring delays, NASA plans to launch its fifth and final manned servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. The expedition to repair and upgrade the observatory should extend its lifetime and expand its powers of discovery.

The big lunar eclipse begins at 8:43 p.m. Feb. 20 as the full moon slips into the lower half of the circular shadow the Earth casts into space, gradually taking on a dim, eerie, copper color - the reflected light of all Earth's sunrises and sunsets.

There will be more to see that night. Saturn will stand just above and to the left of the moon during the eclipse, which reaches its midpoint at 10:26 p.m. and ends just after midnight. The bright star Regulus will be above and to the right. You can also use those markers during the eclipse to measure the moon's slow drift eastward along its orbit.

This will be the last total lunar eclipse visible here until Dec. 21, 2010 (for lottery players, that's 12/21/2010). We'll just have to will the clouds to stay away.

Here are more of the year's highlights. No telescopes needed.


2: It won't feel any warmer, but Earth is at perihelion - closest to the sun - at 7 p.m. (only 91.4 million miles).

4: The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks at 2 a.m. Should be a good show, if skies are clear.

5: The winter's latest sunrise is at 7:27 a.m. in Baltimore. Things only get brighter from here.

Venus rises with a crescent moon around 5 a.m. on the 5th.

19: The moon and Mars are closest - separated by a half-degree, or less than the width of your finger held at arm's length.

21: Mercury is low in the west after sunset. This week is our chance to spot the tiny planet just days after Messenger's flyby.

Venus and Jupiter blaze in the east before dawn at month's end. Venus is the brighter of the duo.


1: Jupiter and Venus are closest, joined by the crescent moon on the 3rd and 4th.

24: Saturn is at opposition, rising in the east at sunset. It's the best time to see the planet's iconic rings in a telescope. No one ever forgets their first encounter with them.

27: It's Mercury's turn with Venus which is just below her new consort - very low in the east 45 minutes before dawn.

Jupiter watches, higher in the southeast.


Look for Mars and Saturn, high overhead in the evening as March begins. That's reddish Mars above the familiar stars of the constellation Orion. The bright stars Castor and Pollux - the heads of the Gemini twins - are directly overhead, and Saturn is high in the southeast, alongside the star Regulus.

20: Spring arrives with the Vernal Equinox at 1:48 a.m.


14-15: The moon passes the bright star Regulus, then nearby Saturn.


6-8: This will be the year's best opportunity to add Mercury to your life-list of planets. Look low in the west 20 minutes after sunset. A very young crescent moon joins the tiny planet on the 6th.

14: Or, look up when a faded Mercury stands at its highest point - 20 degrees above the west-northwest horizon after sunset.


8: Mars, Regulus and Saturn dominate the western sky in the evening. The crescent moon joins them this night, making a great trio tight enough to fit into a binocular view.

14: The earliest sunrise of the year occurs at 5:39 a.m. in Baltimore. Summer begins with the solstice, at 7:59 p.m. on the 20th. And the latest sunset occurs on the 27th, at 8:37 p.m. in Baltimore.


4: Earth is at aphelion, its farthest point from the sun this year - 94.5 million miles. So it's not a matter of distance: it's the northern hemisphere's tilt toward the sun in summer that makes it so hot.

9: Jupiter is at opposition, near its closest approach to the Earth this year - just 387 million miles away. The brightest object in the night sky this month except for the moon, the giant planet rises in the east at sunset and is high in the south by midnight.

This is the best time to see Jupiter through a telescope. With a decent pair of binoculars, sharp eyes and a car or a tree to steady your aim, you should be able to make out as many as four of the Galilean moons - Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto-- spread out in a line on either side of the planet's disk.

In the west after sunset, Mars drifts from Regulus to Saturn between the 1st and the 10th. The moon slips by on the 5th and 6th.

The two planets are closest on the 10th, separated by the width of your finger, held at arm's length.


1: Marylanders miss another solar eclipse. The path of totality will pass over northern Greenland, Siberia and northern China. Much of Europe and Asia will see a partial eclipse.

12: Watch for the annual Perseid meteor shower, which peaks between 1 a.m. and dawn. The moon will have set. Under clear, dark skies, we could see up to 60 meteors per hour.

13: Venus, Saturn and Mercury (left to right) are in a tight cluster - very low in the west a half hour after sunset. Mars stands higher, to the left. The moon passes Mercury on the 15th. Venus and Mercury are closest on the 20th.


Jupiter gleams above the southern horizon. Venus, Mars and Mercury hold court low in the west after sunset. Mars and Venus are in tight proximity on the 11th. Mercury is lower, to the left.

The bright star Vega is high overhead at 11 p.m. early in September, part of the Summer Triangle. The other two points, a bit farther east, are Deneb and Altair. Together they form a large right triangle in the sky.

22: Fall arrives with the Autumnal Equinox at 11:44 a.m.


6: The moon and Jupiter are close, low in the southwest in the evening. A slim crescent moon and Venus converge, low in the southwest at dusk on Halloween.


17: You can watch for the Leonid meteor shower after midnight, but a bright moon will wash out much of the show.

Jupiter and Venus put on a spectacular display this month as they converge in the western sky in the evening. They're closest on the 30th, joined by a crescent moon.


Venus and Jupiter continue to dazzle. But watch Venus nightly as she vaults higher into the evening sky, leaving Jupiter behind.

7: The earliest sunset occurs. The shortest day is the 21st, which also greets the Winter Solstice, at 7:04 a.m.

Venus becomes a brilliant evening or Christmas "star." Jupiter continues to sink into the sunset, with a final rally alongside the moon and Mercury on the 28th before disappearing into the sunset, headed for the morning sky.

That leaves Venus to light the western sky in the evening throughout the winter of 2008-2009.


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