Comets and Holiday Colored Stars

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Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut
MMMAA Board of Directors

A New Comet
Head outside around 5 a.m. this coming week and look for this year’s Christmas Star, the Comet Catalina, officially called by its less romantic name, C/2013 US10. Look low in the eastern sky just before the start of morning twilight.
Comet Catalina has already made its closest pass around the sun and is already heading back out into the deep freeze of the Oort Cloud, the home of millions of comets, far beyond Pluto. Fortunately, it will continue to glide nearer to Earth on its way home until mid-January. Though just a bit too dim for naked eye viewing, many comet watchers report seeing it quite nicely in their binoculars.
Comet Catalina will be worth a look because of its highly unusual shape. Recent photos show thin, widely splayed gas and dust tails pointing in almost opposite directions. Circle next Monday, December 7th on your calendar if you only want to get up early once, according to Kelly Beatty reporting for Sky & Telescope Magazine. On that morning, Comet Catalina will be just left of Venus. Both will easily fit within a single binoculars’ field of view. The thin crescent Moon will leave the sky quite dark for easy viewing

Holiday Colored Stars
A lot of different stories tell us where the colored light tradition came from for holiday decorations and Christmas trees, and many of them are probably true. But for the astronomers at the Martz/Kohl Observatory in Frewsburg, it’s all about the original multicolored spectacle in a clear, night sky.
Stars come in many different colors and a little star gazing time under a dark sky will reward a viewer with a dazzling array of colors, tints and shades.
First, stars twinkle in all the colors of the rainbow. Their pinpoints of brilliant light are refracted through Earth’s always-shifting atmosphere. The winds and currents of the upper air make them sparkle and flicker like tiny bits of rainbows. The physics is complicated but the star show is simply beautiful. Stars can twinkle through every color of the holiday spectrum on a clear night.
The other reason that stars shine in holiday colors is that they do actually come in different hues. A star’s color depends on its surface temperature. The hottest stars blaze in bright blue-white splendor. These are often the youngest stars in the universe and they can burn out quickly. A yellow star, like our sun, a middle-aged star, is yellow because it is cooler than the blue stars. Red stars, the Red Dwarfs, are the coolest of all. However, though they are quite common, they are so small and dim, not many are easily visible from Earth.
The universe is divided into two parts, Earth and everything else. Next time you want to see everything else, visit the Martz/Kohl Observatory in Frewsburg. The star gazers’ welcome mat is always out. Log on to www.martzobservatory.org to learn more.

For a deeper look at the night sky, planets, stars and the entire universe, visit the Martz/Kohl Observatory online at martzobservatory.org, check the schedule of events and visit in person. Thank you to Hall and Laury Opticians for sponsoring these Martz/Kohl column.

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Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.