Comet 17p Holmes easy to spot

  • By Mike Lynch Special to The Herald
  • Friday, November 2, 2007 2:42pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

With the end of daylight saving time, it’s dark enough for stargazing right by 7 p.m. You can make the stars your old friends and still get a very good night’s sleep, but the trade-off is that you need to bundle up a little bit more and be prepared to have your lungs take in the colder November air. It’s worth it, though, as your eyes will take in some great celestial sights.

There’s a comet in the sky to start out the month. It called comet 17p Holmes, and up until recently it’s been faint and obscure, but two weeks ago it suddenly flared up to the point where you can see it with the naked eye.

It’s visible all night long, and for about the next week or so you should be able to see it unaided, although you can see it a lot better with a pair of binoculars or small telescope. I think you’ll like what you see.

It’ll appear as ghostly smudge with a slight tail to it and a bright nucleus. The best way to find it in the early evening is to look for the bright star Capella in the low northeast sky. It’s by far the brightest star in that part of the sky.

Comet Holmes will look like a fuzzy star to upper right of Capella about one to two fist-widths at arm’s length. Again, you’ll see it much better with binoculars or a small telescope

Even though it’s still autumn, some of the early bright constellations of winter are already on the rise on the great celestial stage. First, you can’t help but see a beautiful little star cluster shining brightly in the low eastern sky resembling a tiny dipper. It’s not the Little Dipper. That’s in the high northern sky.

What you’re witnessing is the Pleiades star cluster, the best naked eye star cluster in the night sky. See how many stars you can see in it. Can you see six? If you can your eyes are about average. If you can see seven stars you’ve really been eating your carrots. If you can see more than seven, you have super vision, or you’re just kidding yourself.

A lot of you may know the Pleiades star cluster by its nickname, “The Seven Sisters.” But believe me, there are a lot more than seven shiners there. With just an average pair of binoculars you may see more than a hundred stars. The Pleiades are a group of young stars almost 2.4 quadrillion miles away that were born together about 100 million years ago.

In the southeastern sky you can see the Great Square of Pegasus, the torso of the wonderful constellation Pegasus (the winged horse). The Square actually looks like a diamond since it is turned diagonally to our view. You can see a long arc of stars curving from the star on the left corner the diamond. That arc makes up the wing of the big celestial horse.

In the western sky there are still some summer constellations visible. Among the brighter ones are Cygnus, Lyra and ­Aquila. We won’t see them for too much longer, because as our Earth orbits the sun, these stars of summer will gradually set earlier and earlier in the evening.

Unfortunately, there are no planets to be found in the early evening skies this month. The bright planet Jupiter, seen for most of October in the low southwest sky, now sets before the end of twilight. But you late-nighters can watch Mars rise in the eastern sky after about 9 p.m. It is bright and definitely red as it climbs above the horizon.

Next month around Christmas, Mars will be at its closest point to the Earth in more than two years. Stayed turned for more on the holiday Mars invasion.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio on Minneapolis and author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site,

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