As if to compensate for relatively uneventful skies in 1998, the heavens are cooking up an extraordinary year--perhaps to celebrate the millennium's end. It's been decades since the planets put on the kind of show they will present during the next 12 months. Even meteor showers and eclipses will abound. On all fronts, 1999 promises to be an amazing time for anyone interested in the night sky.
Fortunately, the spectacles won't crowd themselves into one season. Instead they're spread leisurely throughout the year. Mercury, for instance, is at its most obvious--as a bright "star" low in evening twilight--during the first week of March. Mars is closer to Earth and more brilliant than it's been all decade, a rosy beacon in the midnight sky, in April and May. And Venus is best, dazzling and unmistakable, at dusk from May through July. (On July 15, Venus and the crescent moon present an eye-catching conjunction in the western twilight.) Then, during the summer, these three closest-to-Earth planets fade, as if to surrender center stage to other warm-weather events. The date most deserving of the spotlight is August 11, which features a remarkable double whammy: the century's final total solar eclipse; and in the evening, the Perseid meteor shower, unfolding under ideal moonless skies. This last totality of the millennium may be the year's most significant event. Because of its relatively convenient path across densely populated England, France, Germany, and Eastern Europe, it is expected to be viewed by more people than any other solar eclipse until the lengthy Chinese totality in July of 2009. Most of the others, during the next two decades, will occur over oceans and polar regions.
With the arrival of autumn, the planets return. Jupiter's brightest, nearest, highest, and closest approach to Earth of the decade occurs on October 6, while Saturn reaches its brightest, highest visit of the decade just weeks later, on November 6. To heap the plate still more, November delivers another twin feast: for the first time in decades, Mercury will cross the face of the sun, as seen from most of the United States. Two days later, on November 17, the long-awaited Leonid meteors arrive. Every 33 years, these ultrafast shooting stars put on an amazing display, 100 meteors per second. The storm is due again this year. Count on the entire world gazing skyward that night. But it's no sure thing; sometimes--in 1899 and 1933, for example--the Armageddon-like display fizzles into a normal shower.
Even if no storm develops, the fireworks aren't finished yet. On December 13, the rich Geminid meteors are due under ideal skies, brightened only by a thin, early-setting crescent moon. These dense, rocky meteors have been the most dependable one-a-minute show for the last quarter century. And it's still not over. On December 22, people looking for end-of-the-millennium portents will surely note that the winter solstice falls--by chance--on the same date as the full moon, as well as the moon's closest approach to Earth of the entire year. This huge full moon will be potent, causing enormous tides.
For a final touch, throw in a rapidly rising sunspot cycle, which means 1999 will almost surely bring a harvest of auroral displays. Then add in a partial eclipse of the moon on July 28, visible in most of the United States, plus several unusually tight and easily observed planetary conjunctions. See why sky observers are cheering? We survived the drought of 1998, and now the coming year will bring a flood of worthwhile sky pageants for the world's night watchers.