MARTY RUSSELL: Still a chance for a Christmas comet

MARTY RUSSELL

MARTY RUSSELL

Mother Nature seems determined to give us a comet for Christmas. I suppose that’s better than an asteroid for Christmas which seems much more likely and much more deserved. A comet in the sky would be like tinsel on the tree while an asteroid striking the planet would be more like the ultimate lump of coal in your stocking.

Three studies released last week following the impact of a 65-foot-wide chunk of space rock over Russia in February that released the equivalent energy of 30 to 40 Hiroshima bombs have concluded that there are a lot more asteroids out there than previously thought and that impacts with the Earth are more common and frequent than earlier believed.

Whereas scientists previously had thought that sizable impacts of space rocks with the Earth happened about once every 150 years, they now estimate based on new observations by asteroid-hunting spacecraft and the Russia incident that such impacts occur probably about every 30 years. Luckily, three-fourths of the planet is covered by oceans and most of those rocks fall into the seas where they have very little impact, unless you happen to be an unlucky fish in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Spotting the space menaces and predicting what they will do is tricky. Just last week astronomers found one spewing out six tails of gases, something they had never seen an asteroid do before. The same uncertainty is true of comets, the icy cousins of asteroids.

A few months ago I wrote about the possibility of a bright, huge comet being visible with the naked eye this Christmas. But Comet ISON, as it was dubbed, has so far turned out to be a dud. The comet is due to swing around the sun around Thanksgiving and arrive in Earth’s skies around Christmas. But it’s turned out to be dimmer and smaller than predicted.

But, as I said, Mother Nature seems determined and Sky and Telescope magazine is reporting this week that a new comet, Comet Lovejoy, has appeared that seems to be making up for the poor performance of ISON. Lovejoy is said to already be visible through binoculars in the southeastern sky just before dawn and is said to be 10 times brighter than ISON with a long, thin tail.

My first attempt to capture it was thwarted by clouds Tuesday morning but with clearing skies predicted you might be able to spot it before the glare of the full moon later this week blots it out. For a detailed chart of where to find it in the sky check out Sky and Telescope’s web site.

Meanwhile, there is still hope for a Christmas comet. ISON is said to be slowly brightening and its swing around the heat of the sun should burn off enough ice and dust to create an impressive tail when it becomes visible in our skies in early December and throughout the month.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at marty.russell56@gmail.com