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One-Minute Astronomer

A Surprisingly Bright Comet in Pegasus

10 Oct 2012, 02:07 UTC
A Surprisingly Bright Comet in Pegasus
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There’s nearly always a handful of dim and forgettable comets trudging across the heavens, attracting a few solar system astronomers and keen amateurs with large telescopes. But sometimes one of these faint objects will unexpectedly flare up like a flash bulb and gain wider attention. That’s what’s happened to the obscure Comet 168P/Hergenrother. It brightened last week by a factor of 100 and now lies within easy reach of a small telescope.

While it’s still not a bright object, Comet 168P/Hergenrother flared up just as it reached perihelion on October 1. Astronomers expected the comet peak at a very faint magnitude 15, well beyond the reach of visual observers with small telescopes. But shortly after perihelion, the comet unexpectedly brightened 100x to about magnitude 10.
What caused this sudden brightening? As the Sun baked the surface of the comet, a pocket of ice likely melted and popped open, spewing forth a large amount of gas and dust which reflected more light from the Sun. It was an unexpected event. But that’s the thing with comets… they are unpredictable. Or in the words of my old colleague, the famous comet hunter David Levy, ”Comets are like cats: they have tails, and ...

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