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Attention star gazers: How to best view Friday night's comet, eclipse and snow moon




Photo of Comet 45PHonda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, 2011
Photo of Comet 45PHonda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, 2011
Courtesy of NASA JPL-Caltech

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For all you star gazers out there, there are a few cool things to see in tonight's sky. You just have to know how to find them.

Three celestial events can be seen at different times tonight. "You can see these, its just very, very subtle", said Bruce Betts, Director of Science and Technology at the Planetary Society. Take Two's A Martinez sat down with Bruce Betts to learn more about what's happening in the heavens and how to best view them.

Check out the "Snow Moon" (no telescope required)

Full moons get names often derived from Native American terms, at least in North America. And in this case, that is true with the ‘Snow Moon’ being the February full moon. That tends to be the time where there's a lot of snow. There are also less popular names such as the ‘Hunger Moon’ because everyone was getting hungry in the winter. And you can look forward to ‘Worm Moon’ coming up because that's when, in the North East, the worms started coming up out of the ground. 

If you look hard you can see a lunar eclipse (telescope recommended)

Tonight, there is a penumbral lunar eclipse. And that's opposed to an umbral lunar eclipse. Basically, it means the moon is just entering the edge of the Earth's shadow. As a result, it doesn't dim very much so most people can kind of hope for is a subtle dimming on the side of the Moon. But wait, it gets harder. If you're living on the West Coast— because the Moon rises around the time it's already passed mid eclipse. And with the Sun setting on the other side, it gets even more subtle.

Peak eclipse if 4:44 PM Pacific Time so can probably go to about 6:15 hoping to see some subtle darkening on the moon. 

Catch a comet as it flies by Earth (telescope required)

The comet is close by cosmic standards but it's still millions of kilometers away. It's like 30 times the Earth moon distance. It will be its closest approach tonight. This is comet 45P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. (Comets are traditionally named after their discoverers and this had three co-discoverers). The ‘P’ indicates that it's a periodic comet, meaning it doesn't go way, way out. It orbits every 5 1/2 years around the Sun. 

It's gotten a lot of press party because of its green color. Comets are fun because its hard to predict what you'll see. It had a long tail before it went around the Sun, but seems to have lost its tail. It's dimmed so you will not see it with just your eye. You need binoculars or a telescope. 

From California, you need to go out in the wee hours so, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. Look in the constellation Hercules. If you're going to do this, look online and find a finder chart for where to look with your binoculars. With a telescope, you will probably see a green or pale fuzzy blob.

Those lights in the sky aren't stars, they're planets! (no telescope required)

You can easily see Venus if it isn't cloudy. Over in the west after sunset, that super bright thing? That's Venus looking like a star. And to its upper left, much dimmer is Mars. 

*Quotes edited for clarity

Note: for the best star gazing, take a ride away from the city lights. 

And speaking of comets, you can see Bruce Betts and other experts at the KPCC InPerson event, Incoming! Studying and avoiding near-Earth asteroids and comets on February 16th, 2017 at 7:30 PM

To hear the full interview, click on the media player above.