Anyone willing to step outside and look skyward in 1998 has a chance to see at least one impressive celestial event without even venturing out after dark.
It's a lunchtime eclipse of the sun next month.
But the new year's calendar for backyard astronomers also includes beautiful groupings of naked-eye planets, the occultation -- or disappearance -- of a bright star by the moon in March and a hoped-for meteor "storm" in November.
The solar eclipse Feb. 26 will be the next-to-last in this century. But to experience totality, Marylanders will have to travel.
The moon's 94-mile-wide shadow will cross the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean; Maracaibo, Venezuela; the island of Aruba; and Guadeloupe and Antigua in the Leeward Islands. The totality will last no more than four minutes, six seconds.
Travel agents say they began booking trips 3 1/2 years ago.
Rooms and flights for the eclipse are scarce to nonexistent.
Several Caribbean cruise liners will sail the line of totality. They, too, are booked. But call -- you might catch a cancellation.
The eclipse will be partial for eastern and Gulf Coast states, reaching 50 percent of totality in Miami, 25 percent in Atlanta and 27 percent in New Orleans.
In Baltimore, it will start at 12: 24 p.m. and reach a maximum 22 percent at 1: 14 p.m. as a slice of the sun's lower edge is darkened by the moon's dark disk.
"I plan to be set up at Harborplace so that passers-by at lunchtime can take a glimpse," said Herman Heyn, Baltimore's "Street Corner Astronomer." The Maryland Science Center also will help visitors see and understand the eclipse.
Weather permitting, they will project the sun's image through telescopes and pinhole devices onto paper screens. Heyn said it may be possible to see signs of increasing sunspot activity on the sun's surface.
(Never view a solar eclipse directly or through a telescope. It can quickly do permanent eye damage. Viewing instructions will be provided by the news media as the day of the eclipse approaches.)
Travel agents urge eclipse-chasers to book now for the century's last total eclipse of the sun, Aug. 11, 1999. The moon's shadow will race from Plymouth, England, across Normandy, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Totality will last at most two minutes and 24 seconds.
The next solar eclipse in North America will be partial (55 percent in Baltimore), on Christmas Day 2000. Or maybe that's the
Christmas it will snow.
A month-by-month guide for sky watchers:
* January: Look for the Quadrantid meteor shower, radiating from the northeastern sky, after 2 a.m. Saturday or Sunday. A moonless sky makes this a good year for this shower.
Sunday also brings the latest sunrise and perihelion -- Earth's closest approach to the sun (91.4 million miles).
Follow Jupiter and Mars each night until they rub shoulders in the west after sunset the 20th.
* February: That steady, yellowish star beside the moon Feb. 1 will be Saturn. On the 23rd, Venus shines its brightest just before dawn as the morning "star," joined by the waning crescent moon.
* March: On the 4th, the moon will occult -- pass in front of -- the bright star Aldebaran. Almost halfway up from the western horizon, it's the brightest star the moon occults.
In Maryland, watch the star wink out at 7: 28 p.m. as the first-quarter moon's dark edge moves across it from west to east. Aldebaran will re-emerge on the moon's bright side at 8: 29 p.m. Binoculars might help reveal the star as it reappears.
Spring arrives at 2: 56 p.m. EST on the 20th.
* April: On the 22nd, Jupiter and brighter Venus will be in very close conjunction -- a pairing -- rising low on the eastern horizon at morning twilight. They'll be separated by less than the width of your finger held at arm's length.
"Usually when you talk about a conjunction of planets, they're merely close. These will nearly touch," said Jim O'Leary, director of the science center's Davis Planetarium.
The waning crescent moon crowds both planets the 23rd.
* May: Just before dawn the 22nd and 23rd, look for a nice lineup -- left to right above the eastern horizon, Mercury, Saturn, Venus and the crescent moon.
Venus will consort with dimmer Saturn, to its left, the morning of the 29th. Look above the eastern horizon an hour before dawn.
* June: The earliest sunrise will be the 14th. The longest day (15 hours) will be the 21st. Summer arrives with the solstice at 10: 03 a.m. EDT the 21st. Up before dawn that day? Look east to see Venus rising with the crescent moon. The year's latest sunset will be the 27th.
* July: Earth reaches aphelion -- its farthest from the sun, 94.5 million miles -- the 3rd. Rediscover the Milky Way under dark skies around the new moon the 23rd. Go outside on a clear night, far from suburban lights. Take the kids.