Babe Among The Stars: Year of the Comet

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

Year of the Comet

This year has been designated the 'year of the comet' by astronomers, because there's one on the way which is causing great excitement in the scientific community. Comets, of course, are nothing new to denizens of the Earth, they have been logged historically since ancient times. Some people have become obsessed with them – for example the French astronomer Charles Messier, whose legacy is his wonderful catalogue of non-comets which includes a supernova remnant, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies (although no-one knew that they were galaxies then). Messier's obsession earned him the nickname 'the comet ferret' by no less a personage than his patron King Louis XV. Luckily for Messier, he was alive at the time of the return of the most famous comet of all, Comet Halley (1759). The date was predictable because Comet Halley is a periodic comet. However, some comets are one-offs, they shoot through our Solar System like a cosmic bullet and keep going, never to be seen by human eyes again.

What all comets have in common though, is that they leave a trail of debris. If they have crossed Earth's orbit around the Sun when they passed through, then the Earth will encounter these comet remnants. We on Earth see the encounter as a meteor shower; there's something quite magical about experiencing them, and even an unexpected 'shooting star' can be meaningful.

Through sheer chance (unless you believe in astrology), April's meteor shower was provided by the parent comet Thatcher. Nothing to do with the famous female politician who died in April, in case you were wondering. It's just a coincidence!

May 2013 Diary Dates

Astronomers can predict meteor showers because the Earth's orbit is stable (thank goodness!) – the one due this month is the Eta Aquariids (named after the direction from which the radiant hails). The detritus which creates this particular meteor shower was left behind by Halley's Comet.

  • 03: Are We Alone: Current Efforts to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence talk by Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute at the University of Hawaii
  • 04: The Moon passes 6° north of Neptune
  • 05/06: Eta Aquariids meteor shower peaks
  • 06: The Moon passes 4° north of Uranus
  • 09/10: Annular solar eclipse visible from Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Ocean area to the east of French Polynesia
  • 10: New Moon
  • 12: The Moon passes 3° south of Jupiter
  • 13: The Moon is at apogee
  • 18: Venus is 6° north of 'the Eye of the Bull' Aldebaran
  • 20: Mercury is 7° north of Aldebaran
  • 25: May's Full Moon: the Flower Moon
  • 25: Penumbral lunar eclipse visible from the Americas and Africa
  • 24-29: Mercury, Venus and Jupiter in conjunction
  • 31: The Moon passes 6° north of Neptune

  • Chat about your celestial observances at the H2G2 Astronomy Society. Comment on anything in this edition of Babe Among the Stars by starting a new conversation below.

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