Before we knew the true nature of comets, they were seen as harbingers of doom. The appearance of an unexpected bright object in the sky was seen as a bad omen and often identified as the cause of some terrible happenings here on Earth. Even our old friend Halley's Comet was excommunicated by Pope Callixtus III as an instrument of the devil back in 1456!
Thankfully, we now understand comets much better and their appearance is welcomed as an exciting sight in the night skies of the 21st Century.
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Comet Catalina - more formally known as C/2013 US10 (Catalina) - is the latest cometary visitor that has put in an appearance and sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere have been looking forward to getting a glimpse as the festive comet gently drifts across the sky.
As its name suggests, C/2013 US10 (Catalina) was discovered in October 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey when it was about a million times fainter than objects that can be seen by the naked eye. The survey utilizes two US telescopes, one which is 1.5 meters in diameter and the other 68 centimeters in diameter, and between them both they scour the sky every night on the look out for so-called near-Earth objects (or NEOs). In doing so, it often picks up all manner of other objects and C/2013 US10 (Catalina) was one of those special objects.
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Since its discovery, the comet has been heading toward the sun reaching speeds of over 100,000 miles per hour (165,000 kilometers per hour). It made its closest approach to the sun on Nov. 15 and is now heading back out of the inner solar system but putting on a bit of a show on its way out.
Its closest approach to Earth will be on Jan. 17 when it rattles by at 68 million miles (110 million kilometers). That may sound close by astronomical distances, but it is still over 280 times more distant than the moon is to the Earth. If you want to try and spot the comet for yourself then there is a great opportunity to find it on the nights around the 31st December.
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If you can drag yourself away from New Year celebrations, head outside and locate the bright red star Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes. Once you have found Arcturus, scan the area around the star with binoculars and you should easily find the elongated fuzzy blob of the comet.
Those of you with DSLR cameras or those with cameras cable of taking longer than usual exposures - perhaps 20 seconds or so should try and get a pic of the comet as it passes by.
What a great way to start 2016!