Thursday, November 15, 2007

Move Over, Sol, There's A New Kid In The Solar System

The sun is no longer the largest celestial body in our solar system.

That's right, something's bigger than the sun. Is it Saturn? Not even close. Jupiter? Keep dreamin'. The skyrocketing deficit of the United States? Almost.

No, it's a comet.

But not just any comet. This one is an exploding comet, named 17P/Holmes. The comet's nucleus is a mere 2.2 miles in diameter, but explosive outbursting has created a dust cloud coma an amazing 900,000 miles in diameter. It's elementary, Watson. The sun's diameter is only 870,000. As of November 9, as detected by astronomers from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, comet Holmes became the largest celestial object in our general vicinity, and the comet dust cloud is expanding. (see the bright blue-colored dust cloud compared to the sun in the picture. In the lower right inset is the planet Saturn, for comparison). In October, Holmes had an explosive outburst that created an unprecedented half-million-fold increase in brightness.

Oh, sure, 17P/Holmes will only be around for another five, six years, tops, then the dust cloud will dissipate as the comet moves away from the sun and the sun will return to being the king of the solar system. Numero uno. The burning king of fusion. And what is this comet upstart, anyhow? A big cloud of dust? A flashy upstart? Old Sol laughs in its general direction. Why, if it weren't for the sun's heat, the comet's cloud wouldn't even be there, and 17P/Holmes would be just another tiny snowball hurtling through space.

Enjoy your size while it lasts, Holmes! One day you'll be tiny again, and you will be banished to the depths of space for another 100 years!

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