Events viewable once in a 'blue moon' Eclipses, comet on tap for stargazers

January 02, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The eclipse is back.

After going without a total lunar eclipse visible from Maryland back yards during all of 1994 and last year, stargazers will be treated to a pair of them in 1996. Clean up the lawn chairs and set aside the evenings of April 3 and Sept. 26.

No solar eclipses will be visible here in 1996, and only two will be visible anywhere. Both are partial, and you'll have to spend the mortgage money to get somewhere to see them.

The rest of the year, is sprinkled with celestial events visible here (weather permitting) with the naked eye, binoculars or a small telescope. Among them are promising meteor showers, a blue moon, an approaching comet and several pretty lineups of the moon, stars and planets.

Here are highlights:

JANUARY: Earth is at its closest (perihelion) to the sun at 2 a.m. Thursday, only 91.4 million miles away, but an extra dog on the bed will do more to warm you. The latest sunrise of the winter occurs about 7:28 a.m. Friday; from then on, the dark winter mornings get brighter earlier.

The crescent moon passes Jupiter low in the east before dawn Jan. 18. It passes Venus in the west at dusk Jan. 22, and Saturn, also at dusk, Jan. 23. Saturn and Venus are most closely paired after sunset Jan. 31.

FEBRUARY: The last chance to see Saturn with its rings edge-on occurs Feb. 11 to 19. For the next 13 years, you'll see the rings from the "bottom," or southern, perspective.

Hope for clear skies the evening of Feb. 21 and watch the west after sunset for a beautiful pairing of a young crescent moon with Venus.

MARCH: Earth reaches the vernal equinox, and spring begins at 3:03 a.m. EST March 20. Venus is very high and bright in the west March 31.

APRIL: On April 3, watch for the first of the year's two lunar eclipses. Visible across most of North America, it will be a dinner-time event in Maryland. The moon will rise already in full eclipse, "which is nice," said Herman Heyn, known as Baltimore's street-corner astronomer. "It'll be sort of reddish, maybe a real big, coppery moonrise."

The moon will be entirely in the Earth's shadow from 6:26 p.m. to 7:53 p.m., when it will begin to drift back into direct sunlight. The show will be over by 9 p.m.

On April 19, look low in the west-northwest after sunset to see a crescent moon south (left) of Mercury, with brilliant Venus a bit higher. The moon will rise to pass Venus by April 21.

MAY: Venus remains the evening "star," but will pass between the sun and Earth in June and reappear in the morning sky in July. In May, it will be very bright. Good binoculars and a steady hand may reveal it as a thin crescent.

JUNE: If there's something you do only "once in a blue moon," this is your chance. A blue moon is the second full moon in one month. The last was Sept. 30, 1993. June's first full moon is on the first; the blue moon occurs just before midnight EDT on June 30.

The year's earliest sunrise occurs June 14. The summer solstice follows at 10:24 p.m. EDT on June 20, also the longest day of the year -- about 15 hours of daylight.

JULY: Jupiter is now the evening "star." It rises in the east at sunset July 4 and appears higher each night in the summer and early fall. Jupiter's four biggest moons are visible with good binoculars and something to steady them. The moons will look like pinpoints of light lined up on either side of the planet. Watch the moon pass close by July 27 and 28.

On July 5, the Earth is at aphelion -- its farthest point from the sun -- 94.5 million miles. The light you'll see left the sun 8 1/2 minutes earlier.

Venus, now the morning "star," shines in the east alongside a slim crescent moon just before dawn July 12.

AUGUST: With no moon to interfere, this should be a good year for the annual Perseid meteor shower. The meteors are debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, which last appeared in 1992. Visible for several nights, the shower will peak after midnight Aug. 12. If skies are clear, find a dark spot with a wide view of the sky, relax and enjoy. Peak rates are typically 50 to more than 100 meteors per hour.

SEPTEMBER: Fall begins at 2 p.m. EDT Sept. 22, the autumnal equinox. The year's second lunar eclipse will begin at 9:12 p.m. Sept. 26, as the Earth's shadow darkens the harvest moon. This time, the entire display will be visible from Maryland. Totality will last from 10:19 p.m. until 11:29 p.m. It's all over by 12:36 a.m.

OCTOBER: Just before sunrise Oct. 3, look for Mercury, bright Venus and reddish Mars lined up vertically over the eastern horizon. A partial eclipse of the sun will occur Oct. 12, visible if you are in northeastern Canada, Greenland, Europe or North Africa. The hunter's moon is full Sept. 26.

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