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Sky Watch

For New Year, a Fairly New Comet

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 1, 2005; Page B08

Out with the old and in with a comet.

The new year welcomes Comet Machholz, which was discovered in August by astronomer Don Machholz in California. Astronomers predict that it might reach fourth magnitude and will be bright enough to see here with binoculars.

"It's not the comet of the century, but certainly the comet of the month," said Geoff Chester, an astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory here.

"It's easy to see in binoculars, and with a very dark sky, you could see it with the naked eye."

Comet Machholz makes its closest sweep to Earth early this month. On Jan. 1 and 2, the dirty, cosmic snowball can be seen about 20 degrees to the right of the star Aldebaran ( Taurus constellation), high in the southeast early in the evening. From Jan. 5 through 8, it's about 10 degrees to the right of the Pleiades cluster (Messier number 45), high in the southeast early in the evening, according to Chester.

Between Jan. 6 and 12, the comet is expected to be at its brightest for Earth-bound sky gazers. The comet reaches perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, Jan. 24.

To discover the comet, Machholz used a six-inch reflector telescope that he bought in 1968.

Naked in the New Year

All five of the naked-eye planets -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn -- celebrate the start of Earth's new year by making appearances.

The ever-effervescent Venus rises with Mercury just before dawn in the early days of January. Look to the southeastern sky before sunrise to catch the bright Venus (negative third magnitude, very bright) and the fleet Mercury (zero magnitude, bright). You'll have to find a place with a good horizon because they are low in the sky. In fact, their planetary companionship is short-lived, since they both retreat into the eastern horizon in the middle of the month.

As dim as it is, Mars ascends the east-northeast at about 5 a.m. now. The faint red planet, at first magnitude, remains low in the southern morning sky through January.

For sheer visual joy, catch the giant planets Saturn and Jupiter in the evening and late night. The ringed planet climbs the east-northeastern heavens before 7 p.m. now. It can be found hanging out in the Gemini constellation, along the shores of the Milky Way. (You will need a very dark sky to discern the faint glow of the Milky Way.) In two weeks, Saturn rises in the east-northeast at dusk. This zero magnitude planet, bright, pulls an all-nighter throughout January.

Jupiter rises in the east-southeast about 1 a.m. early in the month, and rises about midnight two weeks hence. By late January, this planet, situated in the constellation Virgo, rises about 11:30 p.m.

Down-to-Earth Events

• Jan. 5 -- Open house at the University of Maryland Observatory in College Park. After a short lecture, scan the heavens through a telescope, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

• Jan. 8 -- The National Capital Astronomers meet at University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Information, capitalastronomers.org.

• Jan. 9 -- The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club begins its 25th year and members will share their astronomy experiences. 7 p.m., Room 80, Enterprise Hall, George Mason University. Information, www.novac.com.

• Jan. 19 -- Physicist Simon Singh lectures on "The Big Bang: What It Was and Why We Believe It Happened." He comments on whether science can uphold the big-bang theory. After the lecture, he will sign copies of his book "Big Bang." 6:30 p.m. Smithsonian Resident Associate members, $12. General Admission $15. For location, tickets and information, call 202-357-3030 or www.residentassociates.org

• Jan. 20 -- University of Maryland Observatory open house in College Park. View the cosmos through a telescope after a short lecture, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

• Jan. 29 -- They are nature's gravitationally controlled, thermonuclear fusion reactors: stars. The presentation "How Are Stars Born?" will be held at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information, 301-650-1463; www.mc.cc.md.us/departments/planet.

• Feb. 14 -- Cambridge University Professor Stephen Hawking will be awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal to honor his groundbreaking research in theoretical physics. James Hartle of the University of California at Santa Barbara will lecture on "Stephen Hawking's Universe," describing the scientist's work. 6:30 p.m., Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University. Smithsonian resident associate members, $22. General admission, $28. Students, $12. For tickets, 202-357-3030 or www.residentassociates.org.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at bfriedlander@earthlink.net.

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