Thursday, February 16, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Finding Comet Encke, a comet rich in history

Last week you no doubt saw the media celebration of three celestial events occurring all at the same time. There was excitement over a snow moon, a lunar eclipse, and Comet 45P making its closest appearance to Earth.

A lot of people were excited about the possibilities, but ended up being completely down in the dumps about the reality.

I told you in this column that the lunar eclipse would be unspectacular and that it was. And, skywatchers who had expected to see the comet were let down, too. It surely wasn’t visible with the naked eye, binoculars and most backyard telescopes. Readers of this column might have known that, because my preview of 2017’s skies didn’t even mention the comet and I didn’t give you a recent scouting report on Comet 45P.

When the press pulls that sort of build-up routine, it creates a sort of “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome. Nature lovers won’t go out to see the next comet that hits the press because they had been let down so badly before.

That’s why you should get you nature and science news from a trusted source like All WNY News. And, that’s why you should get your butt outside this month….a comet that actually will be visible to backyard observers toting field glasses will make itself available to us on the Niagara Frontier.

Comet 2P/Encke is a regularly-observed celestial body, as it completes an orbit of the sun every 3.3 years. It was first recorded in 1786. Then, its orbit was calculated in 1819 by Johann Encke (hence the comet’s common name). Mister Encke was a German astronomer who has his name plastered across all sorts of things in the sky – not only this comet, but also an asteroid, a crater on the moon, and the gap in Saturn’s rings.

Comet Encke is a small ball of ice and stone, with a diameter just under 3 miles. But, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact on us here on Earth. The tail is a regular contributor to the Taurids meteor shower and it is believed that a huge chunk of the comet caused the infamous Tunguska Event of 1908 when a cometary body exploded 5 miles above Russian soil and flattened almost 800 square miles of forest. Fortunately, it was a wilderness area and there were no human causalities.

Some scholars also believe that the swastika, which is an ancient symbol that had its roots far before the Nazis, was inspired by a bright head-on appearance of Encke centuries ago when it was a larger, brighter and more active comet.

Comet Encke will be relatively easy to find with binoculars. Look to the western sky about an hour after the sun sets. It will be very close to and just to the right of Venus, the brightest planet in the sky, which will make it easy to locate. Encke will appear as a small, fuzzy, green/blue glow. The angle will be as such that the tail will not be visible with binoculars on this trip around the sun. The comet will be visible for the next two weeks before its glare is overcome by the sun’s glow by early-March.

So, grab your binoculars, get out there are enjoy this comet while you can. It’s always cool to see one of these nighttime wonders – especially one so rich in history, one that changed our world in a few ways.

From the 26 February 2017 All WNY News

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