The stars are the stars of the year

Astronomy: 1999 will be a heavenly year for eclipses, meteor showers and various rarely seen alignments of moon and planets.

January 11, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Switch off "Hollywood Squares." Eschew People magazine. The backyard astronomy calendar for 1999 is crammed with stars. Not to mention planets, meteors and other cool stuff to look for in the night sky this year.

With nothing more than sharp eyes or binoculars and maybe a blanket, you'll be able to take in some beautiful alignments of the moon and bright planets, and a series of meteor showers undimmed by the glare of moonlight. There will also be two "blue" moons this year, and one month -- February -- with no full moon at all. That happens once every 19 years.

No bright comets are expected, and eclipse fans unwilling to travel will have to wait until 2000 to see the sun or the moon darkened over Maryland.

But for those who can travel, this year will be huge. Aug. 11 will bring "The Great European Eclipse of 1999." A total solar eclipse, it follows one in the Caribbean last February and is the last until June 2001 in southern Africa. The path of totality stretches from southwest England, across France, southern Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania and then on to Turkey, northern Iraq (not recommended), Pakistan and India.

Thanks to high populations living nearby, tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people are expected to pack the path of totality -- just 69 miles wide at its maximum -- as the moon's shadow crosses the Old World. Cloudy skies are more likely on the European end of the path than in the East.

Stay-at-home Marylanders may glimpse the start of the event. Jim O'Leary, director of the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium, says that when the sun rises at 6: 15 a.m. on Aug. 11, it will be 20 percent eclipsed, diminishing to zero in 15 minutes.

The science center's rooftop observatory will have no clear view of the sunrise. But a camp-in program is planned, with a TV broadcast of the eclipse at 10 a.m. live from the Black Sea.

If you miss it all, stay healthy. You can catch a partial solar eclipse (55 percent in Baltimore) anywhere in the lower 48 on Christmas Day 2000. (What will the mystics say about that?) The next total solar eclipse in the United States will occur Aug. 21, 2017, from Oregon to South Carolina.

More goodies for 1999:

January: Venus returns to the evening sky, getting brighter and higher above the sunset each month through May. Let the moon be your guide this month. The waxing lunar crescent passes Venus on the 18th, Jupiter on the 21st and Saturn on the 24th.

A "blue" moon -- a second full moon in one month -- occurs on Jan. 31.

February: No full moon at all this month. Traditionally, the full moon in February was known as the Hunger Moon, rising in a season of scarce food and game.

The big show is an increasingly close encounter between Venus and Jupiter. As the month goes by, look for the two bright planets approaching each other low in the west in the hour after sunset. "It's the best evening grouping of these two planets in 50 years," says O'Leary.

On the 23rd, the two lovers tango as near as one-fifth the diameter of a full moon. Venus is always brighter. The crescent moon joins their dance on the 18th.

"They'll really attract attention," says Herman Heyn, Baltimore's "Street Corner Astronomer." He'll have both planets in the field of his telescope for the public to see. Look for him on or about that date behind the Rotunda shopping center in Baltimore.

March: The bright planets are lining up above the western horizon after sunset. On the 3rd, that's Jupiter nearest the horizon, with Venus brighter and higher, and pale yellow Saturn above the rest. Mercury is there, too, below Jupiter during the first 30 minutes after sunset, but it will be hard to see. Venus, Saturn and the crescent moon triple up on the 20th.

Spring arrives at 8: 46 p.m. EST March 20. Another "blue" moon on the 31st.

April: Venus passes the Pleiades star cluster low in the west on the 11th. "With a pair of binoculars, the Pleiades always looks spectacular," says O'Leary. "With Venus beside it on a good night, it's a beautiful sight."

Reddish Mars is at opposition on the 24th, so it rises in the east as the sun sets in the west, and remains visible all night.

May: Mars makes its closest approach to Earth in 26 months on May 1 -- about 54 million miles out. "It really does look red, and it's the best time to see it for a couple of years," O'Leary says. The science center is planning public observations. Mars will pass within 35 million miles of us in 2003.

June: Early risers: Look east for a lovely tripling of bright Jupiter with Saturn and the thin, waning moon before dawn on the 10th. Summer begins with the solstice, at 3: 49 p.m. EDT June 21.

July: Earth is at its farthest from the sun on the 6th -- 94.5 million miles. There is a partial eclipse of the moon on the 28th. Unfortunately, in Maryland it begins at 6: 22 a.m., as the moon sets. The West Coast will see it all.

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