Image courtesy Slooh Space Camera
Published October 23, 2012
Like rocket ships passing in the night, a pair of comets will appear to whiz past each other in the sky Tuesday. Starting at 5 p.m. ET, armchair astronomers can catch the show live online via observatories on a Canary Islands (map) volcano.
Though invisible to the naked eye, comet 168P/Hergenrother and comet C/2012 J1 (Catalina)—discovered just last May—have both been faintly visible through backyard telescopes for the past few weeks. As they approach the sun, more of their ice is vaporizing, adding to their hazy, reflective envelopes of gas and dust; producing characteristic comet tails; and boosting their brightness.
Video: Watch Live Feed of Comet Rendezvous
"Two comets with developed tails, visibly heading in opposite directions and changing position while we watch and 'missing' each other by a mere three-quarters of one degree—I simply can't recall ever seeing this happen!" enthused Bob Berman, an astronomer and columnist with Astronomy magazine.
That three-quarter-degree separation—roughly the width of the full moon's disk, as seen via the naked eye—is a fortunate illusion of perspective for sky-watchers. In reality the void between the two comets is about twice as long as Earth's distance from the sun.
(Related: How big a threat are comets to Earth?)
Via a related brick-and-mortar observatory along the slopes of Teide volcano on the Spanish island of Tenerife, the Web-based SLOOH Space Camera will broadcast footage of the two icy interlopers. Adding to the occasion will be real-time discussions with astronomy experts, including Berman.
Around the world, scientists will be watching the sky show to learn more about the physical properties and origins of the comets—though that's not the first thing on Berman's mind.
"The prospect of seeing two comets simultaneously is immensely attractive," he said, "not for the science, or any other rational reason, but because of the sheer visceral impact it may have."
"People find it instructive and helpful, but also kind of fun—in a macabre kind of way," says the American Alpine Club's executive editor.
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