12/11/01  Attention, skywatchers!

Starting next week, it's very possible that a recently identified comet will be visible to the naked eye.
It will pass within 30 million miles of our planet and may be moving at a top speed of 125,300 miles per hour as it gets closer to the Sun.

Roughly 2 miles or more in diameter, the "Christmas Comet" won't be around again for another 100,000 years - or it may shoot off into interstellar space, never to return.

Spotted on Nov. 16, 2000 by researchers at the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid research project (LINEAR), the comet was first thought to be an asteroid. It was later identified as a comet and given the name 2000 WM1.

Comets are made mostly of dust and gas. It can be tricky to predict how bright it will be.

As the comet approaches the sun, dust and gas will burn off it at a steadilly increasing rate. Sunlight reflecting from the material will make the coma, or head, grow brighter. The gas and dust will be pushed away by the solar wind, forming two tails - dust particles make a yellowish tail, gas makes a bluish one. Tails always point away from the sun. How bright it will get depends on what it is made of and how close it gets to the Sun. Scientists put it at a magnitude of around 4. This means it could be brighter than Venus!

The comet is a "new comet" making it's first journey from the edge of our galaxy. As it gets closer, it's speed will increase to a top speed of 125,300 mph on Jan 22, 2002. That will be the day it is closest to the sun (scientists call this the "perihelion").

The comet should be easy to see with the naked eye, even though its tail might not be at its brightest when this "dirty snowball" is closest to the Earth.

The comet will be visible into early 2002, so look for that brilliant, fuzzy patch out there in the night sky.


- A.C.R.

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