Starry Nights

2003 promises to be a year of celestial dazzle including a pretty close encounter with Mars.

January 04, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The summer of 2003 will surely find George Varros on the hill behind his house in Mount Airy, gazing through his telescope at Mars.

This year, the Red Planet will be making its closest approach to Earth in at least 50,000 years. It will dazzle naked-eye stargazers with a reddish light as bright as giant Jupiter, and reveal elusive surface details to observers, such as Varros, with access to even modest telescopes.

The new year also promises two total eclipses of the moon - the first visible here in more than three years - and an assortment of meteor showers and beautiful conjunctions of moon and planets.

But, barring an unexpected bright comet, Mars may get the most attention from stargazers.

During the summer months this year, the gears of the heavens will bring the planet to within 35 million miles of Earth, the closest approach since men began painting on cave walls.

"It's a soft spot for me," amateur astronomer Varros says of Mars. "I'll definitely be doing Mars."

He plans to hunt down and photograph polar caps, surface features and hints of Martian weather in the clouds that form around Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system.

"The good thing about Mars is it's usually a long apparition," staying big and bright all summer long this year, he says. "It's pretty cool."

The year's first lunar eclipse will begin just after 10 p.m. May 15.

Total eclipses of the moon occur when the moon passes through the circular shadow that the Earth casts into space, and it is fully shaded from direct sunlight.

If skies are clear, observers will watch the sunlit moon slowly engulfed and dimmed by the shadow's darkness. Totality will last 53 minutes, from 11:14 p.m. until 12:06 a.m., with the moon's face turned an eerie, coppery color. The hue is produced by sunlight, filtered, reddened and scattered by the rim of the Earth's atmosphere.

The second eclipse will occur on Saturday evening, Nov. 8. It's not a school night, and early enough for young children to get a look before bedtime. The show starts at 6:32 p.m., with totality beginning just after 8 p.m. and lasting 25 minutes. The spectacle ends at 10:05 p.m.

Here are the highlights for 2003:

January: Earth is at perihelion - closest to the sun - today, a mere 91.2 million miles. The year's latest sunrise occurs at 7:27 a.m. tomorrow. From here, cold winter mornings brighten a bit earlier each day.

Yellowish Saturn is just past opposition this month, meaning it rises in the east as the sun sets in the west. Still near its closest approach to Earth (750 million miles), its light is steady and bright. Saturn's rings are steeply tilted this year, a thrill for anyone getting their first peek through a small telescope.

For morning commuters and dog-walkers, that fiercely bright object decorating the eastern sky just before dawn is Venus. A waning crescent moon joins Venus on Jan. 28, always a pretty pairing.

February: The Chinese Year of the Ram (4701) begins with the new moon Feb. 1.

Brilliant Jupiter is at opposition Feb. 2, rising in the east at sunset, the brightest "star" in the sky at that hour. Steady binoculars will reveal a string of four tiny lights stretched along a line through the planet. They are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto - the moons first seen by Galileo in January 1610.

March: Islamic year 1424 begins at sunset March 2. Spring arrives with the Vernal Equinox at 8:03 p.m. March 20.

April: The first two weeks of April bring backyard astronomers their best chance in 2003 to spot elusive Mercury. Look for a small but steady "star," low on the western horizon just after sunset. A thin crescent moon will point it out April 3, passing just above, and to the left, of Mercury.

The largest full moon of the year occurs when the moon is at "perigee" - nearest the Earth - on April 16. Watch for unusually high tides.

May: The first of the year's lunar eclipses begins at 10:03 p.m. May 15 as the "Planting Moon" enters the upper half of the Earth's circular shadow.

The Maryland Science Center plans to open the Crosby Ramsey Memorial Observatory, at the Inner Harbor, from 5:30 p.m. until 1 a.m. But the eclipse will be visible anywhere skies are clear.

Mars is growing brighter this month. Look for its reddish light about 5 a.m. above the southeastern horizon. The moon passes below it, to the left, on May 22.

June: The year's earliest sunrise in Baltimore occurs June 15 at 5:39 a.m. Summer arrives with the solstice at 3:10 p.m. June 21. The latest sunset is at 8:37 p.m. June 28.

Jupiter and Saturn are in the evening sky this month. On June 1, Saturn hovers above the western horizon, alongside a thin crescent moon to its upper right. That's Jupiter, brighter and higher in the sky, setting after midnight.

July: The Earth is at "aphelion" - its farthest from the sun (about 94.5 million miles) - at 2 a.m. on the Fourth of July.

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