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Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Look Up! It's the Snow Moon Lunar Eclipse Comet Spectacular

Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Last year it was all supermoons, all the time. This year it’s going to be eclipses. There’s the big one on August 21—start planning your trip now!—and leading up to it are a couple of smaller events, starting with a penumbral lunar eclipse tonight, and an annular solar eclipse later this month. The eclipse tomorrow night, February 10, will occur during a "Snow Moon," and if you stay up a little bit longer, you might even be able to spot a comet. In other words, if you’re looking for cheap date ideas for the last Friday before Valentine’s Day, you’ve come to the right place.

SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH THE SNOW MOON

Full moons have names. They survive largely through the pages of the Farmer’s Almanac, a 99-year-old annual best known for its weather predictions. You might recall the Hunter's Moon, or the Harvest Moon, and who could forget the Beaver Moon?

Tonight’s moon is called the Snow Moon, named by the American Indians for the obvious reason: February is the snowiest month. (This moon was also sometimes called the "Hunger Moon," for the same reason, and the "Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon.") Generally speaking, you get only one full moon per month. In fact, the word "month" is derived from "moon," referring to a full cycle of its phases. Next month is the Worm Moon, because with the onset of spring, you have the wormiest month. And so on.

If you decide to have a moonlit picnic with your sweetheart, that kind of trivia is solid gold.

THE SOFTER SIDE OF A LUNAR ECLIPSE

So what of this eclipse business? You might notice also that the moon seems a little … off. I don’t want to get your hopes up here: You will not see a Pacman-like chomp taken out of the moon, nor any well-defined line that you can point at and say, "See that? That is the edge of the Earth’s shadow."

Penumbral eclipses are a bit subtler than that. What you’ll want to look for is a darker hue to pass across the lunar surface. That’s it, but it’s still really cool. What’s happening is this. Shadows have two elements: the umbra and the penumbra. The umbra is the darkest part of a shadow. (The red super harvest moon in 2015 was caused by the Moon passing into the umbra of the Earth’s shadow.) The penumbra is the much gentler, much blurrier shadow that surrounds the umbra. It’s the place where the light source (in this case the Sun) is partially blocked, but not entirely. That’s the part of the Earth’s shadow that the Moon will be passing through tonight. As long as you keep your expectations in check, you should enjoy the show.

(There’s also the antumbra, in which the object being shadowed is fully contained in the light source—we’ll talk more about that on February 26, when the Moon as seen from the Southern hemisphere will become a giant, terrifying ring of fire.)

If you live in North America, you can watch the penumbral eclipse on February 10 at precisely 7:43 p.m. EST.

THE TEAL COMET NEAR HERCULES

There will also be a comet out for your pre-Valentines Friday date night viewing pleasure. Its full name is Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, but its friends call it "45P." It will be visible around 3:00 a.m. EST. This particular comet visits us every five years, and tonight is its closest approach to Earth in its orbit. You’ll be gazing in the vicinity of the constellation Hercules, and looking specifically for a teal dot with a tail.

Realistically speaking, though, will you be able to see it? If the light pollution in your area is nil, and if your eyes are well adjusted, there’s a very slim chance you’ll be able to spot it with your naked eyes. I would not risk a disappointing end to a date night, however. After checking out the eclipse, head inside where it’s warm and go to Slooh. At 10:30 p.m. EST, astronomers will begin coverage of the comet, and use telescopes to give you a much better view than you’ll find in the backyard. If you have a fireplace, all the better for setting the mood. It is a Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon, after all.

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Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
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iStock

The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
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10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

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