Comet Holmes has gone in a few days from an obscure solar system traveler, detectable only with powerful telescopes, to astronomical phenomenon, visible to unaided eyes throughout the night, starting after dusk in the northeastern sky.
The comet, which travels in seven-year orbits between Jupiter and Mars, has blossomed like a chrysanthemum for reasons astronomers still don't know.
The comet has been a wallflower since 1892, the last time it brightened like this and was discovered by Englishman Edwin Holmes.
The comet is typically a 17th-magnitude object. In astronomy values, the larger the number, the fainter the object. It is now listed as a second-magnitude object, easily visible without telescopes, even in areas with heavy light pollution.
"That's a millionfold increase in brightness," said University of Alabama astronomy Professor Bill Keel. "The fact that it's done it before and other comets haven't speaks against the most obvious explanation, which is, `Look, it's cruising near the asteroid belt and hit something.' But that doesn't explain why it did it once before in a different part of its orbit."
Read the rest here.
I do love a mystery. Scientists expect the comet to dim gradually and fade from view till the next time it inexplicably brightens, perhaps in another 115 years. Maybe by then we'll have a prototype of the Enterprise to go take a look at it.
Anyway, I'm glad that seeing this comet doesn't cause people to turn to dust.