Very early this morning, at 1:20 AM Mountain Time to be exact, I was woken up by a restless baby over the monitor... I let her be, but remembered that I had wanted to be up at 1AM to view Saturn and the Speeding Comet Lulin.
I woke up, threw on a sweater, grabbed my spotting scope, and went out the back door - gazing at a dark sky, sprinkled with small specs of light invisible to those who live in the city.
I set my eyes upon a beautiful sight - a comet speeding by earth at a distance of 38 Million Miles (0.492 AU), travelling with a relative velocity of 140,000 MPH to that of Earth, with a hydroxyl/cyanogen gas cloud spanning over 250,000 miles, being fed by an out gassing rate of 800 gallons of "water" each second - cyanogen (CN) is a poisonous gas found in many comets in our star system. The comet is in a retrograde orbit, meaning it is travelling in the opposite direction around the sun as is the earth. The comet has already zipped past the sun, and is on a parabolic trajectory away from the sun - meaning it will never come back... it will be an inter-stellar object, searching hopelessly for a belonging in the infinite void - a lost cloud of cyanogenic gas and dust, sharing the story of the outer reaches of our star system, whose final destination will forever be unknown to human kind.
What is relevant about this sighting? A number of things...
1 - Tonight, at roughly the same early morning time, the comet will be in opposition - meaning it will be in a direct line with the Sun-Earth-Lulin, possibly creating an effect that will cause the tail of gas to seemingly explode with brilliant light, called the opposition effect. If you are lucky enough to see this, it will most likely be a once in many lifetimes opportunity.
2 - This comet will make only one pass near the earth. Those lucky enough to see it will be among a select few, unique to our generation, unique to this single moment in history.
3 - This comet was thrown into the inner solar system by some unknown force/object in the outer edges of our own star system. This comet lies just 1.6 degrees off the ecliptic plane (the plane in which planets orbit the sun, roughly around the sun's equator), possibly by a large "planet X" type object - only mathematics can can fully explain it's origin and the cause of it's trajectory inward toward the sun.
4 - It inspires... the discovery of this comet was made by the third astronomer to discover hale-Bopp comet 10+ years ago... being third prevented him from naming the comet... he was a boy at the time, and dedicated his life to discovering a comet of his own... and this comet may inspire another generation, and so on...
This once in history occurrence should give cause for every one of my readers to shake off the cold in the early morning, gaze up at the sky, and try to find the comet for yourself... If you need help, here is the Sky Map for tonight/tomorrow morning.