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Ye Olde Comet Tails

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2min 00sec
Two for one..
Credit Ian Sharp / NASA.gov
Two for one..

This week Hal sheds light on the origin and orbit of Comet Catalina.

Have you been feeling any sense of doom lately? Have you been worried about Kings falling from their thrones? If so, it might be related to a brand-new celestial visitor to our skies, a comet! And it might also mean you think we are still in the Middle Ages, because that’s when people thought that comets were harbingers of ill fortune, rather than amazing visitors from the great beyond. 

And, when I say “new” I mean new to us here on Earth. Comets are about as old as the Solar System itself, made from materials left over when the planets formed, about four and a half billion years ago.

So welcome Comet Catalina! Discovered by astronomers only two years ago, it was initially thought to be a rocky asteroid. It has just now finished its plunge in toward the Sun, and has whipped around the backside and is now heading out, we can see that it has brightened considerably, as the solar winds pounded its surface. It has two tails.  Yes, I said two. One made of dust and the other a plasma trail of ionized gas. They’re about a half a million miles long each.

Comet Catalina is visible shortly before sunrise. And I should explain what I mean by visible. The comet is just bright enough to be seen by the naked eye if you are away from city lights and bright moon. Otherwise, you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see this wonder.

On New Year’s Day, just before dawn, it will pass within a half a degree, which is about half the width of your pinky held out at arm’s length, from the very bright star Arcturus.

On January 12th, Comet Catalina will zip past Mizar, the star that is at the bend in the handle of the Big Dipper. After that it will continue off into space until it returns in about 450 years. So take a look at it now, or start planning to take a really long nap before you can see it again.

If you’d like to take a closer look at Comet Catalina, or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit KRCC.org or CSASTRO.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties! 

This is Hal Bidlack for the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society, telling you to keep looking up, Southern Colorado!