Alright – enough. I mean, *enough*. As others have pointed out there is an absolutely ridiculous amount of utter rubbish being written and shared about the coming weekend’s astronomical events; one reporter – and I use the word very loosely – after another is tapping away furiously on their keyboard, like a monkey on crack, “writing” absolute b****ks about the “Snow Moon”, the penumbral lunar eclipse and the “close fly by” of Comet 45P. Most are just reporting them with a level of scientific ignorance that would get them a top job in Trump’s cabinet of cackling crazies, and illustrating their fairy tales with totally misleading photos and diagrams, but the worst are actually linking them all together to make some kind of perfect storm of celestial omens heralding armageddon.
Sadly, nonsense is written and shared about every astronomical event now – every minor meteor shower is hyped up to be a “spectacle”, every conjunction of planets “a dazzling gathering”, every Full Moon a “Supermoon”, etc etc – but this week there’s been a veritable feeding frenzy . And it’s not just the usual suspects, this time; if you look at the image above you’ll see some big names – National Geographic, The Smithsonian (The SMITHSONIAN, for pity’s sake!!) – have gone cuckoo over this and lost all sense of reality, over-hyping the weekend’s events, or just parroting the line being taken by others, when literally a five minute check on Google would have told them the truth.
So, what’s actually going to happen?
Ok. Here are the absolute basics – and the absolute truth.
Yes, there will be a Full Moon this weekend, and yes there will be a lunar eclipse, and yes, there is a comet in the sky. BUT…
You ONLY get a lunar eclipse when the Moon is Full, so it’s no great surprise, or mystery, or coincidence, that the Full Moon and eclipse are happening at the same time this weekend. Like BBC news and current affairs programmes and Nigel Farage, they can’t be separated. That’s just the way it works.
And contrary to many of the illustrations being used (see above, again), the lunar eclipse will NOT turn the Moon a beautiful orange-red colour, or even take a black bite out of it, making it look like Pacman. That only happens when the Moon goes through the central part of Earth’s shadow, the “umbra” and a totally eclipsed Moon, hanging in the sky like a blood orange or a pumpkin lantern, is a gorgeous sight. But between 10.34 tomorrow night and 03.00 Saturday morning, the Moon is only going through the *outer* part of Earth’s shadow, the “penumbra”, so it will only go a bit darker, a bit greyer, probably only at the top too, at its best around half past midnight or so. So unless you know what to expect, what to look for, you might not even notice anything different about the Moon. Astronomers and experienced sky-watchers will find it fascinating, but the average man, woman, child or dog in the street will not be slapped across the face by the eclipse like they would be during a classic total eclipse. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to see it. You absolutely should! Just… don’t expect to see a big orange ball in the sky, as many photos are showing.
…and then there’s the comet, 45P, which is apparently going to “whoosh” or “zoom” across the sky this weekend too, and will, if you go by the photos being used by the media, look absolutely stunning, with a long, glowing tail and a head as bright as a piece of burning magnesium…
All utter, utter nonsense. The comet is so faint it will not be visible to the naked eye, you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see it, and even then a) it will only look like a pale smudge, and b) you’ll only know exactly where to look for it if you have, and know how to use, a star chart or a star map showing the comet’s position. To make matters worse, the big, bright Moon will reduce the comet’s brightness even more, making it even harder to find. And comets don’t whoosh or zoom across the sky; they take days, weeks or even months to drift across it, changing their position a little every night.
And as for all those things being linked supernaturally, a sign the End really is Night – shut up, you plonkers, just shut up.
So, everyone, please, don’t fall for – or, worse, share – the hype appearing online. It really is ridiculous. Do get out there and look at the lovely Full Moon tomorrow night when it rises though, and do try to see the penumbral lunar eclipse too, and do have a go at tracking down the comet, because as unimpressive as it will look it will still be something rare worth looking for. Just don’t expect too much, and don’t blindly share this gumpf just because a Facebook page with the word “science” or “space” in its name posts a breathlessly-excited story about it.
And please don’t worry – or let your friends worry – about these events triggering the end of the world. They won’t. That’s rubbish. By all means worry about a compulsive liar and a lunatic sitting in the Oval Office, with his feet up on the desk, Tweeting like a maniac with the nuclear launch codes mere feet away from his unnaturally tiny, flashing fingers, but don’t worry about a perfectly normal Full Moon, a mildly-impressive lunar eclipse and an under-performing comet all being visible on the same night, ok?