While many of the stars we see in the sky have been around since before humanity was able to admire them, there are elements of the night sky that change very readily, usually with a splendor unmatched by their more eternal counterparts. At the time of writing, one of these events is visible to the fortunate residents of the northern hemisphere, and with basic equipment you too can enjoy one of the joys of our Solar System.
A clear view of the northern sky and a pair of binoculars, with a bit of guidance, will reveal comet Hartley 2. Comets are masses of ice, rock, organic compounds, and metal that periodically get knocked out of their stable orbits and wind up circling the Sun in giant ellipses. Though there are quite a few of these snowballs circling the Sun, very rarely does one get close enough to Earth to been seen readily with the naked eye. This generation has been quite lucky to see a few that stand out, including Hale-Bopp in 1997 and for the southern hemisphere in 2007, comet McNaught.
Hartley 2 is not the most dazzling of comets, but coming up on October 20, it should reach a point where it will be slightly visible, even possibly with the naked eye. At that point, the comet will be around 20 degrees above the horizon to the north-east, near the star Capella in the constellation of Auriga. It should appear as a fuzzy dot with a small tail directed to the south. A better view will come even earlier on October 14, as the comet will be visible along with the Double cluster. A basic search online for this comet will reveal the comet’s trajectory across the sky over the next few days that will help any stargazers having a hard time spotting it.
This comet will serve as a focus for several satellites as it nears the Earth as information caught up in these beautiful wanderers may give deeper insight into what the edge of the solar system is like. While it is entirely up to humanity whether or not we choose to explore these depths of our stellar neighborhood, through comets like Hartley 2, we can truly begin to understand what life on the edge of the Solar System may be like.
Peace and may the stars shine brightly in your skies.