Local news

Comet comes to light at night

SATURDAY, OCT. 27, 2007

Three nights ago, comet Holmes was nothing more than a tiny celestial object drawing attention from dedicated astronomers with good telescopes.

In a matter of hours after nightfall Wednesday, the comet brightened by nearly 1 million times, according to Sky & Telescope Magazine.

It is now an easily visible, yellowish ball in the northeastern sky in the constellation Perseus.

Mary Singer of the Spokane Astronomical Society reported that “several of us found it (from our own backyards) last night despite the full moon. I think it looks like a large planetary nebula with a bright core.”

“Even without a telescope or binoculars, it looks just like a star that wasn’t there a few nights ago,” Singer said in an e-mail.

So far, comet Holmes is not showing the long distinctive tail displayed last winter by comet McNaught, probably because the tail, if any, is pointed away from Earth. Instead, it has a faint comma cloud that apparently is the reflection of light off dust particles being released from the rock-and-ice ball as it orbits closer to the sun.

Astronomers are unsure how long the current outburst will last, but the comet’s orbital path keeps it in the constellation Perseus for the next few months, sources said.

Following its discovery in 1892, the comet was seen in 1899 and 1906. It was then lost to astronomers until 1964 when it was re-discovered. It has been observed on each pass near Earth in the years since.

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