Jimmy Westlake: ‘Spooky Comet’ | SteamboatToday.com

Jimmy Westlake: ‘Spooky Comet’

Jimmy Westlake

Steamboat Springs — From time to time, Mother Nature likes to toss us a surprise, and this week, she sprung a doozey on us. — From time to time, Mother Nature likes to toss us a surprise, and this week, she sprung a doozey on us.

— From time to time, Mother Nature likes to toss us a surprise, and this week, she sprung a doozey on us.

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about a new comet that had been discovered called Comet LONEOS. We hoped that it would become bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye late this month, and, indeed, it still might. But the eyes of the astronomical world are focused on a different comet this week; one that seemingly came from out of nowhere. Discovered by British astronomer Edwin Holmes in 1892, the comet loops around the sun about once every six years, but it has never been a particularly noteworthy comet. In fact, it was lost for about 60 years and rediscovered in 1964. After passing close to the Earth and sun in May, Comet Holmes has been receding into the distance and fading from view. As of Oct. 22, the comet was 25,000 times fainter than the naked-eye limit, requiring a large telescope to be seen at all. Then, something remarkable happened. In less than 24 hours, Comet Holmes brightened by a factor of nearly 1-million. That’s equivalent to the full moon suddenly becoming as bright as the sun.

Exactly what might have happened to Comet Holmes to cause this dramatic increase in brightness remains a mystery. It’s just a ball of dirty ice, about 3 or 4 miles in diameter. Maybe it suffered a collision with another chunk of space debris, causing it to fragment. This would expose fresh ice from its interior to the energy of the sun and create a bright cloud of vapors as the ice boils away. Or, since comets are relatively fragile anyway, maybe this one just crumbled to pieces. Whatever the cause, the effects have been very dramatic.

Comet Holmes is now as bright as one of the stars in Orion’s Belt or the Big Dipper and looks like an extra star in the constellation of Perseus in our northeastern sky after dark. It is easily visible to the unaided eye, even through the light of this week’s full moon. Unlike most comets, this one does not sport a tail, at least, not yet. To the unaided eye, it just looks like a bright star, but through binoculars or a small telescope, it shows a bright yellow ball surrounded by a green halo. Frankly, in my five decades of sky watching, I have never seen anything like it.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Comet Holmes most likely will begin to fade during the next week or so and perhaps the solar wind will blow the bright cloud of vapors into a long tail. You can keep an eye on it yourself during the next few nights and see what develops. You also can visit the NASA Web site at http://www.SpaceWeather.com for photographs and updates.