Science First Look

Friday night lights: Get ready for a cosmic triple feature

Friday night promises to treat residents of the Americas to a full moon, comet, and partial lunar eclipse all on one night.

The saying that good things come in threes will be especially true for skywatchers this weekend, who hope to be treated to an unlikely celestial play in three acts.

The first act is already underway, as the moon waxes nearer and nearer to full, its Earth-facing side completely lit by the rays of the sun. The orb will continue to swell until Friday night, when it is expected to reach peak-roundness at 7:33 p.m. Eastern time.

February’s full moon bears the nickname, "the snow moon," which might seem a cruel joke to ski fans lamenting this year's mild winter weather. 

Act two starts right at the climax of the first, when the moon starts to dip into the shadow the sun casts behind the Earth. The partial lunar eclipse will likely be visible to stargazers in most of the Americas, and folks on the East Coast can start watching right after moon-rise in the early evening.

As the moon passes deeper into Earth’s outer shadow, it is expected to turn darker and darker gray. During the middle of the eclipse at 7:44 p.m, about a third of the moon will likely be visibly shaded.

And now for something completely different, the third and final act will be entirely non-lunar. Those who can stay awake until 10:30 p.m. and have access to binoculars or a telescope might catch a glimpse of comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusáková hurtling past Earth at its point of closest approach (which is close, but not that close. No need to panic). Flying at about a hundred times faster than the typical jet plane, it is expected to pass by about 32 times higher than the moon.

You can also call it Comet 45P, if you prefer. We certainly won’t blame you.

If you know where to look (hint: try the constellation Hercules), the glowing green hunk of ice can already be seen. In fact, early viewing might be preferred because that giant lunar spotlight certainly won’t make things easier.

According to Sky and Telescope, the full moon is expected to linger later and later into the morning, so the earlier the better. You can get an idea of what 45P looks like and detailed instructions describing how to see it on the magazine's website.

As an encore act, Venus is also shining at her brightest for the year, according to the US Navy. Reportedly brilliant enough to cast shadows on a dark, moonless night, the morning star should just be visible during the day as well, making for an easy target.

For those interested in celestial phenomena who don’t live in an ideal viewing area, or if it’s just too cold out, follow the Slooh observatory on Twitter for information regarding its live-stream covering both the eclipse and the comet.

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