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Fuzzy comet has all eyes on the sky:Sudden growth unexplained

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11/04/2007 10:57 PM
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Fuzzy comet has all eyes on the sky:Sudden growth unexplained
[link to www.canada.com]

A comet that has suddenly become a dramatic presence in the night sky is now the subject of intense study and debate by area astronomers.

Comet Holmes, which appears in the northeastern sky as a yellowish, fuzzy ball, can be seen by the naked eye even in cities, such as Ottawa, that pollute the sky with light.

The comet, which follows an unusual orbit between Mars and Jupiter, is a million times brighter than normal, according to Sky and Telescope Magazine.

Its sudden activity -- the comet began its outburst Oct. 24 -- has captured the imagination of amateur astronomers around the world, including Ottawa's Shane Finnigan.

On every clear night for the past week, sometimes past midnight, Mr. Finnigan has been in his backyard, watching the comet through his 120-millimetre telescope.

"It just keeps getting bigger and bigger," said Mr. Finnigan, 43, a member of the Ottawa Valley Astronomy and Observers Group. "This is the talk of everybody in astronomy right now because it's quite an unusual comet."

Most build in size slowly as streams of dust and gas form a nebulous atmosphere, known as a coma, around the solid core of a comet. Comet Holmes, however, exploded in size and luminosity within hours because of some still-unexplained event that caused it to belch out a huge cloud of material.

That cloud of particles, when it interacts with the sun, gives the comet its yellowish hue.

The comet's eruption has almost quadrupled the size of the cloud, or its "coma," which is estimated at one million kilometres across.

Gary Boyle, who teaches astronomy at Algonquin College, has been watching the development of Comet Holmes from his backyard observatory in suburban Ottawa.

"It still looks like a dot in the sky to most people, but if you have good eyesight, you can see a little fuzzy dot," he said.

"Once you put binoculars on it, it's a real fuzz. When you put a telescope on it, you can actually see the nucleus of the comet and two layers of the outer shell debris -- and it's expanding every night."

Astronomers aren't sure what caused Comet Holmes' remarkable outburst; but one theory holds that the comet formed a hard and dirty frozen crust that trapped heat inside its shell. When that heat vapourized ice inside the shell, astronomers speculate, pressure built until being released in dramatic fashion.

Others say a sinkhole collapsed on the comet, issuing the enormous cloud of dust and gas.

The comet, which is currently moving away from the sun, can be found in the northeast by locating Cassiopeia, the W-shaped constellation that is a prominent feature of the fall sky. Then, track to the lower right into the triangle-shaped constellation, Perseus: Comet Holmes is the yellow dot in the bottom left of that triangle.

The comet is likely to stay visible to the naked eye until at least mid-November, according to SkyandTelescope.Com.