Tuesday, November 6

Holmes, But Not Sherlock

Guess what? There's a comet out there that even people in cities can see with the naked eye!

According to Fox News:

Skywatchers throughout the Northern Hemisphere report the newly visible Comet Holmes is a remarkable sight even under city lights.

The comet, described in glowing terms by many observers, should continue to be visible to the naked eye for at least the next few weeks.

Only a couple comets each decade are this easy to see.

Holmes is actually an old comet. First seen in November 1892 by British observer Edwin Holmes, it has since made 16 circuits around the Sun and should have fizzled out a long time ago.
It made its closest approach to the Sun last May, yet never came closer to it than 191 million miles (307 million kilometers).

The comet is actually moving away from the Sun now, almost midway between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Not exactly a recipe for an outbust, since solar heating is typically what triggers comets to brighten.

But sometime on Oct. 23, this comet underwent an explosive outburst and within just 24 hours increased its brightness almost a million-fold.

Since then, Holmes has been putting on a unique display, looking very different than any other comet of our generation: It has yet to sprout a noticeable tail, while its head — called the coma — appears like a round, yellowish fuzz ball in the constellation Perseus, and is visible for most of the night.

Since its outburst, Holmes has shone almost consistently between magnitudes 2 and 3, making it similar in brightness to the stars that make up the famous Big Dipper. (On this astronomer's scale, smaller numbers represent brighter objects.)

Use the 'W' as a guide

You can find Comet Holmes by using the "W" of Cassiopeia as your guide. The five stars in a conspicuous zigzag pattern are high in the northeast sky during the mid-evening hours.

Draw an imaginary line from the star Gamma Cass down to Delta Cass (known also as Ruchbah).
Extend the line downward about five times the distance between these two stars and you'll come very close to where Comet Holmes is.

The comet itself forms a triangle with Alpha Persei (known also as "Mirfak") and Delta Persei.
If you have binoculars, you'll know the comet immediately when you see it: a small, albeit distinct, circular lemon-yellow cloud of light. A small telescope will help bring out the fuzzy details.

The moon, which was full on Oct. 26 and whose brilliant light hindered comet viewing to a degree, is now diminishing in phase and rising later in the night, allowing viewers an increasing window of dark sky before the moon interferes.

By Nov. 4, it was rising around 1:20 a.m. (standard time), having shrunk to a crescent, and leaving more than half of the night dark for comet watchers.

Reports from around the world

Long Island, N.Y. amateur, Bryan Bradley writes: "I went out the past two nights and observed the comet from my driveway observatory. Very interesting how bright it has become. My daughters also saw it with me and commented that it looked like a big fuzzy ball, but where is the tail?"

Percy Mui photographed the comet from Illinois, capturing the fuzzball appearance reported by many.

Another Long Island amateur observer, Rich Tyson, relates that "My wife Antoinette described Comet Holmes as looking like a 'fried egg.' Can we call it the 'Fried Egg Comet?'"

Well-known comet observer John Bortle, of Stormville, N.Y., has carefully scrutinized the comet on a number of nights with a variety of different instruments.

• Click here to visit FOXNews.com's Space Center.

If you'd like a map of the night sky, there are both .pdf and .zip files available at this site, which gives you a new (and free!) evening sky map each month. (This is a great resource for homeschoolers, by the way.) You might want to know this about their maps:

Skymaps.com encourages Astronomy Education Groups and Individual Users to freely distribute printed handouts of The Evening Sky Map for non-commercial educational use. Written permission is NOT required provided distributors comply with the Terms of Use. However, any use of a commercial nature, including publication of The Evening Sky Map, requires the prior written permission of the copyright owner for which a Copyright Permission Form must be submitted.

Like I said, great for homeschoolers. Or regular classroom teachers. Or just parents looking up at the sky with their kids.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that Fox has pictures at that link, but you can also see it if you Google "Comet Holmes".

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