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Sky highlights for 2010

Biju Boro / AFP - Getty Images file
A multiple-exposure image shows the various stages of a total solar
eclipse on July 22, 2009, as seen from India. A similar sight will be
visible over the South Pacific this year on July 11.


How do you follow up on the "Eclipse of the Century" and a magic act that made Saturn's rings disappear? The night sky had plenty of highlights to offer during the past year - but the year ahead promises to be just as stellar. You can look forward to an annular solar eclipse in January, a South Pacific brush with totality in July, a high-rising lunar eclipse in December, and more celestial sights in between. Here are some of the high points for skywatching in 2010:

Jan. 15: Annular solar eclipse: The best-known solar eclipses involve totality, during which the moon blots out the entire disk of the sun, as seen from a narrow section of Earth's surface. But the relative positions of the moon and sun can vary due to orbital variations, and that means the moon's disk sometimes doesn't quite cover up the entire sun. A thin ring of the sun's disk can still be seen all the way around the dark moon during this kind of event, known as an annular eclipse (from "annulus," Latin for "ring"). The Jan. 15 annular eclipse can be seen from parts of Africa and Asia, as indicated by this NASA Web page and this animated image. If you're in position to watch it in person, be sure not to gaze directly at the sun, even during the height of the eclipse. If you're not in the track of the eclipse, you might be able to catch it via the Web. (Eclipse Webcasters may include the University of North Dakota and the Hong Kong Observatory ... stay tuned for details next week.)

Jan. 29: Mars comes close: Remember those e-mails you hear about every August, supposedly alerting you to Mars' close approach? Those alerts were actually referring to a historic encounter in 2003, when the Red Planet came within 34.7 million miles. This year's close approach isn't nearly that close - 61.7 milion miles - but it still provides the best opportunity in a couple of years to see the planet, particularly with a medium-size telescope that can bring out surface details.

Feb. 16: Venus-Jupiter conjunction: Two of the brightest planets in the night sky come within half a degree of each other. Unfortunately, it will be all too easy to lose the planets in the glare of the setting sun. After sunset, pull out your binoculars and check the area above and slightly to the left of where the sun dips beneath the horizon. You should see Venus just below and to the left of Jupiter.

March 28: Venus-Mercury pairing: For two weeks in late March and early April, you can spot the two closest-in planets traveling together in the west-northwest sky just after sunset.

April 24: Astronomy Day, Part 1: Two dates during the year have been recognized as "Astronomy Day," when stargazing clubs around the nation and around the world organize special activities. Check the Astronomical League's Web site for more about April's events.

June 20-21: Comet McNaught in view? Comet McNaught C/2009 R1 was discovered last year by Australian comet-hunter Rob McNaught. Colorado Mountain College's Jimmy Westlake predicts that it could put on a "nice show" around solstice time, particularly if you're using binoculars. "Look northwest after sunset June 20 and in the northeast before sunrise June 21," he writes. "If I am right, this could be an unforgettable view."

June 26: Partial lunar eclipse: Earth's shadow will take a bite out of the full moon before sunrise over the western United States, but the best places to see this eclipse are in the Pacific and Asia. Check out NASA's eclipse guide for the details.

July 11: Total solar eclipse: This year's brush with totality can be seen from a swath of the South Pacific and a tiny bit of southern Chile and Argentina. Most eclipse-chasers have probably already lined up their cruise-ship reservations, and Easter Island provides the best vantage point for land-based viewing. If you're not in a position to make your own expedition, you can bet there'll be Webcasts of the event.

Aug. 11-12: Perseid meteor shower: The Perseids rate as the Northern Hemisphere's best summer meteor shower. This year's show should be better than usual, largely because it will be unsullied by the moon's glare. Experts project that viewing rates could hit 90 meteors per hour under peak conditions.

Sept. 21: Jupiter in opposition: The solar system's biggest planet is practically as big as it can get in the night sky, due to its position with relation to the sun and Earth. A medium-size telescope should bring out details in Jupiter's banded cloud patterns.

Oct. 16: Astronomy Day, Part 2: The year's second Astronomy Day takes place, and AstronomyDay.org is one of the online sites with information about events. 

Oct. 20: Comet Hartley 2 passes by: This comet makes its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 20, coming within 11.2 million miles. Space.com's Joe Rao says Comet Hartley 2 "should briefly become a naked-eye object" in morning skies, although you'd have to get far away from city lights to see it. In early November, the Deep Impact spacecraft will observe the comet from a distance of about 600 miles.

Dec. 13-14: Geminid meteor shower: The Geminids are generally considered one of the year's most reliable meteor showers - that is, if the moon's glare doesn't interfere. The moon is due to set soon after midnight for this year's show, which could produce peak rates of 120 meteors per hour.

Dec. 21: Total lunar eclipse: North America is perfectly placed for a total lunar eclipse that occurs while the moon is just about as high in the sky as it ever gets. If winter skies are clear, this is a must-see event to close out the skywatching year.


This listing draws upon sky previews by Jimmy Westlake for Steamboat Today, Joe Rao for Space.com and Daniel Fischer for Skyweek.

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