A trifecta of oddities will unfold in the Carolina sky Friday night, including the passage of a greenish comet hurtling by at three times the speed of a bullet.
Things kick off at sunset with the rising of the full moon, known as the “Snow Moon” in astronomical lore. That’s really just the name of the full moon in February, so called because it’s usually snowing somewhere, like Boston.
Then comes a partial lunar eclipse. It’s not a big, bloody eclipse, but the moon will be partly shaded by the Earth’s shadow and will dim throughout the evening. About 10 p.m., it will begin to brighten again, and it will return to its full wattage well before dawn.
After midnight, Comet 45P will swoosh in for its closest approach. It will be about 7.5 million miles away or 30 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
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That’s not exactly a near miss, but it’s as close as any comet has come to our world in 30 years. A few asteroids wander even closer.
Kaylan Petrie, director of STEM experiences for Discovery Place and active in planning the museum’s planetarium shows, says you never know whether a comet will put on a show or not. They’re finicky critters and it doesn’t pay to make predictions.
Still, she thinks Comet 45P will be on the dull side. And big city lights don’t help viewing, Petrie says, but the forecast is for crystal-clear skies.
You’ll probably need binoculars at the least to see the swift ice ball. It’ll be almost overhead in the west around midnight in the constellation Hercules.
You can follow the curve of the Big Dipper to “arc to Arcturus,” the next bright star. You’ll be in the comet’s neighborhood, at least for a night or two. Look for a green smudge.
If not exactly lustrous, Comet 45P is still a speed demon, a NASCAR sponsor’s dream. It whips through its heavenly circuit at 51,000 mph. It laps the sun every five years (and yes, it’s all left turns, depending on your observation spot), though at its distance, 45P’s movement is not discernible in the moment.