Comet 17P/Holmes may be old, but it can still kick up its heels and go dancing with the stars! It was discovered more than 100 years ago, and since then has made 16 loops around the Sun. It should have fizzled long ago, but just this week Comet Holmes surprised sky watchers with a stunning outburst, becoming brighter than any comet in the past decade.
Moreover, Comet Holmes looks different than any other comet of our generation. It’s tailless, appearing more like a round, yellowish fuzzball in the constellation Perseus.
The comet currently shines at 2nd or 3rd magnitude and is visible in the northern sky. Observers at mid-northern latitudes can watch the comet all night long. It spans an apparent diameter of 90 arc-seconds on the sky, three times that of Jupiter. Sky charts showing where to look for the comet are online at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/home/10775326.html and http://www.space.com/spacewatch/071025-comet-holmes.html.
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is home to the Minor Planet Center, which tracks known comets and asteroids, and to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which announces comet discoveries, recoveries, splittings, and outbursts.
On Thursday, the CfA public affairs office asked their organization to try observing the comet and send in viewing reports and images. The results were beyond all expectations, as staff on distant mountaintops and in suburban backyards responded to the call, despite the compelling call of the Red Sox World Series game 2.
At right, click the link for CfA staff photos offered for the world to see.
Viewers reported that the comet was unlike anything they had ever seen:
"It was very nice this morning, about 5:30. Easy naked eye in spite of a full Moon. It was a slightly yellow fuzzball in 10 x 50 binocs, bigger in diameter than I had expected. It was a lovely sight." - Sam Palmer (CfA)
"I saw Comet Holmes last night and this morning. It looks like a big yellow globular cluster through binoculars. Truly a one of a kind object. I hope more folks take the time to view it. It was holding steady at probably just under 2nd mag and was the third brightest 'star' in Perseus as seen with the naked eye." - Dan Rehner (CfA)
"Easy naked-eye object, even in near-Full-Moon sky. Appears to be as bright as (or possibly slightly brighter than) delta Persei. In small binoculars, it is extended with a hint of color in the coma (but in moonlit and slightly cloudy conditions difficult to judge if color is real)." - Gareth Williams (CfA)
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.