San Jose, Calif. Astronomers and backyard stargazers are going gaga this week over the flying fuzz ball known as Comet Holmes.
First discovered in 1892, the comet has played hide-and-seek with star-watchers ever since, often too faint to see with a telescope as it orbited the sun every seven years.
Not this time. Thanks to a so-called "outburst" of gas and dust as the comet skirted the sun earlier this week, the normally faint comet has intensified in brightness 1 million-fold since Wednesday night. This weekend, even in well-lit cities and even to the naked eye, Holmes should be strutting its orange-yellowish asymmetrical stuff.
"Ordinarily you'll see a comet brighten as it gets closer to the sun or the Earth," said Ben Burress, staff astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif. "But the rapidness with which this one blossomed caught everyone by surprise. It was like a kernel of popcorn going off."
The outburst, Burress said, "caused a cloud of gas and dust to balloon around it, making it easier to find."
A sky chart from a Web site like the one at skyandtelescope.com will help.
"To recognize it," said Burress, "you'd have to be fairly familiar with how the stars normally look, and then find one that doesn't look like it belongs there."
Once the sun goes down, it'll be in Perseus in the northeast sky just above the horizon, then it will appear to circle the North Star, ending up in the northwest of the sky by dawn.
Some astronomers say the comet, often described as a ball of frozen matter, could turn out to be the brightest ever recorded. But Burress warned that "comets are very unpredictable, so they can also go away very quickly. We can't promise anything."