The heavens will smile kindly upon you in 2001. This isn't just a coy prediction. It's a promise: The first year of the new millennium is guaranteed to bring a banquet of stirring sky events and new space missions.
JANUARY A lovely lunar eclipse on the 9th becomes visible almost everywhere except the Americas. As compensation, bright Jupiter and Saturn hover nearly overhead, and silvery Venus is climbing above the horizon after sunset.
FEBRUARY Venus is higher and brighter than it has been in years, a searchlight in the western sky. Meanwhile, couch potatoes and CNN junkies can watch the blastoff of the Genesis mission on the 10th. It collects bits of the solar wind and brings them back for analysis.
MARCH This is your last chance to savor Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn as they sink lower and lower into the twilight. All three planets outshine every star in the sky.
APRIL NASA makes another attempt to send a craft into orbit around the bad-luck planet Mars on the 7th, when it launches the 2001 Mars Odyssey.
MAY Another big space launch: NASA's Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which will determine what the universe was like immediately after the Big Bang.
JUNE Mars reaches opposition, its closest-to-Earth position, on the 13th. Although it is nearer and brighter than at anytime since 1988, Mars floats very low in the south, where thick horizon air can blur its features. On the other hand, casual stargazers may delight in how atmospheric absorption paints the midnight sky's most dazzling object a deep crimson. The new century's first total solar eclipse happens right smack on the summer solstice, the 21st, but you have to travel to Africa to see it.
JULY Two eye-catching planetary gatherings, or conjunctions, reward early risers. Venus, Saturn, and the orange star Aldebaran meet in the predawn sky; Jupiter and Mercury hang together a little distance below. The moon visits each group in turn, on the 17th and 19th.
AUGUST The Perseid meteor shower is okay on the 11th and 12th but only until midnight, when the half-moon pops above the horizon just as the shower would start to peak. Observers in dark-sky territory may see about 25 meteors an hour just before then.
SEPTEMBER The moon brushes within a degree of Saturn on the 10th, Jupiter on the 12th, and Venus on the 15th.
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER Capping the finest year for planets in two decades, Jupiter and Saturn appear exceptionally brilliant. Saturn's rings are wide open, reflecting a maximum amount of light earthward and presenting a magnificent target for small telescopes. By the end of November, Saturn rises at sunset, Jupiter two hours later.
DECEMBER The Geminid meteors occur under ideal, moonless conditions on the 13th and 14th to deliver the best shower of the year. And throughout the fall and winter, expect mind-boggling northern lights, which benefit from a year of high solar activity.
You can generate a sky map for any location, at any time, using Your Sky: (www.fourmilab.to/yoursky). This site shows the stars and constellations, the planets, and the phases of the moon. Just remember to convert from Universal time (the time in Greenwich, England) to your local time: For instance, subtract five hours for eastern standard time.
Sky & Telescope magazine's "Sky at a Glance" page gives an overview of what's happening in the sky this week: www.skypub.com/ sights/ sights.shtml.
For the real completist, NASA's Space Calendar (www.jpl.nasa.gov/calendar) lists rocket launches and many, many astronomical events— most of them visible only through a good telescope, however.