Stargazers' calendar for 2006

Meteor showers and the lunar and planetary ballet are among the highlights


Maryland's backyard stargazers can look forward to a fine year under the night sky in 2006. The calendar promises excellent meteor showers, with a busy schedule of bright appearances and intricate conjunctions of the moon and the naked-eye planets.

But celestial mechanics can also be cruel. The new year will be another lean one for eclipses visible from Maryland. And while amateur astronomers have their telescopes trained on a number of comets this year, none is expected to be as eye-popping as Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Hardcore eclipse followers will have just one event to add to their life lists in 2006, a total solar eclipse Mar. 29. The moon's shadow will traverse half the planet but not our half. Pack your bags for eastern Brazil, Niger, Libya, Turkey, Central Asia or Mongolia. Or try Baghdad - about 80 percent of the sun will be darkened there.

A partial lunar eclipse Sept. 7 won't be visible here either. The next total lunar eclipse visible in Maryland from start to finish will be Feb. 21, 2008. The next total solar eclipse visible in the lower 48 states will be Aug. 21, 2017, with another on April 8, 2024, (Stake out a spot in southern Illinois, where the two paths

of totality cross).

While they wait, armchair astronomers can look forward to Oct. 24, when NASA's Mercury-bound Messenger spacecraft - built and operated by the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab - is scheduled to fly past Venus, firing back pictures and data.

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity, incredibly, are still transmitting from the Martian surface. And the Cassini spacecraft continues to send back pictures from Saturn and its moons.

We'll see beginnings and endings, too. NASA plans to launch an APL-built mission to Pluto on Jan. 6 (estimated arrival, July 2015). And on Jan. 15, the space agency's robotic Stardust spacecraft will attempt to return to Earth with dust from a comet and interstellar space.

Here are the year's highlights:

January: Look southeast after sunset as Venus flirts with a thin crescent moon on New Year's Day.

The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the 3rd. It's a good year for spotting meteorites, with the moon setting early. Look from a dark spot after 11 p.m.

It feels cold, but at 10 a.m. Jan. 4, the Earth stands at perihelion - its nearest approach to the sun this year at a "mere" 91,405,953 miles away. The day also provides the latest sunrise of the year: 7:27 a.m. EST in Baltimore.

Venus disappears from the evening sky this month and pops up in the east before dawn by month's end - joining Jupiter.

Saturn is at opposition on the 27th, rising in the east as the sun sets in the west. The sixth planet from the sun is also at its closest to Earth (765 million miles), making this a great time to view it through a telescope. None of us ever forgets our first "live" glimpse of Saturn and its rings.

February: If you're looking for the elusive Mercury, the best dates are from the 10th to the 23rd. Look for a small but bright and steady white "star" near the western horizon after sunset. You'll need clear skies and an unobstructed horizon.

The full "Snow" moon (or "Hunger" or "Wolf" moon) rises on the 13th. Mars crowds the Pleiades on the evening of the 17th. Venus is at peak brightness at mid-month, before dawn in the east.

On the 28th, look west for an ultra-thin crescent moon, in the hour after sunset (5:58 p.m. in Baltimore). That's Mercury just above and to the right.

March: Venus is now the morning star, gleaming above the eastern horizon before dawn, where it remains until summer. The moon passes Mars on the evening of the 5th.

The "Crow" (or "Sap") moon rises full on the 14th. The vernal equinox occurs at 1:26 p.m. on the 20th, marking the start of the northern spring.

April: The crescent moon passes through the Pleiades on the morning of the 1st. No fooling. Push your hour hand an hour forward early on the 2nd.

The moon passes Saturn, late evening on the 6th. It rises full - the "Egg" or "Grass" moon - on the 13th. Easter follows on the 16th.

On the 25th, Jupiter is the brightest object in the southeastern sky at 10 p.m. It passes by a bright star in Libra called Zubenelgenubi. No reason to note it; just a cool name.

May: Jupiter is at opposition on the 4th, rising in the east as the sun sets in the west. The king of planets is just 421 million miles away and is a great sight through a telescope. With decent binoculars, you can see Jupiter's four Galilean moons, like a row of little stars, on either side of the planet's disk.

On the 30th, look above the western horizon after sunset and see (left to right) Mars, the crescent moon, and the twin stars Pollux and Castor, all in a line like birds on a wire.

June: A big month for solar milestones. The 14th marks the earliest sunrise of the year. Sol pops up at 5:39 a.m. EDT, like it or not. Summer begins at the solstice, at 8:26 a.m. EDT on the 21st. The latest sunset of the year is on the 27th, at 8:37 p.m. in Baltimore.

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