Astronomy news - Go out and see Comet Lulin!

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Go out and see Comet Lulin!

17 February 2009

Comet Lulin is currently moving past the bright star Spica in Virgo and is just about visible with the unaided eye from a dark-sky site. The best way to observe it is to look with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, and you should see a fuzzy, greenish ball with a narrow tail.

The comet was discovered in 2007 by two astronomers, Ye Quanzhi of Sun Yat-sen University, China using images obtained by Lin Chi-Sheng at the Lu-Lin Observatory of the National Central University, Taiwan.

The comet is brightening as it moves towards its closest encounter with Earth on 24 February, when it will then be in the constellation of Leo. On the night of 23/24 February, Comet Lulin makes a close pass of the planet Saturn. It will still be visible into March in Cancer but will be fading as it travels away from the Earth.

It is travelling in the opposite direction of the planets so appears to have a very high speed, moving at about 5° per day. This means that you can notice it moving against the background of the stars.

At present, you would have to get up between midnight and dawn to see it, but by the 24th it will be rising much earlier and will be visible after 8pm in the south-eastern sky.

Comets are loosely-bound balls of rock, dust and ice that originate in the far reaches of the Solar System way-beyond Pluto, at which distance it is so cold that even gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide are frozen-solid like rock. A close encounter with another object has perturbed their orbits and sent them careering in towards the Sun.

As they approach the Sun, they heat up and the gases evaporate explosively. This creates a cloud of dust and gas in a ball around the comet. Ionised particles streaming out from the Sun (the Solar Wind) interact with this cloud and create a tail of gas and dust behind the comet pointing away from the Sun. The result is a spectacular new object in the night sky for us observers on Earth.

So, make the most of any clear night and go out to have a look!

For more info, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C/2007_N3 and then follow the 'External links' for photos, 3D maps, sky charts, etc.

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