Friday, October 26, 2007

 

Have You Seen It?

By “it” I mean THE COMET, the bizarre and wonderful Comet 17P/Holmes, which is currently lighting up the northern skies in remarkable and unexpected fashion. Why is it that most amazing comets (Hale Bopp, Hyakutake) come upon us unawares, while the expected spectaculars (Halley) flop? Don’t ask me, but I for one have been hungry for a goodun'. It’s been dang near 10 years since a good naked eye comet hit the Northern Hemisphere.

What’s the story with Holmes? This comet, discovered in 1892 by, natch, Edwin Holmes is normally a sedate little thing, quietly minding its own business in an orbit that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Far away, that is. “Quiet and dim,” are the watchwords for this tiny sprite whose brightness normally hovers around a discouraging plus 16 - 17. Normally.

On October 23 something happened. A gas eruption, perhaps, caused wee little Holmes to suddenly brighten from magnitude 17 to magnitude 2.8 (or brighter) in a matter of hours. As of this writing, it’s a naked eye “star” lying not far from Mirfak in Perseus and drifting slowly northward. How long will this event last? Who knows? If you have clear skies, I advise you to get out and check it out tonight. What sort of optical aid do you need? None. As above, Holmes is easily visible as a point-source-like "star," perhaps looking a little fuzzy, in Perseus.

I arrived home last night after a long evening at the University, determined to have a look at what I had been told was a marvel. While the skies had finally cleared, there was a fat and satisfied lookin’ full Moon hanging in the east. A quick sweep of my Burgess 15x70 binocs in the area where I thought the comet ort-ta be didn’t reveal squat. That would have been the time, usually, when I’d say to myself, “Self, we ain’t gonna see nuttin. Where’s the Rebel Yell?” This time, though, something told me to take one more look.

I popped inside and fired up TheSky 6 Pro, which downloaded the comet’s elements and drew me a finder chart quicker than you can say “Jack Daniels.” One of the reasons I love this program is that it’s not only insanely full-featured, it’s easy to use, especially at those times when you need something NOW. Outside again, I pointed the Burgesses in the proper direction: “JumpinJehosaphat! Is that IT or has OlJupe wandered over to the wrong side of the sky?” I spent several minutes focusing and refocusing, unable to believe this “minor” comet could be so big and bright, and convinced I was looking at a defocused Mirfak. In the binoculars, Holmes looked like a perfectly round, slightly yellowish, madly bright planet.

As beautiful as Holmes was in the binoculars, I couldn’t help wondering, in typical amateur astronomer fashion, what it would look like with a little more aperture. Didn’t feel like wrestling with a C8 or even the ETX-125, but luckily I always have my Comet Scope, an Orion StarBlast, standing by for instant use. This little thing brings 4-inches of fast optics to bear, and is so easy and convenient to get going that it’s become my usual end-of-the-workday-quick-look telescope. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s allowed me to see many minor comets I’d otherwise have missed from my urban digs (“Never see that from here, anyway, and I ain't gonna mess with no SCT tonight”).

Before long I had the little green guy on the front porch and pointed to Holmes. With more magnification and more light, the comet was, if anything, even more wondrous, presenting a bright not quite round nucleus surrounded by a perfectly round not-quite-centered “coma.” I stood out there and just stared for at least half an hour until the chilly temps (upper FORTIES, y'all) finally drove me inside in search of the ‘Yell.

I’ll be back out there tonight gazing in wonder at this unlooked-for visitor. Maybe I’ll even set up a bigger gun. Never know. I urge y’all to get out there with me. Take a good long look and let me know what you think.

Comments:
I go a good look at it on Thursday night...through the smoke from the SoCal fires. I rolled out my SCT from the garage...

I took some images and posted them on the Orange County Astronomers photo section..
 
I'll have to get right over there and take a look. Thanks.
 
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