The skies belong to everyone, part four: Comets

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, May 05, 2011

So you bought a telescope to look at everything the universe has to offer. You’ve explored the various craters and maria of the Moon plus all the planets. What should you look at next?

Phil Jones
Every once in a while, and usually completely unexpectedly, a bright comet sweeps in near the Sun and becomes the sky’s most commanding sight — temporarily. There are also many periodic comets, including Halley, that return at regular intervals and whose orbits are well-known. In either case, bright comets can be the most detailed of the solar system’s objects as viewed through binoculars or small telescopes. Such comets aren’t common, but very bright ones — Comet West in 1976, Halley in 1985/6, Hyakutake in 1996, and Hale-Bopp in 1997 — astonish everyone who ventures outside to look at them. When a bright comet does fly by, even hand-held binoculars show its nucleus, coma (a diffuse cloud of gas surrounding the nucleus), and gas and dust tails.

In fact, in 2011, we are well overdue for a bright comet. Maybe, if the sky is clear tonight, you will go out and sweep around the sky and find a fuzzy spot of light that will become the next bright comet. Why not get out there and try?

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