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Comet Catalina coming soon to a sky near you

A finder chart by astronomer Gary Boyle, tracking and projecting the path of Comet Catalina through the constellations. [1]

A chart by astronomer Gary Boyle showing the projected path of Comet Catalina [2] through the constellations in the coming days. Photo courtesy of wondersofastronomy.com [3]

By Mark Hodgins [4]

BELLEVILLE – Before dawn on Tuesday, Jan. 12, North Americans will be able to see an uncommon celestial event.

A comet that’s been named Catalina [5] will whiz past Earth around 5 a.m. at 111 million kilometres away.

According to astronomer Gary Boyle, you probably won’t even need a telescope to see it, as long as you’re away from a city.

People should see it with binoculars or even the naked eye in the country. Just get away from the light pollution – then it’s easy to see,” said Boyle, who lives in tiny South Mountain, Ont., south of Ottawa.

Boyle is the former president of the Ottawa Centre [6] of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada [7]. He’s now known as the “backyard astronomer,” as he tries to bring the wonders of astronomy to the public.

One way he does that is through his website [3], to which he’s added a map diagramming the positions of Comet Catalina as it rockets ever closer to Earth.

Boyle says astronomers began tracking the comet on Halloween in 2013. It’s now about 208 million kilometres away, but that’s really not that far relative to where it started: about one light year past Pluto.

It actually comes from the Oort Cloud [8], and astronomers estimate that it’s been travelling for about one million years to finally reach us,” Boyle explained. “That’s how far the Oort Cloud really is.”

The Oort Cloud is a sphere of icy objects that surrounds our solar system [9]. Sometimes, as the cloud interacts with gravity or gases, those objects can be shot in our direction. Most of the comets that come near Earth used to be part of that frozen collection.

Catalina, though, is not your average comet.

This comet is about 20 kilometres in diameter, whereas the average comet is maybe five to eight kilometres wide. So this is a bigger chunk,” Boyle said. “And each comet is different. In fact, people are taking images and it actually has two tails, one pointing up at 12 o’clock, the other at five o’clock.”

For Boyle, though, Catalina’s visit is more than just an icy high-speed fly-by: it’s a chance to share his love for the stars with others.

“I like to reach out to the 10-year-olds, the 12-year-olds,” he said. “I started when I was eight, and that was 50 years ago this summer – I’ve been looking up for 50 years. And just imagine – this 10-year-old is going to look at this comet, and will probably stay with science, astronomy, engineering for the next 20 or 30 years, all from that one event that sparked interest.”