Russian Fireballs, Comets and Asteroids

This year it appears that we are going to have comets and asteroids aplenty for our viewing and photographic enjoyment.

The first visitor was called a near earth asteroid, named, 2012 DA14. About 45 metres wide and probably made of rock, it passed over Indonesia only 27,500 kilometres from the surface of our planet on February 15. This little asteroid was visible in telescopes as small as three inches.

The great minds of science remind us that a similar-sized chunk of rock slammed into Arizona and made the mile wide gash called Meteor Crater, about 50,000 years ago.

2012 DA14 went sailing between the International Space Station and several earth observation satellites and the much higher band of geosynchronous satellites that provide our weather and telecommunications. Luckily there was no damage and it is now moving out of harm’s way.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be in Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15 when a rogue meteor struck our atmosphere at 18 kilometres per second and then broke apart 20 to 25 kilometres above the city.

This meteor weighed approximately 10,000 metric tons, was about 17 metres in diameter and the resulting explosion released the equivalent of 500 kilotons of trinitrotolulene, also known as TNT.

Russian authorities report as many as 1,000 people received minor injuries. Most injuries were due to the effects of the shock wave and not from fragments striking the ground. The shock wave struck the city below, causing thousands of windows to break, walls to collapse and other minor damage to the city.

The internet is chock full of great videos and still pictures of this amazing Russian fireball. In the videos you can hear the sound of windows shattering as the meteor’s loud shock wave smashes into the ground.

This is the most energetic recorded meteor strike since the Tunguska impact of 1908.

Now for a most exciting springtime comet, the Comet Pan-STARRS, named after the Hawaiian telescope that originally found it on June 11, 2011.

By March 5, the comet will pass about 240-million kilometres from our planet — about the distance from the earth to the sun. By March 10 the comet will pass closest to our sun, about 45 million kilometres.

On March 11, scan the western horizon with your binoculars just after sunset. The comet will be very close to the horizon, so choose your observing site accordingly.

By March 12, the comet will rest beside the crescent moon making it easy to locate for an excellent photo opportunity. On March 14 the comet will move into darker skies and by March 16 it will be visible low in the northwestern evening sky for two hours or more.

March 17 brings Jupiter, the crescent moon and the bright star Aldebaran, all clustered in a tight grouping in the spectacular evening skies. And yes, Comet Pan-STARRS will be photogenically resting close to the horizon.

By April this comet will fade as it moves away from the sun. But it will be moving in a northern direction, rising higher into our skies. So it should be visible in our night skies through April.

In early April this comet is going to be cruising by the Andromeda Galaxy, the brightest galaxy we can see from earth. You will be able to see it easily with the unaided eye, or photograph it with a typical 50 mm camera lens.

A comet and a galaxy in the same picture, most excellent! Don’t wait for another chance, this comet will not return to our solar system for another 110,000 years.

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