There is no Transit of Venus to be watched in 2013, or any major eclipses visible for long from Maryland, but local sky watchers say there is still plenty to look forward to seeing in the night sky.
There could be a few opportunities to see rare objects like comets and asteroids, as well as good chances to see some of our closest neighbors in the solar system. One of those is Mercury, one of the most elusive of Earth's neighbors because it orbits so closely to the sun, making it rare to see on the nighttime horizon.
"Copernicus supposedly never saw Mercury," said Jim O'Leary, executive director of the Maryland Science Center. "You can have one up on Copernicus if you get to see Mercury, for what it's worth."
In general, some tips from streetcorner astronomer Herman Heyn, who has been helping Baltimoreans explore the heavens for 25 years: The brightest-looking stars, if they are shining steadily and not twinkling, are usually planets. And you don't need a powerful telescope to get a better look at them – common binoculars will do the trick, Heyn said.
Here are some events to look forward to:
January: Look for the waning crescent moon alongside bright yellow Venus on the eastern horizon an hour or more before sunrise. Earth also reaches perihelion, its closest point in orbit of the sun, Jan. 2.
February: An asteroid once thought to have a slim chance of colliding with Earth will pass by within the distance of the moon Feb. 15, visible using even small telescopes and binoculars, according to EarthSky.org. You can also use the waxing moon to spot Jupiter and the constellation Taurus around Feb. 18 as they cluster near each other at mid-evening.
March: March 12 you may be able to spot, with binoculars, the Comet Panstarrs near the crescent moon on the western horizon at dusk. This month, and in all of the first four months of the year, Orion the Hunter will be visible, with Sirius, the night sky's brightest star, visible to Orion's lower left.
April: One of the best chances to spot Mercury is in early April around dawn. Look to the eastern horizon near the crescent moon for the bright innermost planet, but keep in mind it won't be visible for long as it stays close to the rising sun. Later in the month, the annual Lyrid meteor shower offers a modest sky-watching opportunity, but the moon will outshine many meteors until moonset. Saturn reaches opposition, when it is most brightly lit by the sun as seen from Earth, April 28, the best time to see the planet's rings and moons.
May: On May 4 and 5, the Eta Aquarids peak, though even under ideal conditions only produce about 20-40 meteors per hour. The moon will be a thin crescent at that point. Meanwhile, away from city lights, the Milky Way's band of stars can become visible in the eastern sky after midnight, according to EarthSky. By the end of the month, Mercury and Jupiter both move to within a couple of degrees from Venus, clustering together in the west around sunset May 26-28.
June: Saturn will appear within the constellation Virgo from April through September. Around June 19, you can spot it just to the north of the moon.
July: By the middle of the month, the "summer triangle" of stars Vega, Deneb and Alatair will be directly overhead. It can help you find other summer constellations in the night sky.
August: The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks Aug. 11-12, but there will be a waxing crescent moon brightening the sky somewhat.
September: This month offers another opportunity to see Venus and the crescent moon decorate the eastern sky, easily visible in a single viewing field using binoculars.
October: A prenumbral lunar eclipse will take place Oct. 18, visible briefly from the East Coast as a shading appearing on the moon's lower half around 7:50 p.m.
November: The Comet ISON will pass within 1.1 million miles of Earth, and it could be visible with the naked eye if it doesn't break up passing by the sun. Africa and the Atlantic Ocean will also get to see a major solar eclipse Nov. 3, but only a few minutes will be visible in Baltimore until it ends at 7:10 a.m. The Leonid meteor shower peaks Nov. 17-18.
December: The annual Geminid meteor shower is one of the best of the year, although in 2013 some of the meteors could be hidden by the brightness of a gibbous moon.