Don’t Miss Your Once in a Lifetime Chance to See Comet Catalina

December 29, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Comet Catalina
Photo credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Aaron Kingery

After this she is gone forever.

The start of the New Year marks a once in a lifetime opportunity to view one of the most beautiful comets ever discovered by astronomers.  Comet Catalina, also known as C/2013 US10, will make her first and only appearance in our inner Solar System this January.

Comet Catalina will be at a closest approach on January 17, 2016 in the Northern Hemisphere, but she will also be seen before sunrise on January 1 — where she is expected to move within 0.4 degrees (less than the width of a full moon) of Arcturus — one of the brightest stars in the sky.
Catalina will be fairly bright in the night sky, and you may be lucky enough to catch her with the naked eye against a very dark sky, however it’s advisable to bring some binoculars or a telescope with you.  The best time to see her will be the night of January 17, when she is 110,000,000 kilometers away and passing near the Big Dipper.  Once she hits this closest point, she will continue to move further and further away from Earth —  leaving us forever.

Unfortunately, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, it is too late to see Catalina if you have not already.  Better book your trip up north now!

SEE ALSO: Is Earth Overdue for a Run-In With a Giant Comet? 

Catalina is no ordinary comet — she has some special features.  First, she has two tails pointing in different directions: one made of gas and the other made of dust.  As comets approach the Sun, ultraviolet light ionizes the gas (strips electrons from atoms), giving them an electric charge.  This makes them extremely sensitive to solar wind.  On the other hand, as this gas sublimates (turns from ice to gas), it releases dust which is not affected by the solar wind, so it tends to just fall behind the comet.  This results in two tails pointing in different directions.

What also makes this comet special is that this is the only time she will ever pass through the inner Solar System.  Catalina is coming from very deep space, out of the Oort cloud, which is located very far past the orbit of Neptune.  Something disrupted Catalina’s orbit, possibly a passing star, which gave it enough energy to achieve the escape velocity of the Sun — meaning it is on its way out the the solar system forever.

The Sky and Telescope posted a map of the sky that’ll help those of us in the Northern Hemisphere find Catalina.

I do not know about you, but given the chance to see something I will never, ever be able to see again, it is definitely worth the early rise on January 1.  Happy sightings.

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