Thursday, April 6, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák

Western New York skywatchers are blessed with an excellent year for comets that are visible with binoculars and perhaps the naked eye -- if we’re lucky.

In February, Comet 2P/Encke could be seen in the western sky with field glasses. In May, Comet C/2015 V2 (Johnson) will become available to us, once again by binoculars.

This month, we’ll be able to track Comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák (which we’ll call 41P for brevity’s sake).

Comet 41P comes from the Jupiter family of comets. This doesn’t mean they came from Jupiter, it means that the giant planet actually controls their orbits. On occasion, Jupiter’s pull has proven so strong that comets have crashed into it. This specific comet passes by Earth every 5.4 years.

41P made it closest approach ever to Earth on April 1 st . Don’t be scared…this isn’t a sci-fi movie in which a comet will strike the Earth and wipe out humanity. When talking about the cosmos, “close” is still a vast distance – the ball of ice and dirt was still some 13.2 million miles away from us. That’s fifty times the distance to the moon.

The comet is easy to find because she is located near the best-known of all constellations – Ursa Major, which holds the Big Dipper. Over the next few weeks, 41P can be found between the Big Dipper and another constellation, Draco the Dragon.

Comet 41P is not very large, coming in at just a mile in width, so it doesn’t really make for prime viewing. For now, it cannot be seen with the naked eye. You will have to use binoculars or a telescope. You’ll be looking for a fuzzball of green-blue light.

It will probably stay that way for the next few weeks unless we are lucky.

In 1973 as it neared the sun on its orbit its brightness increased by a whopping 10,000 times, which made the comet easily visible to the naked eye. Outbursts, though much weaker, also happened in 1995 and 2001.

The comet will be closest to the sun on April 12 th , so if she’s going to brighten, it will be in the next few days.

Keep your fingers crossed. Let’s hope an outburst does happen, because there are few astronomical sights as mystifying as a naked-eye comet.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News

From the 06 April 2017 All WNY News

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