In quotes because it isn't really exploding, as far as we know. Comet 17P/Holmes, a normally insignificant object so faint that you need a hefty telescope even to see it, suddenly blossomed last week from a 17th magnitude pinprick to a 2.5 magnitude noteworthy. Currently in the constellation Perseus, it is easily visible to the naked eye after sunset, as soon as the sky darkens, in the northeast. For photos and sky diagrams, check out Spaceweather.com
. Print out the chart unless you are very familiar with the night sky and have a good eidetic memory for where to look. I thought I could get it by memory and failed, had to come back into the house and memorize the diagram more precisely. I was looking too far to the north.
Although descriptions keep saying that the hazy coma around the nucleus of the comet is visible to the naked eye, I did not find it so. I have above average night vision, but without the binoculars it just looks like a second magnitude star to me. Comparing to the star chart, you realize that there isn't supposed to be a star there, and it is so bright and obvious that it never could have been missed when the chart was made. With the small pocket binoculars I use for birdwatching, the image blossoms to match the photos on the website. Yes, it looks like a pinprick of bright light surrounded by a haze of glowing gas or droplets. I kept dropping the binoculars and looking, then looking through them again. I couldn't believe the difference. My eye told me it was just a star, but the binoculars reveal the comet nature of the object. It is not displaying a tail at present.
I usually rely on Guy Ottwell's guide to the sky, but that was printed last December and of course he had no clue that this event was going to occur. In fact, 17P/Holmes isn't even mentioned, because it is normally so faint. He must already be preparing the text for the 2008 edition, or may have already sent it to print. I'm sure he'll be chagrined if he missed the chance to comment on this in retrospect.
The comet is bright enough to see even through city lights. Try to catch it between sunset and moonrise, presently between 6:30 and 9:00 pm local daylight time in the US. Unless you have a really dark sky, you'll probably need binoculars or a small telescope to see the detail. It's worth the effort though. In fact, it is much more spectacular than Halley's comet was on it's most recent appearance.
Without Ottwell's guidance, I'm at a loss to interpret the tables of orbital data available at Spaceweather.com. I don't know if the comet is approaching perihelion or already moving away from it. Perhaps someone like dakhun
will tell us. If it is still inbound, then there is a possibility of a really spectacular display.
Interestingly, 17P/Holmes did something similar back in 1892 or so. Since then, it has remained quite undistinguished until this year. The speculation seems to be that the comet has sinkholes or ice caves in it, and when one collapses it exposes new surfaces to rapid evaporation and erosion all at once, producing this nova-like effect.
So why am I irritated? LIght pollution and stupid (very stupid) neighbors. It's bad enough that our once clear view of the Milky Way has been eroded by useless parking lot lighting in the blossoming suburbs 20 or 30 miles from here, but we also have an immediate next door neighbor who is apparently terrified of the dark. She keeps four blazing high powered floodlights aimed at her driveway, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They are never off. When there is snow on the ground they are blinding. They shine right in my dining room window and I could read by them in winter even though they are a football field away. Fortunately, my view to the north is best by going to the pasture, which is behind her house, away from those obnoxious lights and usually darker. Not tonight. on my second trip out there, she apparently noticed the sound of my feet in the leaves or something. Before I was done locating and examining the comet, wham, on comes another million-watt floodlight right in my face. This thing is casting shadows a full quarter mile long, and her two ill-behaved yappy dogs come charging out of the house barking at the maximum volume they can obtain. Said mutts know better than to cross the property line now, but they track me all along it as if it were a fence, barking their guts out. She stands under the floodlight calling them in a shrill voice, which they ignore, because neither of them has had the least obedience training. There is no point in arguing with her about this, she just doesn't get it. She can't understand why anyone would go out in the middle of the night to "look at stars" and is sure that anything moving around out there in the dark is either about to rob her or eat her flowerbeds.
The moon was rising anyway, so I just came back inside. I think I need to move to Wyoming or something.
When the present collapse in the housing market recovers, they will begin to progress again on the obscene development just north of me. Where there was just a 400 acre cornfield, there will be 85 suburban houses, every one of them equipped with enough light polluting and noise producing gadgetry to make me weep. Losing the Milky Way in the last ten years will be as nothing. I will lose all but the brightest stars, and all of my quiet. It will be perpetual lawnmowers by day, and blaring television receivers by night, I'm sure. My abnormally sensitive hearing detects neighbors having a party half a mile or more away now. Some 85 neighbors at a quarter mile is likely to be unbearable.