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Md. skies clear, dry tonight for Comet Lulin

Md. skies clear, dry tonight for Comet Lulin

Except for the cold, the forecast out of Sterling this morning could not be better for those of us hoping to catch a glimpse of Comet Lulin as it makes its closest approach to Earth - a "mere" 38 million miles. Lulin should be visible high in the southern sky around 1 a.m., but you may be able to spot it earlier - say, after 11 p.m., if you look a little lower in the southeast.

Here is a sky map to guide you. The photo above was shot last week by Gary Honis, in Conyngham, Pa. Used with Gary's permission. You can explore the comet's orbit in 3D with this interactive tool.

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Observers in recent days have said Lulin has brightened to a magnitude of 5.35. That's just a shade brighter than 6, which is considered to be the limit of naked-eye visibility. By contrast, Venus, high in the western sky after sunset, is a brilliant minus-4 at the moment. (The lower the number, the brighter the object.)

I would not count on being able to see the comet as a naked-eye object from urban or suburban locations tonight without binoculars, at least. A small telescope is even better. But if you can flee the urban corridor, you should be able to pick out the comet as a fuzzy blob or light alongside the planet Saturn. With binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to capture both comet and Saturn within the same field of view. A rare treat!

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But if you're going out tonight, bundle up. The forecast low for BWI is 21 degrees. Today's gusty winds, which in combination with very low humidity, has increased the fire hazard this afternoon, should have died down by the time comet-watchers are venturing out.

If you can't bring yourself to venture out into the cold tonight (or even if you can), you can also watch the comet online. The Coca Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Ga., will be Web casting the encounter after 11:30 p.m. tonight., You can join in by clicking here.

And here is a large and growing photo gallery of Lulin images. Some astronomers have assembled time-lapse movies of the comet moving in front of background stars.

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