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No kidding! April Fools’ Comet

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacombini-Kresák will be closer to Earth on April 1 than it’s been since its discovery. You need a telescope to see it, but there’s an online viewing Friday night.

Dominique Dierick uploaded this image of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák to Flickr on March 25, 2017.

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Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák – first detected in 1858 – will be making the closest flyby of Earth since its discovery on April 1, 2017. It’ll zoom past at a very safe distance of around 13.2 million miles (21.2 million km), or some 50 times the moon’s distance. Amateur astronomers with small telescopes are already watching, and more people will see the comet in the coming days, especially since Slooh plans to turn its telescopes in the Canary Islands the comet’s way. Slooh’s presentation will Friday, March 31, beginning at 8:30 p.m. EDT (that’s April 1 at 00:30 UTC; translate to your time zone).

Space.com said:

The comet’s perihelion point, which is that part of its orbit taking it closest to the sun, lies just outside Earth’s orbit. This year, the perihelion passage occurs April 12, when the comet will be 97.1 million miles (156.3 million km) from the sun.

But because the orbit of the comet nearly parallels the orbit of Earth at this point, there will be a six-day period — from March 29 through April 3 — when Tuttle-Giacobini- Kresák will be very near to its closest point to Earth.

The comet is in the far-northern sky. That’s not good news for Southern Hemisphere stargazers, but Northern Hemisphere stargazers with small telescopes can now see the comet in dark skies for much of the night. That’ll be the case from now until mid-April. The comet is passing in front of the stars of the constellations Ursa Major the Greater Bear (home of the famous Big Dipper asterism) and Draco the Dragon.

View larger. | Location of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák in the northern night sky on April 1, 2017 at 9 p.m. local time as seen from mid-northern latitudes. The comet is not visible to the unaided eye, but can be spotted with a small telescope or strong binoculars. Chart via Starry Night/ Joe Rao @ Space.com

One orbit of this comet around the sun takes about 5.5 years. But of course early skywatchers with telescopes – who were the first to observe this comet – didn’t know that. Astronomer Horace Tuttle of Harvard College Observatory was the first to observe this comet on May 3, 1858. Professor M. Giacobini at the Nice Observatory in France was the second on June 1, 1907. But it wasn’t until L’ubor Kresák, a Slovak astronomer, picked up the comet while scanning with his giant 25 x 100 binoculars on April 24, 1951 that astronomers began to realize that the comets of 1858, 1907 and 1951 were all the same comet. Comets are named for their discoverers so this one carries all three names: Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák.

Read the full story of this comet’s history from Joe Rao at Space.com

Truth be told, it’s likely to be an unspectacular comet, but interesting if you’ve never seen one. And, of course, it’ll be exciting to those amateur astronomers who stand outside on these chill spring nights – search for it – and manage to pick it up.

However you manage to see it, enjoy it!

View the comet online via Slooh Friday, March 31, beginning at 8:30 p.m. EDT (that’s April 1 at 00:30 UTC; translate to your time zone).

Avid comet photographer Chris Schur uploaded this image on March 24, 2017 and wrote: “Seldom does a bright comet pass right through the bowl of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. After a close pass to the Owl nebula a few days before, the comet went on through and continues to inspire with its huge teal colored coma and sharp central condensation.” Bright comet? Yes, to an experienced comet observer like Chris. He estimated the comet’s magnitude – or visual brightness – at about 9. That’s much too faint to see with the eye alone.

Bottom line: You need a telescope to see Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacombini-Kresák, which comes closer to Earth on April 1, 2017 than it has since its discovery. Or view online, via Slooh.

Deborah Byrd

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