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This Tucson researcher captured once-in-a-lifetime photo of the 'devil's comet'

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Friday, March 22, 2024 - 11:30am
Updated: Friday, March 22, 2024 - 4:58pm

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There is a comet in the skies right now that we won’t be able to see for another 70 years. You just might be able to see it with your naked eye — especially as we approach another solar eclipse next month.

It’s called the Pons-Brooks comet, though you might see it referred to as the “devil comet."

Adam Block, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, recently was able to capture a once-in-a-lifetime image of the comet in Tucson. Block said it reminds him of another, more famous comet that also only comes around once in a lifetime.

Comet in a starry sky
Adam Block
The Pons-Brooks comet, also called the "devil's comet," captured in Tucson by Adam Block, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.

Interview highlights

BLOCK: I think the best description of this comet is, it's kind of like a twin of Halley's comet. It's a comet that has a very similar kind of orbit and it also has a similar characteristic to it. And then we get to see it every 70 years. It's about the same kind of brightness. Maybe this one might even be a little bit brighter at times, sometimes when it comes around the sun. So it's a periodic comet. It goes in and out towards the sun, it goes out to perhaps the orbit of Neptune and then it swings around and comes back in. But it's a once in a lifetime comet for most people because you know, it, it's orbit is every 70 years. So this like, Halley's comet, this is our opportunity to observe this one during these next couple of weeks.

Why is it often called the devil comet?

BLOCK: I think it's a terrible name. There is a lot of this, the idea to sensationalize many things in astronomy to get people excited about it. Sometimes I think goes towards the hyperbolic, and this is a great example. But it is based in some real characteristic of the comet, which is that comets are rocky ice balls. They're comprised of ices, including carbon dioxide, methane and other ices that sublimate — turn directly from solid to gas as they get close to the sun and warm. This particular comet apparently has a good supply or reservoir of some ices, because it releases lots of gas at times in its orbit when it's near the sun. And as it does, so these — they look like sprays of gas or jets. If you have one or two of them, they make a curved like shape that might, I guess you can say they look like horns. It doesn't really look like horns. A horseshoe is probably better, but there you are, that's where the name comes from.

How we can see this. Can you really see this in the sky right now with your naked eye?

BLOCK: Depends on what you mean by see. So as an astronomer, seeing means that any — if you can observe it in any way, using a camera or a telescope, yes, you can see it. If you're expecting to step outside and just look at the sky and see this comet — no, not this one. This one is gonna be a little difficult to see, certainly with your unaided eyes. With binoculars, you can, but most people wouldn't be impressed. This is really a comet that's easy to photograph, actually, because it's low in the sky after sunset in the western sky. And if you know where to point even a simple DSLR camera on a tripod, you can capture this comet in, you know, 20- or 30-second exposures. If you're very advanced, you would add many of these exposures together and create a very compelling image.

But what I'm looking forward to is that this comet is kind of a wake-up call. It is a tasting for what may be an even more interesting comet, at least visually that will come around this fall. We'll be able to see it in the western sky in October. So it's called — to keep the nickname short — Comet 2023 A3. It's full name is longer. ... I'm looking forward to that particular comet because it will be many times brighter. Now, comets can do whatever they want. They're very unpredictable. They don't always live up to their, their full potential. But this one certainly seems like it has that potential to be very bright and truly spectacular in the sky.

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