Watch out for a comet’s outburst

Alan Boyle writes: Hot on the heels of a NASA probe’s encounter with a comet, yet another glowing iceball is causing a sensation among astronomers. Comet Ikeya-Murakami, in the constellation Virgo, appears to be in the midst of an eye-catching outburst.

It can’t be caught with the naked eye — not yet, anyway. The shooting star was discovered just a week ago by Japanese amateur astronomers Kaoru Ikeya and Shigeki Murakami, and it’s not clear how much brighter it could get. But skywatchers are getting some great views of comet and its unconventional tail through remote-controlled telescopes. The pictures show a long tail and a rapid brightening, perhaps due to the explosive collapse of a structure within the comet.

Joseph Brimacombe’s Flickr animation, seen in the video clip above, loops together time-lapse photos that show the comet moving across the night sky over New Mexico. Brimacombe, who lives in Australia, was able to capture the imagery thanks to the New Mexico Skies remote-telescope setup.

E. Guido / G. Sostero

Click to see Comet Ikeya-Murakami’s outburst.

Italian astronomers Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero used imagery from the remote-controlled GRAS Observatory in New Mexico to create their own animation, which appears to show bright material flashing away from the nucleus. You can see a still frame at right, and clicking on the link in the caption will bring up the full animation from SpaceWeather.com.

Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin processed his imagery from a remote telescope in New Mexico, using a Larson Sekenina filter, to bring out two symmetrical jets streaming from the comet nucleus … or nuclei. “I saw an excellent inner coma, which looks like the mini-version of the 17P/Holmes comet after its powerful outburst in 2007,” Elenin told me in an e-mail.

If Comet Ikeya-Murakami develops the way Comet Holmes did, it should be a humdinger.

SpaceWeather.com provides additional views of the comet, plus a handy sky map in case you want to pull out your binoculars or telescope and look for it early Thursday. It should be hanging close to Saturn in eastern skies, just before dawn. “Set your alarm and happy hunting!” SpaceWeather.com’s Tony Phillips says.

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URL: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/11/10/5442846-watch-out-for-a-comets-outburst

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