Have you seen Comet 17/P Holmes? If not, don't wait too long!
This is a naked eye comet, meaning it is visible without the aid of binoculars or a telescope. The last real naked eye comet we had was Hale-Bopp in 1997. The brightness a particular comet will attain is not very predictable -- for example, Halley's Comet, famous for being a very bright, naked eye comet, was a disappointment during the last pass in 1986. This one, Holmes, was not expected to be bright enough to be visible through anything but a telescope, but it went from magnitude 17 to 2.5 in a few hours (the lower the numbers the brighter the object -- and really bright objects can have negative magnitudes) at the end of October. For comparison, the limit of the human eye is a magnitude 6; Sirius, the brightest star is -1.4; and the full moon is -12.5.
Now I don't want to hear any of the following:
- I can't find anything in the sky (I am going to show you where to find it.)
- I don't have a telescope (It will look very cool in binoculars, and you have those, don't you? Actually, this is one of those objects that will look as good in binoculars as it does in most scopes.)
- I don't want to get up at 3 a.m. (No sleep loss needed -- early evening will be fine.)
- I keep meaning to go out and look at it, but I forget (You didn't really forget, did you? You were watching Desperate Housewives. That's why The Flying Spaghetti Monster gave mankind VCRs -- tape it.)
WHERE IN THE SKY TO LOOK
Here is a map and here is a another map. Face north east -- the Big Dipper will be slightly on your left (FYI, the two right-most stars of the Dipper are pointer stars to Polaris, or the North Star, seen on the left side of the first map). Look for the big "W" (the constellation Cassiopeia) -- it is easy to see in the sky. In the evening, however, it will be tipped on it's side.
The first map is good, but it has more stars on it than you are likely to see unless you are in a very dark site. So, from Cassiopeia, look down and to the right. You will see a single star, and then a triangle just below it. Look at the left-most star of the triangle. Doesn't it look just a bit fuzzy? THAT is the comet.
Whether or not you have found it, get out your binoculars. If you aren't sure if you found it in the sky, use the binoculars to scan the area. What you are looking for is a big, fuzzy ball. It will be easy to find in binoculars.
You are not going to see a tail on the comet -- the sun is behind us, so the tail is streaming behind the comet and is, from our point of view, hidden by the comet itself. Some people with telescopes are reporting they are beginning to see a tail now, but you won't be able to see it. You may be able to see a brightening in the center of the comet, which is the comet's core.
WHEN TO LOOK
Early evening, after it has gotten completely dark.
I have been showing the comet to people who wander by my campsite, and the response has been terrific. Don't wait too long -- it will be gone before you know it, but that Desperate Housewives show you thought you just HAD to watch will be in reruns and syndication for a long, long time!