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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last week’s installment of this column looked at the various heavenly sights that the backyard astronomer can enjoy in 2016. I noted that it will be a relatively quiet year in that regard, with 2017 more than making up for it.

But, that doesn’t mean the skies will be devoid of amazing things in ‘16. Now and for the next few weeks is the perfect time -- really the only time over the next 14 months -- that local skywatchers can catch a comet in their binoculars.

Comet Catalina was only recently discovered (October 2013) by the Catalina Sky Survey which uses two telescopes in Arizona to scan the heavens for comets, asteroids, and near-Earth objects for, among other things, those items that might pose a collision threat to the Earth.

Comet Catalina isn’t one of those threatening items because at its closest, on January 17th, it will still be 67 million miles from Earth. That far away, and as small as it is, the comet will not be visible to the naked eye. But, a hobby telescope or a good pair of binoculars should be able to bring it into view.

Right now you can find it in the morning pre-dawn skies, but as we get closer to the 17th it will gradually become an overnight sight. Over the next few days it will be easier to find than it will be later in the month because it can be find very the near orange-hued Arcturus, which is the fourth-brightest star in the sky. Arcturus will be low in the eastern sky after midnight, but it goes high to the southeast sky before dawn. The star is an easy find, but if you need help in finding Arcturus, use a planisphere or refer to any numerous sky maps online.

To see the comet, you have to be away from the lights of Lockport or anyone of our numerous hamlets (like Gasport or Newfane) and out in the countryside. Catalina won’t look as magnificent as she does through professional telescopes or any of the photos you see on the internet. Instead, she will appear as a fuzzy patch of white light with maybe a little aquamarine tinge to it. You might even be able to see its tail.

While a fuzzy blob doesn’t sound very exciting, it’s a something to be appreciated nonetheless. We don’t get too many comets in our lifetimes that are visible with binoculars or eyes, so it’s something that should be taken advantage of every time. And, if you can drag your kid out of bed early enough before he or she has to get ready for school, it’s an excellent real-life learning experience that compliments what they might be hearing about in science class.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’ll be showing the comet to his early-rising four year old. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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