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A comet called Holmes in our skies

A formerly very dim comet called Holmes (17P) flared up October 24th growing many magnitudes brighter. It's outside the orbit of Mars and in the southern portion of the constellation Perseus. Last night (Oct. 27), following a day of clouds, mist, and rain, I stepped outside to a clearing sky. It took me only a second to find Holmes and view it through my 10X50 binoculars. It was a beautiful sight, though to the uninitiated, it's just a big fuzzball. That is, of course, how it actually looked... a large, brightly glowing puff with a bright dot in the center; that's how comets look "head-on" with any tail streaming behind and away from the viewer. The glow was slightly yellow or golden... quite an unusual object.

Photograph of Comet 17P/Holmes by James Guilford, October 28, 2007

For the record, Comet 17P/Holmes was serendipitously discovered by Edwin Holmes back in 1892. He had been observing Jupiter and some double stars when he happened across "his" comet when aiming his 32-cm reflector towards the Andromeda Galaxy (or "nebula," back then) to finish up for the night. So his surprise then is a surprise and delight to us today.

Knowledgable stargazers will find the comet immediately as they study the constellation Perseus because, to the unaided eye, it looks like an out-of-place star. Look at it in binoculars, however, for full enjoyment. The constellation and the comet will be well-placed for viewing in the eastern sky after about 9:00 PM ... later is better as the stars (and comet) rise higher into the sky.

To help you find the comet use the Spotting Chart at Spaceweather.com. You can learn more about the recent dramatic change in this comet in an excellent article at Sky and Telescope Magazine. Astronomy Magazine can also help you find this object. Of course, you can also "Google" for "Comet 17P/Holmes" and get lots of information.

Enjoy the view now... the flare-up was totally unexpected and it is not known how long it will last. One can see only just so many comets in a lifetime so grab those binoculars, put on a coat, go out, and take a look tonight!

Photo above by James Guilford, Oct. 28, 2007. Bright dots are not part of the comet but background stars shining through the comet's cloud.


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