I don’t watch the news too often, I mostly get it from the internet. Pam likes to watch the evening news in the background as we eat dinner, so I’ll usually lend half-an-ear to that in case there is anything new going on that I missed. While I was gone last month, I noticed a tiny snippet on the news websites about a comet that had just suddenly blown up (for lack of better terms) that you could see in the sky. Hell, had I not caught the article that day, I probably would’ve missed it altogether; I’ve pretty much had to dig to get more info.
Space. Stars. The vastness of it all. The unfamiliarity of it all. The secrets they hold. I’ve always found this subject really interesting. Hell, I guess interesting enough that it’s what I concentrated my Physics degree in. Perhaps another time I will go into the epic proportions of everything (any number over a million and people’s comprehension starts to break down, they just know that it’s a really big number), or the current (accepted) mind-numbing laws that govern the really big and the really small… but not now. I want to get back on track on something more locally-oriented: the comet that’s in our backyard.
I’ve been looking at it now for a few weeks, and it was really easy to pick out while I was up in Kentucky (probably because I was in the middle of nowhere and there was little-to-no ambient light). I can see it here in Savannah as well, but I have to look really hard (due to city/neighborhood lighting as well as the moon light). It’s still supposed to be visible for maybe another week, though it’s now on the backside of the brightness curve and is fading. It is comet Holmes, discovered in 1892.
Holmes’ orbit remains in our solar system maxing out around Jupiter (it takes a little under 7 years to round the sun). You don’t hear about this comet like you did with Hale-Bopp or Halley’s because it is normally too dim to be seen with the naked eye… until recently. Something unknown caused it to explode, making it brighter (by magnitudes) and easily visible in the sky for a little bit. A few days ago, all the visible debris (the halo) from the exploding comet touted a larger diameter than that of our own Sun! That’s pretty amazing. As the debris continues to scatter, the comet is fading back into anonymity.
A crash-course for dummies on the make-up of a comet: All a comet is thought to be is a space rock, or gathering of space rocks, that end up covered in a lot of ice because, for the most part, they form outside of the solar system where its cold (yeah, I know it’s cold everywhere, but you get the idea). As it passes near the Sun, the solar wind/radiation melts some of the ice which becomes visible as the “tail” of the comet. Really, there are two tails: the dust tail which is created from the radiation breaking free particles and the ion tail which is from the solar wind ionizing some of the evaporated gases. Since this wind always radiates from the Sun, the tail of the comet always points away from the Sun.
The tail on Holmes really isn’t all that visible, because really what you are looking at is the explosion cloud. What caused it to blow up? They think it was made of very porous rock that broke up or caved in and exposed a bunch of fresh ice to the Sun, which evaporated (therefore expanding) and exploded outward. Whatever it was, it was cool to look up and see it for a while.
It should still be visible. The easiest way I tell people to find it is to look for Cassiopeia: it forms a lopsided “W.” From the top-center of the W, travel toward the bottom of it on the gimp side. This is one “unit.” Continue to go in that same direction about 5 units from the bottom of the W and Holmes will be in that general location. Picture of what I’m talking about to the right.
Anyway, I figured I’d give the comet a little bit of coverage here, since the media doesn’t really do it. They seem to be too wrapped up with all the stars out there: Britney Queers, Brangelina, Michael Vick and this guy Peterson who off’d a bunch of his ex-wives. Ridiculous. Just think: 2000 years ago, no one gave two shits about celebrities and such, and an event like this comet would’ve captivated the cultures of the world as a sign from God! It’s funny what we do and don’t find as being a big deal and newsworthy in this day and age…