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Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the media. Are they accurate or do they exaggerate? Believe it or not, the same issue applies to the universe. And it all comes to a head Friday night, February 10. One Web site has the headline: “Friday night spectacle: See an eclipse, full Moon, and comet all at the same time!”
That certainly sounds cool. If I were an astronomer, which I am, I’d mark Friday night on my calendar and check it out.
But considered in a different way, there’s nothing special happening that night. Let me explain and you be the judge.
Yes, it’s the full Moon, but we have one of those every month. Is this headline-grabbing news?
And, yes, there is a lunar eclipse that night. But it’s a penumbral eclipse. That’s when the Moon only ventures into Earth’s skimpy outer shadow and barely changes its appearance. Most people looking at the full Moon at that time will think it still looks like a full Moon, not an eclipsed moon. In fact, when I took over as astronomy editor of the Old Farmers Almanac some 30 years ago, the first thing I did was erase all mention of penumbral eclipses.
And yes a comet will be visible that night. But not to the naked eye. And not from city skies. This is Comet 45 P, which at magnitude 8.2 is barely visible through binoculars. In fact, the brilliance of the full Moon that night will make it hard or impossible to see no matter how good your binoculars are! You could wait ten days until the Moon is absent at 3:00 AM when the comet is up (in the constellation Hercules), but then the comet will have lost half its light, and will be closer to a dismal magnitude nine.
Bottom line: There’s nothing unusual to see Friday night, move on.
Maybe I’m slightly exaggerating. But in my 40 years of astronomy writing in national publications, I’ve learned that it’s better to understate them to exaggerate. Sure, you can create a headline urging people to run out and see a “meteor shower” or a “lunar eclipse,” and you wouldn’t be lying. But if it’s one of the year’s many minor showers or the lunar eclipse is penumbral, most observers will be disappointed. They’ll think the writer made a mistake, or else they’ll think they’ve messed up as an observer, and they’re not watching correctly. Either way, it’s a disappointment. And the last thing science needs is to turn people off. Plus they won’t trust you the next time.
But also say you’re a nature enthusiast. You’re aware that a penumbral eclipse doesn’t look dramatic. You want to check it out anyway. In that case, look at the full Moon at 7:44 PM eastern time. Or 5:44 mountain time. The Moon will be low in the east. Now look more closely. Can you see that its upper left edge is a bit darker than the rest of the Moon? That it’s unevenly illuminated? That’s it! The moon’s left part is closest to earth’s dark umbral shadow where there is no sunlight at all. So it’s a bit darker. Seeing this might be exciting.