At the end of February, Earth will receive a visitor named Lulin. This is not an alien, but a comet that astronomers say may have never visited this corner of the solar system before and should be visible to the naked eye. Our resident expert in all things celestial, Planetarium Operator John Moran, is here to tell us how to spot it…
If you were to scoop up a handful of snow, shape it into a rough spherical shape and add some dirt to it, you would basically be holding in your hand the ingredients that make up a comet. These mountain-sized dirty snowballs are some of the most intriguing objects there are in space. That's why during February and beyond, millions of eyes will be eagerly looking towards the constellation Leo to try and catch a glimpse of Comet Lulin.
From roughly the 16th of the month, not only will we be able to see Comet Lulin with the naked eye but also within two degrees of it you will find the ringed planet Saturn. This should be a beautiful sight through binoculars, all you need to do is find it. Look for the constellation Ursa Major, often called The Plough, which most people are familiar with, then find the two pointers which show us the way to the Pole star. If you follow the pointers in the opposite direction of Polaris and continue until you come to the first big constellation, this will be Leo, identified by the back-to-front question mark. Look down and slightly to the left for the brightest object in this constellation, which at the moment is Saturn, and just below this will be Comet Lulin. As the days pass so the comet will start moving upwards and to the right.
Comets originate in a vast region of space which borders our solar system called the Oort Cloud. As they swirl around, some smash into each other and like snooker balls on a table get fired off in a different direction and this starts their long cold journey into our solar system. As they near the sun the ice starts to melt and gas and vapour start streaming out through evaporation; this is how the tail forms, which clearly identifies a comet.
Most Comets that enter our solar system get caught by the gravitational pull of the sun and end up making the same journey back into space. Eventually they come back some time in the future, like the most famous of them all; Halley's Comet, which makes this journey every 76 years. But some comets just fly straight through our system and are never seen again. Comet Lulin looks like it may well be one of these comets.
So if we are fortunate to have clear skies at the end of February, try and catch a glimpse of one of mother nature’s most remarkable phenomena.