Tuesday, February 24, 2009


All this month, the newly discovered (as of 2007) comet, Lulin, has been streaking towards its maiden rendezvous with our Earth, and tonight is the big night. Lulin will be at its closest (38 million miles/61 million km) to us, and at its brightest. It may still be difficult to see with the naked eye, but a small telescope, or even a good pair of binocs, like a 10x50, should do the trick. Of course, two more things are necessary: clear skies away from manmade light sources, and knowing where and when to look. But for those who can see it, it should be a real reward, even if all it looks like is a fuzzy ball. Those who have more eye power available may get to see Lulin’s unique twin tails. Here from an expert:

Comet Lulin is arriving from the far reaches of the solar system on a nearly parabolic orbit—"it's almost as if it comes from infinity and goes back out to infinity," he said. This means Lulin could be on its first pass by the sun, so the comet should still be encrusted in "fresh" ices preserved by the freezing environment of the outer solar system.

As the object is exposed to the sun's heat for the first time, those ices will vaporize, possibly causing the comet to brighten rapidly or even break apart.What's more, the comet's orbit is in nearly the same plane as Earth's but is traveling in the opposite direction. This causes Lulin to appear to move unusually fast and display a rare anti-tail—an optical effect that creates a secondary "tail" pointing toward the sun. (Mark Hammergren, Adler Planetarium, Chicago)

The comet will be visible in the northern hemisphere, with decreasing brightness, the rest of this month and into early March, as it hurries on its journey, but obviously the best viewing is tonight and the next few nights.

The above star map (from NASA) shows comet Lulin in the predawn sky tonight, looking to the southwest, but perhaps the easiest viewing will be around midnight, when it will be pretty much right overhead. I’m going to try for a little later, when it should be out over the lake, with an unobstructed view (i.e. no trees!). Here’s another way to help orient yourself – find the last star in the handle of the Big Dipper. Follow it down and slightly to the left to the next bright star, Arcturus, in the constellation Boötes. Then swing your eye to the right and look for the bright planet Saturn at the edge of the constellation Leo. Good luck to us all, and we'd love to hear if you found it!


Sylvia K said...

That's really fascinating! Doubt I will be able to see anything from here because of the heavy cloud cover, day and night. But who knows?

Betsy from Tennessee said...

I read about this Deb... But--looks like the clouds are going to roll in --and stay for several days. My son has a telescope --and I'll bet he'll be watching (depending upon his weather).

Have a great day.

Lindab said...

I hadn't heard about this (not hearing/watching/reading much news just now). Cloudy here tonight, unfortunately, but I'll definitely get the binoculars out another night if it's clear.

Did you see Hale-Bopp in 1996/97? That was literally 'awesome'.

Lin said...

interesting, it's warm enough here to look for it.

Kallen305 said...

I am really getting into all of this. I have been meaning to get outside and have a look for myself, but am waiting for the weather to be a little warmer this week so I can get out there for a while and enjoy it.

Shellmo said...

We might try from our cabin this weekend and look above the lake! we have to dig out my hubby's telescope. Thanks for posting this!!

Cloudia said...

Very cool post (and comet)! Aloha-

magiceye said...

wonder if we in mumbai could get a chance to view it. would be exciting!

Avid Reader said...

I'm going outside now to look, hope I get to see it. Happy Lulin!