New comet to be visible to naked eye for several days

Monday, February 23, 2009

Comet Lulin in January and February 2009.
Image: Joseph Brimacombe, Cairns, Australia.

For the next few days, a newly discovered, green-tinted comet will be visible by the naked eye in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Comet Lulin, with the official designation of C/2007 N3, was discovered in 2007 and astronomers say that this is the first time it has visited our solar system and may well be the last.

As it makes its way around the Sun, an astonishing 800 gallons (3 m3) of water will evaporate from the comet every second. In each 15 minute period, it will shed enough water to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool. It will come within 38 million miles of Earth at its closest pass, making it visible to the naked eye and even clearer with binoculars or a telescope.

The best viewing time for people living in the northern hemisphere is after midnight when Lulin will be at its highest point in the sky, or 40 degrees from the morning horizon. Current estimates peg the maximum brightness at 4th or 5th magnitude, which means dark country skies would be required to see it. No one can say for sure, however, because this is Lulin's first visit.

Astronomers from NASA and the United Kingdom will use the Swift Telescope to study the comet and its composition. Astronomers also say to see it while you can because this could be the first and only time it passes through our solar system. It's estimated that if it returns, it will not be for another 1,000,000 years.

"We won't be able to send a space probe to [the comet], but Swift is giving us some of the information we would get from just such a mission," said Jenny Carter, at the University of Leicester in England, who is leading the study.

The comet was discovered using the Lulin Observatory in Taiwan by astronomers Ye Quanzhi and Lin Chi-Sheng.