• Comet Erasmus To Light the Dawn Sky in 2020 Finale

    Stargazers will be treated to yet another fuzzy cosmic snowball in the sky when C/2020 S3 Erasmus comes into view later this month and deep into December.

    Closing out the fall in spectacular style after the previous parade of 2020 comets that include C/2020 F3 Neowise, F8 Swan, P1 Neowise, and M3 Atlas, Comet S3 Erasmus is streaking into our own solar system with a perihelion just inside the planet Mercury's orbit on Dec. 13, 2020.

    Right now, Erasmus is over-performing some and is currently shining happily with a +9 magnitude, but could easily get brighter.

    First spotted the night of Sep. 17th, 2020 by astronomer Nicolas Erasmus during the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) sky survey, Comet S3 Erasmus is potentially a perfect binocular comet starting in early November and continues into mid-December. 

    Erasmus is blazing along on an orbital route lasting approximately 1,800 years at a 20-degree inclination relative to the ecliptic plane. Two thousand years ago while zooming through our solar system, the comet was unseen due to the lack of any suitable optical devices at the time. Right now it appears prominently in the pre-dawn sky to the southeast alongside Mercury and Venus.

    Entering late November into early December, Erasmus loses elevation as it nears the Sun and its perihelion. In the early morning hours of Dec. 13th, the heavenly object kisses the waning crescent moon, which passes in front of Erasmus for most of northwestern Canada during full daylight, therefore making it an astronomical event which sadly can't be seen.

    Nearing Christmastime, the comet drops too low in the dawn sky, but NASA/ESA's Solar Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft SOHO will watch the cosmic journey from its sunward Lagrange L1 vantage point. In January of 2021, the comet finally takes a predictable turn and zips away from Earth on the far side of the Sun.

    Credit: NASA/JPL

    However, as it closes in to its maximum in December, S3 Erasmus does have a slim chance of developing a smallish spiked tail, and if we're very fortunate, the comet could be an overachiever and potentially enter the realm of being seen by the naked eye.

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  • Comet with 400,000 mile long tail lingers near Jupiter

    NASA'S Hubble Space Telescope made a surprise find when it spotted a comet with a 400,000 mile tail lingering near Jupiter, the space agency has announced.

    Following Jupiter's journey around the Sun are space rocks known as Trojan asteroids. These asteroids are some of the early remnants of the solar system and follow the same path as Jupiter around the Sun. Now, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a huge comet lingering near the asteroids.

    It is the first time a comet has been seen taking its place in line with the Trojan asteroids.

    NASA said: "After traveling several billion miles toward the Sun, a wayward young comet-like object orbiting among the giant planets has found a temporary parking place along the way.

    "The object has settled near a family of captured ancient asteroids, called Trojans, that are orbiting the Sun alongside Jupiter.

    Analysis from NASA revealed the comet belongs to a family called 'Centaurs'.

    Centaurs are icy bodies that live between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune.

    Scientists have called this particular one P/2019 LD2 (LD2) and have managed to track its orbit and future path.

    LD2 came close to Jupiter two years ago, and it will come close again in another two years

    Carey Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, said: "The cool thing is that you're actually catching Jupiter flinging this object around and changing its orbital behaviour and bringing it into the inner system.

    "Jupiter controls what's going on with comets once they get into the inner system by altering their orbits.

    "Short-period comets like LD2 meet their fate by being thrown into the Sun and totally disintegrating, hitting a planet, or venturing too close to Jupiter once again and getting thrown out of the solar system, which is the usual fate.

    "Simulations show that in about 500,000 years, there's a 90 percent probability that this object will be ejected from the solar system and become an interstellar comet."

    Bryce Bolin of Caltech in Pasadena, California, added: "Only Hubble could detect active comet-like features this far away at such high detail, and the images clearly show these features, such as a roughly 400,000-mile-long broad tail and high-resolution features near the nucleus due to a coma and jets

    "The visitor had to have come into the orbit of Jupiter at just the right trajectory to have this kind of configuration that gives it the appearance of sharing its orbit with the planet.

    "We’re investigating how it was captured by Jupiter and landed among the Trojans.

    "But we think it could be related to the fact that it had a somewhat close encounter with Jupiter."

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  • Fireball in the Canadian sky was a comet fragment

    Update Feb 26, 2021: Researchers have discovered what caused the giant fireball that lit up the sky earlier this week.

    On Monday morningjust before 6:30, hundreds of Albertans from Calgary to Fort McMurray reported seeing a bright flash in the sky.

    The phenomenon was even witnessed by some people in Saskatchewan.

    Now, scientists at the University of Alberta believe the bright, cosmic light was a small piece of a comet that burned up in the atmosphere.

    “Using two observation sites, we were able to calculate both its trajectory and velocity, which tell us about the origin of the meteor and reveal that it was a piece of a comet,” said Patrick Hill, with the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

    “This chunk was largely made of dust and ice, burning up immediately without leaving anything to find on the ground—but instead giving us a spectacular flash.”

    Researchers said the comet streaked through the sky to a final point on its trajectory 120 kilometres north of Edmonton.

    The small piece of space rock, likely only tens of centimetres across in size, was travelling at more than 220,000 km/hr when it entered the atmosphere.

    “This incredible speed and the orbit of the fireball tell us that the object came at us from way out at the edge of the solar system—telling us it was a comet, rather than a relatively slower rock coming from the asteroid belt,” said Chris Herd, curator of the UAlberta Meteorite Collection.

    “Comets are made up of dust and ice and are weaker than rocky objects, and hitting our atmosphere would have been like hitting a brick wall for something travelling at this speed.”

    The fireball lit up social media on Monday as Albertans shared their photos and video of the event.

    The team from the University of Alberta used Western Canada’s most advanced fireball network to calculate the trajectory of the fireball, using dark-sky images captured at the Hesje Observatory at the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station and at Lakeland College’s observation station in Vermilion.

    While nothing has been found on the ground, it is a relief to some that the mystery of the fireball has been solved.

    “This is an incredible mystery to have solved,” said Herd. “We’re thrilled that we caught it on two of our cameras, which could give everyone who saw this amazing fireball a solution.”

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