ELEMENTARY! Holmes Comet Erupts to Shock of Curious World
COLLEGE STATION —
Just as he has for most of the last 30 years, Texas A&M University astronomer Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff spent the past week watching the night sky. His obsession in this particular case was a comet — particular, more precisely, because he didn’t need a telescope.
In likely the biggest surprise in astronomy since Pluto was declared a minor planet, a comet that is normally dim and visible only with the help of powerful telescopes has erupted, rendering it visible to the unaided eye from the northern hemisphere. The only equipment required? Curiosity.
On Oct. 24, Comet 17P/Holmes shocked the astronomy world with a spectacular eruption, brightening in less than 24 hours beyond its typical 17th magnitude to 3rd magnitude — a factor of nearly one million in astronomical terms.
“I can see the comet in the evening sky with my naked eye, and with the moon down, it is even easier,” Suntzeff said. “You can even tell it is not a ‘star’ — that is, it is a fuzzy disk now. Comets usually have tails, but strangely, this comet has not developed one yet.”
Don Carona, manager of the Texas A&M Astronomical Observatory in the Department of Physics, is one of the thousands of international enthusiasts in addition to Suntzeff who are following the intriguing progress of the comet affectionately known as Holmes, documenting the experience with the help of time-lapse photography.
“This is one of the most interesting comets that I’ve studied,” Carona said. “To brighten so quickly and expand so rapidly is nothing short of amazing. I am surprised with each new image how much the comet has changed. At present, images suggest that it may be starting to distort itself. Images from tonight [Halloween] should yield more information.”
To view the comet (click for skymap), experts recommend heading outside after sunset and looking to the northeast for a yellow star with a brightness equivalent to the stars in the Big Dipper. Holmes will be visible in the constellation Perseus, located below the more familiar Cassiopeia. To get the best view, Carona suggests using binoculars.
To see Carona’s images or learn more about the Texas A&M Observatory, visit http://observatory.tamu.edu/Research/17P-Holmes/.
To view other photographs submitted from across the world, go to http://spaceweather.com/comets/gallery_holmes_page6.htm.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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