Image: Comet
Image © Sid Leach (www.sidleach.com), used with permission
Sid Leach photographed comet Lulin from his backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona on Jan. 27, 2009.
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updated 2/20/2009 2:58:05 PM ET 2009-02-20T19:58:05

A recently discovered comet is making its closest approach to Earth in the next few days and offers anyone with binoculars or a small telescope a chance to see some frozen leftovers of our solar system's making.

Comet Lulin has, as expected, crossed the threshold to naked-eye visibility for people with dark, rural skies. It hovers just inside that envelope of visibility, however, and is not likely visible from cities, where the glare of urban lights can drown out all but the brightest night-sky objects.

"The comet is now naked-eye (if you're out in the country) and is brightening every day as it approaches Earth," said Jack Newton, who has made several photographs of Lulin from his Arizona Sky Village, a residential community committed to pristine natural surroundings and dark skies. "Some feel it will reach maximum brightness on Saturday morning."

NASA has imaged the comet, too, finding that it is shedding into space enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 15 minutes, as the sun boils the comet's surface material away.

Lulin will be closest to Earth -- about 38 million miles, or 160 times farther than the moon -- on Feb. 24 [sky map].

The comet, tinted green because of the chemicals in its head, or coma, has been a delight to seasoned skywatchers like Newton, who know how to find faint objects in the sky and then zoom in on them with binoculars and telescopes.

But a comet this dim can prove challenging for the rest of us.

"For those not-so-seasoned folks, I would advise them not to expect anything awe-inspiring," said Joe Rao, SPACE.com's Night Sky Columnist. "Visually to the naked eye in a dark sky, Lulin looks like a dim, fuzzy 'star' and in a small telescope it appears like a fuzzball ... somewhat brighter and more concentrated near the center and more diffuse around the edges.

8 great space telescopesAs comets go, it's nice, but casual skywatchers are more likely to say, 'That's it?' as opposed to more experienced observers who might actually utter, 'Oh, wow!'"

Comets are known for their tails, which, like the fuzzy heads, form when solar radiation breaks up surface ice and minerals. The stuff escapes into space, forming an ephemeral atmosphere that glows with reflected sunlight. Lulin has formed and lost its tail at least twice, when gusts of solar wind tore it off.

Observers last night found little or no tail.

Worth a look
Still, even a cosmic fuzzball can inspire a wee bit of awe as one goes out, looks up, and spots a frozen ball of rock and ice that's been hurtling through the solar system since its formation 4.6 billion years ago, just now making its first pass through the inner solar system.

For most locations in the Northern Hemisphere, Lulin rises soon enough to be spotted in the late evening if you know where to look. The light from objects nearer to the horizon must pass through more of Earth's atmosphere, however, so the best time to see the comet is after midnight, when it's high in the sky.

SPACE.com asked Jack Newton if he'd recommend the comet to casual observers Saturday night. "Absolutely," he said. "Binoculars should be just great."

On the night of Feb. 23, Lulin will be just 2-degrees south-southwest of the planet Saturn, which Rao said will serve as a good benchmark to locate the comet.

Meanwhile, NASA used its Swift Gamma-ray Explorer satellite to photograph Lulin in ultraviolet and X-rays.

"The comet is quite active," said Dennis Bodewits of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "The UVOT data show that Lulin was shedding nearly 800 gallons of water each second."

"We are looking forward to future observations of Comet Lulin, when we hope to get better X-ray data to help us determine its makeup," said Jenny Carter, at the University of Leicester, U.K., who is leading the study effort. "They will allow us to build up a more complete 3-D picture of the comet during its flight through the solar system."

The comet is headed away from the sun now, back to the dark depths of the outer solar system. It will fade from our view by mid-March.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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