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EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Look for Comet 21P this week



Comets have fascinated Man ever since he walked upright.

Ancient civilizations viewed them as messages from the Gods, especially angry ones if the comet had a long tail and, in turn, looked like a sword, ready to strike the Earth.

Even people of higher intelligence saw mysticism in them. Take Mark Twain, for example, who was born in 1835, the same year Halley’s Comet made an appearance. The comet was set to return in 1910, and in 1909 Twain said the following:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”

Twain did die in 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet was its brightest on that return visit.

In recent history, we’ve been periodically graced with exceptional comets, including the beautiful Hale-Bopp, which was discovered in 1995. In 1997 the comet became naked-eye visible and remained so for 18 months, the most for any comet in recorded history.

Even so, comets that are accessible to the Average Joe -- outfitted only with his eyes or a pair of binoculars -- still remain rare and fleeting.

We are lucky enough to have such a comet in our midst this week. Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (let’s call it “21P”) is making its closest approach to Earth in 72 years. But fear not, it’s not in a collision course with us: It’s still 58 million kilometers away.

21P was first discovered by Michel Giacobini, a French astronomer in 1900. 21P was the target of the International Cometary Explorer spacecraft, which passed through its plasma tail 33 years ago this week.

21P isn’t visible to the naked eye, so, like Giacobini did, you’ll need some help. Don’t fret. With even a simple pair of binoculars you will be able to see the comet in Western New York’s skies. The best time to look is between midnight and 4:00 AM. Look towards the east and you’ll find the comet near the constellation Auriga, “the charioteer”. The comet will appear as a bright green fuzz ball and as of yesterday was at a magnitude of 6.5, just below naked eye visibility.

Be sure to catch a glimpse of the comet no later than the end of this weekend, before it quickly disappears from the view of field glasses.


Take advantage of this celestial visitor. We “backyard astronomers” don’t often get a chance to see comets, so savor it.




+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News. Connect with Exploring the Niagara Frontier on Facebook for conversations about nature and the outdoors in WNY.