Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

Colfax Comet on the Way

By Gus Thomson

Reprinted with permission from the Auburn Journal, Auburn, California

2004 December 1

A comet discovered by a Colfax sky watcher is growing brighter.

So much so, that it will soon be visible to the naked eye, comet-hunter Don Machholz said Tuesday.

Machholz first spotted the comet through a telescope Aug. 27 and has since been keeping a studious eye on his discovery. Now named Comet 2004 Q2 Machholz and recorded with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the fiery ball of ice and rock appears to terrestrial viewers every 2,000 years and will disappear for another two millennia in April.

"Once it's gone, it's gone," Machholz said.

But for now, it's moving closer to the earth and glowing brighter, making it increasingly easier to see. It's 55 million miles from earth and will get as close as 35 million miles away in early January.

Two weeks ago, the comet brightened up considerably.

"Water began to evaporate and formed a head on the comet as it moved closer to the sun," Machholz said. "About the same time, pictures taken of it began to show two tails - one gas and one dust. It seems to have a lot of dust."

The comet has now become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye from dark-sky sites, Machholz said. When the moon leaves the night sky, he predicts sharp-eyed skywatchers will be able to make it out.

"From most other locations it is easily visible in binoculars," Machholz said. "It will continue to brighten over the next few weeks. It is now the brightest comet in the sky and is expected to remain the brightest comet in the sky for the next six months."

Machholz' comet discovery in August was his tenth in 30 years of scanning the night sky. He's the leading visual discoverer of comets in the Northern Hemisphere. It took the 51-year-old research and development technician at Auburn's Coherent a tota1 of 1,457 hours over a decade to find No. 10. But it was worth the wait.

"This is the most visible comet I've ever discovered," Machholz said. "Some have disintegrated and most remain fairly faint but this is very bright."

His latest discovery has received global recognition, with information posted on - at last count - more than 7,000 Web sites. Machholz recently received an e-mail from German public TV network ARD, which plans to air a segment on his discovery and may send a film crew for a Jan. 5 telecast.

Machholz said he's helped spread word of the new comet by making available his account of the events surrounding the Aug. 27 discovery. One of the more significant postings is on the Astronomy Magazine online news site.

"It's all over the place," Machholz said. "I just received a request from Spain to post it."

Machholz is also bringing his discovery to area residents through a new series of star- and comet-gazing events that will start Dec. 28 at the Auburn Dam Overlook. Viewers will be able to take a look at the comet through the same telescope the discovery was made with. The viewing will take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Auburn event and at the same time for events at: Meadow Vista Park (Dec. 29); Dutch Flat (Dec. 30); Foresthill (Jan. 1); Colfax (Jan. 2); Cool (Jan. 3); Nevada County Airport (Jan. 4); Auburn Dam Overlook (Jan. 8); Iowa Hill (Jan. 15); the Auburn Dam Overlook (Jan. 28); Meadow Vista Park (Jan. 29); and Dutch Flat (Jan. 30).

Machholz said that he's posting updated maps of the comet's location. The site address is

The naked-eye viewing should end in February while the comet will become invisible to binoculars in April, he said.

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