1991 to feature several astronomical shows

December 31, 1990|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

An eclipse of the sun on July 11 will highlight the 1991 calendar for back-yard astronomers.

Unfortunately, this eclipse won't be total in Maryland.

The eerie darkening of the sun as the moon passes in front of it will be total only along a narrow corridor running southeastward from the big island of Hawaii to the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California, portions of the Mexican mainland from Mazatlan to the southeast, in Costa Rica, central Colombia and Brazil.

Mexico City is in the path of totality, but it's likely to be cloudy.

And if you don't have plane tickets and hotel reservations now, you're going to be hard-put to see the space spectacular at its best.

This eclipse is sold out.

Hawaii and Baja California are the most popular viewing sites, but air transportation, car rentals and housing are all but sold out to the tens of thousands already booked to go. All rooms in Baja were sold out 18 months ago.

If you can get there, it will be a brief show. The period of totality will last four minutes in Hawaii, six to seven minutes in La Paz, Baja or Mazatlan on the mainland.

From Maryland, the eclipse will be only partial, and barely noticeable if you're not looking for it. A maximum of about 15 percent of the sun's disk will be darkened by the moon's shadow. It will occur at about 2:20 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

If you can't get to Hawaii or Mexico, drive or fly as far south and west as you can. The eclipse will reach nearly 80 percent in Los Angeles. Only northern New England will miss out entirely.

It's the first total eclipse to approach the continental U.S. since 1984, and it will be 1998 before we get our next chance to glimpse one.

If you're stuck here at home all year, here is a calendar of other celestial events to watch for in 1991:

* JANUARY: On the 1st, get a pair of binoculars and look for Venus on the southwestern horizon at dusk. That pale yellow "star" very close by to its upper right is Saturn. Jupiter is brilliant in the east after sunset, reaching opposition (on the opposite side of Earth from the sun) on the 28th. Look for four of Jupiter's moons with binoculars.

On the night of Jan. 29-30, the full moon will pass through the Earth's outermost shadow, creating a "penumbral eclipse." It's a rather faint dimming, and not as impressive as an "umbral" eclipse, in which the moon passes through the dark, central part of Earth's shadow. But give it a try. It will appear like a slight shading of the moon's northeastern quadrant. Look for it starting at 11:00 a.m. It will last about four hours. Jupiter shines close by.

* MARCH: On the 21st, the crescent moon will pass in front of the Pleiades star cluster at about 7 p.m. With binoculars or a small telescope, watch the stars of the Pleiades wink out, one by one, as the moon passes, then wink on again on the other side of the moon's disk an hour or so later.

* JUNE: From June 14 to 17, Jupiter, Venus and Mars will all be crowded together in a tight cluster in the western sky just after sunset. Venus is the brightest, then Jupiter, then Mars.

On June 26, another penumbral eclipse of the moon will be visible in Eastern North America, from about 8:45 p.m. until 11:45 p.m.

* JULY: The big news in July will be the total eclipse on July 11. Venus is at its brightest in the west, at sunset on the 17th.

* AUGUST: The annual show in August is the Perseid meteor shower, peaking on Aug. 12. It's been a disappointment in recent years, but worth a try after midnight if the weather is clear.

* SEPTEMBER: Venus at its brightest on the 28th, predawn, in the eastern sky.

* OCTOBER: On Oct. 16 and 17, Venus and Jupiter are in conjunction (side by side) again, this time in the morning sky just before dawn in the east.

* DECEMBER: Look for the Geminid meteor shower around Dec. 13. It was quite spectacular in 1990, outperforming the August Perseids. It should be good again in 1991, especially after moonset at midnight.

On Dec. 21, a slight partial eclipse of the moon will be visible across North America. The darkest (umbral) past of the eclipse starts at 5 a.m. It will reach its maximum of 9 percent, nipping the southern edge of the moon's disk, at 5:33 a.m. It will be all over at 6:06 a.m.

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