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Total solar eclipse is highlight of 2017 sky watching calendar

Here's what to look for in the night sky -- and during the day -- with a total solar eclipse on the calendar.

While 2017 will bring a typical array of meteor showers and distant planet sightings, the most dramatic celestial event of the year won't be at night.

Barring bad weather, the nation will turn its gaze to the sun for a total solar eclipse across a slice of the middle of the country in August. Most of the sun's light will be briefly obscured in Maryland.

No lunar eclipses will be easily visible at night. The moon's brightness could outshine some meteor showers and there are no "blue moons" this year. There is only a single "supermoon," coming at the end of the year.

Still, there will be plenty to see. Here's what to look for:

January

The year's latest sunrises come for the first week and a half of January. The sun peeks above the horizon at 7:26 a.m. for that stretch.

Before dawn Jan. 3 or Jan. 4, some Quadrantid meteors will be visible. The shower can produce 50 to as many as 100 meteors per hour in a dark sky.

When the sun rises that same morning, it will be at its closest point to Earth in 2017, about 91.4 million miles away. The Earth is always at its closest to the sun, a moment known as perihelion, in early January, during our winter and the Southern Hemisphere's summer. In early July, at what is known as aphelion, the sun will be 94.5 million miles away.

February

It could be difficult to discern, but the moon will darken slightly as it passes through the edge of Earth's shadow on Feb. 10. It might be noticeable from about 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. if skies are clear of clouds and light pollution.

Venus, always a brilliant starlike light, will be at its brightest for the year Feb. 17. Find it at nightfall in the western sky next to Mars. At the end of the month, the waxing crescent moon will appear near the two planets, as well as the faint Uranus, which you can see next to Mars using binoculars.

An annular eclipse, when the moon blocks all but an outer ring of the sun's light, occurs Feb. 26. It's only visible across southern South America and the South Atlantic Ocean, but a webcast hosted by the Slooh Community Observatory will be available at live.slooh.com.

March

Spring arrives with the vernal equinox at 6:29 a.m. March 20 — the moment Earth's axis is tilted neither toward nor away from the sun, and the northern and southern hemispheres are getting equal exposure to its warmth. The sun begins spending more time above the horizon than below it a few days before the equinox in Baltimore, with about 12 hours and 1 minute of sunshine on March 17.

April

Jupiter — the third-brightest object in the night sky after the moon and Venus — reaches its greatest brightness of the year April 7. In early April, you should be able to see its four largest moons using binoculars, and even with a small telescope, you might see some detail of the gaseous giant's clouds.

If you want to learn how to use a sundial, mid-April is a good time to do it. It is one of four times a year when clock time matches up precisely with the solar clock — the sun reaches its highest point in the sky (known as solar noon) when the clock says noon.

About 20 Lyrid meteors may be seen per hour the night of April 22 and the early morning of April 23, the peak of a meteor shower that runs April 16-25.

May

The Eta Aquarid shower can produce as many as 30 meteors per hour the nights of May 5 and/or May 6. A waxing gibbous moon could block out some fainter meteors, though.

June

You may know the term "supermoon," but a "micro-moon" occurs June 9. The Full Strawberry Moon coincides with lunar apogee, the moon's farthest point from Earth in its orbit, making it appear smaller than usual.

Saturn's face will be fully illuminated by the sun, as seen from Earth, on June 15. Its rings and some of its moons will be visible using a telescope.

The summer solstice, when Earth's axis tilts the Northern Hemisphere farthest toward the sun, occurs at 12:24 a.m. June 21. It brings about 14 hours, 56 minutes of sunlight that day. The earliest sunrises of the year come at 5:39 a.m. June 10-17, and the latest sunsets occur at 8:37 p.m. from June 22 through July 3.

July

Up to 20 meteors per hour can appear during the Delta Aquarid shower's peak the night of July 28 into the early morning of July 29, but they are also visible anytime from mid-July into mid-August. Meteor showers are named for the point from which the shooting stars appear to radiate, but they can be seen anywhere in the sky. They are best viewed between midnight and dawn from a spot with an unobstructed view of the sky and as little urban light pollution as possible.

August

The Perseids meteor shower, one of the best of the year, can produce 60 to 100 meteors per hour at its peak, the night of Aug. 12 and morning of Aug. 13.

On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina. Sky gazers will descend upon cities along what is known as the eclipse's path of totality — including Madras, Ore.; Casper, Wyo.; St. Joseph, Mo.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Columbia, S.C. — to see the moon gradually block the sun's light, and briefly obscure it completely.

In Maryland, 80 percent to 90 percent of the sun will be blocked at the moment of greatest eclipse, because the state is several hundred miles northeast of the path of totality. Get special eclipse glasses or build an eclipse viewer to watch it safely — the sun's rays can cause eye damage even during an eclipse.

September

The autumnal equinox arrives at 4:02 p.m. Sept. 22. The northern and southern hemispheres will again be receiving equal amounts of sunlight, and day and night will be roughly equal. In Baltimore, the sun spends less than half the day above the horizon starting Sept. 26.

October

Two meteor showers occur in October — the Draconids, a minor shower that only produces about 10 meteors per hour the night of Oct. 8, and the Orionids, meteors that come from the trail of Halley's Comet, the night of Oct. 20 and morning of Oct. 21. A nearly full moon will block many Draconids, but as many as 20 Orionids per hour might be visible at that shower's peak.

November

Venus and Jupiter will come together for a rare conjunction, when they appear practically on top of each other, the morning of Nov. 13. Look in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

The Leonid meteor shower peaks the night of Nov. 17 and morning of Nov. 18, and with a nearly new moon, as many as 15 meteors could cross the sky each hour.

December

The only "supermoon" of the year comes with the Full Cold Moon, also known as the Long Night's Moon, on Dec. 3. Full moons always rise around sunset and set at sunrise because they occur when the moon and sun are on opposite sides of Earth.

The year's best meteor shower, the Geminids, peaks the night of Dec. 13 and morning of Dec. 14. As many as 120 meteors can streak across the sky, and sometimes appear in different colors.

The winter solstice comes at 11:28 a.m. Dec. 21, marking the start of winter and the point at which the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun. The year's earliest sunsets come at 4:43 p.m. Dec. 2-11.

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