Westmont’s Keck Telescope has captured impressive color photographs of a rare celestial surprise in the northeastern evening sky. Comet 17P/Holmes in the constellation Perseus caught astronomers off guard when it suddenly brightened Oct. 24.
“The comet was discovered by a British astronomer in the 19th century,” says Michael Sommermann, professor of physics. “Until recently, it was nothing but an extremely faint object. Unexpectedly, its brightness increased about one million-fold. The comet’s coma was larger for awhile than any object in our solar system aside from the sun and was easily visible to the naked eye.”
Experts speculate about the cause of the comet’s explosive brightening. Possible scenarios include a meteoroid hit, the rupture of a gas-filled cavity or the partial breakup of the comet’s nucleus.
Scientists weren’t sure how long the comet’s show would last, and it’s no longer visible to the naked eye. But it has generated great interest in the monthly open house at Carroll Observatory. A talk by the Australian astronomer Martin George also drew an enthusiastic crowd this fall. The college considers the telescope a community resource as well as a tool for teaching and research. The Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit participates in the public viewings, held at the observatory the third Friday of the month.
The Keck Telescope, dedicated in a special ceremony on campus Sept. 6, is one of the most powerful instruments on California’s Central Coast.