Comet Lulin to be visible over next few weeks

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 18, 2009, 3:08 P.M.

Sky-watchers will have a chance to see an unusually remote comet over the next several weeks as it passes Earth on what scientists say may be its first excursion through the inner solar system.

Discovered by an astronomy student in China in 2007, Comet Lulin is going to move closest to Earth on Tuesday on its outward voyage away from the sun.

Amateur astronomer Mark Aguirre, of Spokane, said he spotted Comet Lulin earlier this week as a fuzzy ball in the late night sky. He said he saw the comet near the star Spica in Virgo, but its orbital motion is carrying it quickly westward across the night sky.

By this weekend, the comet will be approaching Saturn from the east, and be right next to the ringed planet on Tuesday night. Saturn currently is rising in the southeast sky a few hours after dusk. It is located east of the bright star of Regulus in Leo. “It’s going to be so close to Saturn it’s going to be very easy to pick out,” said Aguirre, a member of the Spokane Astronomical Society.

Aguirre said he needed a telescope to see the comet on Monday night from his home in north Spokane. From darker locations, the comet may be visible through binoculars, and some astronomers say the comet should be marginally visible to the naked eye.

Forecasts call for a chance of clear skies on Friday and Saturday night in the Inland Northwest, but storm clouds may obscure the night sky early next week.

Aguirre said the comet this weekend should have moved far enough to the west to see by midnight. Until now, the best viewing has been in the morning prior to sunrise.

Scientists said the comet will be moving about 5 degrees a day during its pass by Earth, and that the movement will be apparent in telescopes or binoculars against a background of stars.

By early March, it will be close to the Beehive cluster in the constellation Cancer, and after that will move into Gemini as it disappears into space.

According to an article in ScienceNews, the comet is believed “to have originated in the deep freeze of the Oort Cloud, a comet reservoir thousands of times farther from the sun than the Earth.”

The comet is named after the Lulin Observatory in Taiwan, which was involved in its discovery. Photographs taken in recent weeks show a green luminescence around the comet that comes from cyanogen, a poisonous gas given off as a result of the warmth sun, and diatomic carbon.

Reporter Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or mikep@spokesman.com.

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