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ASTRONOMY:
Bizarre 'Millennium Falcon' / Comet Pons-Brooks in Oregon Coast, Washington Coast Skies

Published 3/20/24 at 6:55 p.m.
B
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Bizarre 'Millennium Falcon' / Comet Pons-Brooks in Oregon Coast, Washington Coast Skies

(Portland, Oregon) – There's a lot going on in Pacific Northwest skies in the near future. Besides a slight lunar eclipse on March 24 and a partial solar eclipse on April 8, there has been a spectacular comet showing itself periodically and is still visible with optical aids. (Above: courtesy Steve Elliot / Flickr)

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Nicknamed the Millennium Falcon Comet lately because of one interesting shift in its shape, Comet 12 / Pons-Brooks may even pop up during the dark minutes of the eclipse on April 8. It's expected to linger in visibility through late April and possibly become viewable to the naked eye.

It's something new to look for out on Washington coast beaches like on the Olympic Peninsula or Long Beach, or along the Oregon coast if you're around at night in areas like Cannon Beach, Pacific City, Winchester Bay or Coos Bay.

Plenty of photographers around the world have snagged some amazing shots, so those with pro equipment should really consider bringing their gear to the sands and rocky vantage points on your next trip to Gold Beach or Manzanita.


 Comet Chasers, a team of researchers led by Helen Usher of Cardiff / The Open Universities caught the money shot during the July burst.

According to Jim Todd of Portland's OMSI, everyone else should bring binoculars and a sky map.

“Lately it has been at around 5.2 magnitude, same brightness of the faint stars of the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper,” Todd said. “There is a chance it will become even brighter in early April.”

Most of the time you'll see Pons-Brooks as a regular comet with a long tail. However, it's done some bizarre things out there as it travels through the solar system. Because it's an ice comet with a kind of ice and chemical-induced volcanic action, its exposure to solar radiation sometimes causes actual eruptions. In July of 2023, it shed its tail and started looking like a famous space ship. Another time, it acquired a “horns” look.

Now it's sometimes called the “Devil Comet” or the “Millennium Falcon Comet.”

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“From previous observations and images from astronomers around the world, the outburst caused the coma to distort into a horseshoe or horned shape, with a dark center and bright wings or points,” Todd told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “From this it became the nickname, Devil Comet. “Been also called the Millennium Falcon comet, after the ship in Star Wars. Unfortunately, predicting these outbursts is challenging, or even impossible.”

The comet is currently floating through the constellation of Andromeda the Chained Lady from our earthly point of view.

Pons-Brooks comes around every 71 years. Todd said it was first discovered by Jean-Louis Pons on July 12, 1812, and then independently rediscovered by William Robert Brooks in 1883. It's about 10.5 miles across, according to the American Astronomical Society – bigger than Mount Everett.


Tracking the comet on March 20 / OMSI graphic

It's a fascinating and somewhat rare comet, one of the few known whizzing, celestial bodies that has cryovolcanic action. That ball of ice sometimes erupts and spews dust and gas into space, and yet scientists aren't entirely sure why that results in unique prong shapes. It's done it a few times on this run past our Terra and Sol. Whatever it's doing out there, let's hope it does it again: these eruptions can make it bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Astronomers think it's possible that in late April, as it gets closest to the sun, it may get bright enough on the low, low horizon to be seen outside of optics. However, it soon dips below view from the northern hemisphere then.

That April 8 eclipse – which gets covered a little more on the south Oregon coast – may hold a special surprise for the comet, but a dangerous one for your eyes. As the sun gets covered, both Jupiter and Venus will pop into view on either side of the eclipse. Comet Pons-Brooks may also get quite visible then too, but more likely only seen with pro equipment, and even then exposure ratio with the eclipse present will overpower it. It would show up between the sun and one of the planets. April 2024 Partial Solar Eclipse Coming to Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

DO NOT look for it with binoculars during the eclipse. Those with the right photo gear may be able to capture it, but not by looking directly through the viewfinder – only the digital display screen.


Courtesy Manalo Gomez

“Very unlikely that the comet will be visible during the partial eclipse from Portland,” Todd said.

Towns to check out: beaches at night around Yachats, Brookings, Newport, Westport, Gearhart, Lincoln City, etc.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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