This New Year's Eve, it's the bold and the beautiful: Jupiter and Venus.
Washington's last sunset of 1999 occurs at 4:56 p.m., when we'll see a dim, reddish Mars hanging out in the western sky near the constellation Capricornus. In the southeast, Jupiter reigns at a brilliant, negative second magnitude. The gaseous giant will be easy to see from the National Mall in Washington. A little to the left of Jupiter is the ringed Saturn. Jupiter crosses the meridian soon after 7 p.m., Saturn crosses it around 8 p.m.
When the clock strikes midnight, and as the U.S. Naval Observatory's time ball drops to usher in 2000, the large H-shape of the constellation Orion the Hunter will be overhead. And in the opening strains of "Auld Lang Syne," Gemini will cross the meridian.
At 1:30 a.m., Jupiter becomes the first planet to set in the new year with Saturn following right behind. As the world rejoices in the fresh-born year, Venus--in all its effervescence, and at negative fourth magnitude--becomes the first planet to rise. You can see it high in the southeast on New Year's Day morning. Washington's first sunrise of 2000 occurs at 7:27 a.m., according to the Naval Observatory.
While the constellation Gemini appears overhead at midnight on New Year's Eve, the famous starry pattern plays an interesting role in the middle of December: Meteors appear to emanate from it. The Geminid meteor shower peaks on the night of Dec. 13-14. Under clear, dark skies, you may see a few dozen meteors per hour late in the evening or in the morning. "The Geminids are usually fairly consistent; you probably want to be up before sunrise on the morning of the 14th," says Geoff Chester, an astronomer at the Naval Observatory.
And what with the impending holidays and a special New Year's Eve, there's even more to celebrate: The Winter Solstice starts at 2:44 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on Dec. 22, marking the start of winter in our hemisphere. Astronomically, that's when the sun appears to touch the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, and begins making its way back to our hemisphere. And we start getting more daylight every day until June.
* Dec. 2--For 38 years Gus Grissom's space capsule, the Liberty Bell 7, rested three miles below the Atlantic Ocean's surface. Hear Curt Newport, the salvage expedition leader, describe the recovery of this Mercury mission capsule in his talk, "In Search of the Liberty Bell 7." Langley Theater, National Air and Space Museum, 7:30 p.m. Information, 202-357-2700.
* Dec. 4--Carol Anne Grady of the Goddard Space Flight Center discusses "New Views of Protoplanetary Disks" at the National Capital Astronomers' meeting. Lipsett Amphitheater, Clinical Center (Building 10) of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. 7:30 p.m.
* Dec. 5--Astronomer Marc Pound answers the question "How Do We Know Anything About the Universe?" At the University of Maryland astronomy department's open house. Afterward, look through the telescope at the university's observatory on Metzerott Road, across from the System Administration building. 8 p.m. Information, 301-405-3001.
* Dec. 11--Through the magic of the National Air and Space Museum's planetarium, travel back in time to view a triple conjunction, the passing of Halley's Comet, and a nova, which are the suggested candidates in the lecture, "The Christmas Star." 6 p.m., Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum.
* Dec. 11--Through telescopes and binoculars, gaze upon the planetary delights at "Goddard at Night," 7-9 p.m., at the NASA Goddard Visitor Center in Greenbelt. Information, 301-286-3979.
* Dec. 12--The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meets on the second Sunday of every month in Lecture Hall 1 on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax. 6 p.m. Parking in lots F and G is free.
* Dec. 20--Astronomer Patrick Shopbell discusses "Astronomy Through the Millennia: Our Changing View of the Heavens" at the University of Maryland astronomy department's open house. Sky-watching after the talk.
* Dec. 22--Break out the tanning lotion, the sun's coming back! Learn all about it in "The Day of the Sun's Return: The Winter Solstice," at the Montgomery College Planetarium in Takoma Park. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information, 301-650-1463.
* Dec. 26--Learn how astronauts eat, sleep and work in space in "Living in Space," Goddard Visitor Center. 1 p.m. Information, 301-286-3979.
* Model Rocket Launches--Launch model rockets at the NASA/Goddard Visitor Center in Greenbelt on Dec. 5 and Dec. 19, which are both Sundays, at 1 p.m. Information, 301-286-3979.