Thursday, May 20, 2010
There is a brand new comet in the dawn sky, one that'll max out in brightness next month. You'll probably still need binoculars or a telescope to see it, but still. Comets make me giddy (admittedly I am easily made giddy). They are leftover bits from the beginnings of the solar system, chock full of water and amino acids and at least partly responsible for bringing those things, and possibly life itself, to Earth. Plus, they come from...wait for it...the Oort Cloud! The Oort Cloud is a largely theoretical sphere of ice and rock chunks at the very fringes of the solar system, about a light year away. The comets lurk out there in cold storage, slowly revolving, unseen, until something tugs them out of orbit and sends them hurtling toward the sun. As they get close to the sun they form tails, as solar wind boils off ice from the main body of the thing.
This one is on its first trip in from the Oort Cloud, so no one knows quite what will happen. Comets are notoriously unpredictable. They might fizzle out, they might soar in brightness, they might disintegrate as they swing around the sun and gravitational stress rips them apart. Stay tuned. This one is already slightly brighter than predicted.
Below is a chart telling you where to look in the dawn sky (I'm never up at dawn, but will set my alarm one or two mornings mid-month to look for it). The star Capella is very bright, so using it as a guide will help. Comets are fairly easy to pick out from the surrounding stars. They have fuzzy, indistinct edges, unlike the pinpoints of light formed by stars. They are dimmer, larger than stars. Sometimes you can even make out the tail. So get up early, get out your binoculars and search the sky. Even if you don't find the comet,you'll probably find something cool. There's lotsa cool stuff up there.