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Comet Visible Sunday on Oregon / Washington Coast, Perhaps Exploding Star Later

Published 6/28/24 at 6:35 a.m.
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection

(Oregon Coast) – It's been an incredible year for space phenomena, including the Northern Lights along the Oregon and Washington coast, the “devil comet” and that sizable eclipse this spring. And yet there's more... (Above: Comet Neowise in Bandon in 2020, courtesy Manuela Durson)

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Sunday may be the night if you want to catch a comet that only comes around once in a lifetime, as astronomers predict Comet 13P/Olbers will reach its brightest point in its 69-year orbit around Earth that night. Even so, it will only be visible with binoculars at a brightness of 6.5, though it's recently been somewhat visible with optics at its usual -7.0.

It's causing a stir around the globe, with stargazers everywhere excited. Yet it's not the only incredible sight we may have in store for us: the world may have another star in the skies for about a week, thanks to a nova.

If you're on the Washington coast or Oregon coast, if nighttime skies are clear, you'll want to take a look with binoculars, checking out the lower parts of the Lynx constellation. Better yet, use an app like Sky Tonight to find the object. Comet 13P/Olbers reaches its brightest on June 30 because that's when it comes closest to the sun, which is called perihelion.

Areas like eastern Oregon or Washington may have less trouble seeing because of their clearer skies.

13P/Olbers is what is known as a periodic comet, hence the P in the name. This means it takes less than 200 years to come back around. 13 signifies that it was the 13th to be discovered, which happened back in 1815 when Heinrich Olbers first doucmented it.

Virtual Telescope Project facility in Manciano, Italy: taken with the ARTEC250 + Paramount ME+C3Pro61000EC robotic unit.

Numerous photographers around the world have caught it already, such as the Virtual Telescope Project facility in Manciano, Italy.

Comet 13P/Olbers is considered a “near Earth asteroid” because it gets relatively close but it's not considered a possible danger. The closest it gets is almost twice the distance between the Earth and the sun.

The last time it showed up was 1956.

It's often only visible for a couple hours after sunset – which makes it perfect for an excursion to the Oregon or Washington coastlines.

For a real bang for your buck, at any minute we may get to see a star explode some 3,000 light years away. This will end up being a new star in the sky for about a week – not some flash way out there, Yet it's been the '40s since we've been able to see this on the Earth, and scientists watching a star system out there are studying signs it's ready to blow.

NASA's Dr. Rebekah Hounsell said it's a once-in-a-lifetime event that will be “giving young people a cosmic event they can observe for themselves, ask their own questions, and collect their own data.” She predicted it will fuel the next generation of scientists.

NASA illustration of the T CrB system

The stay system is a binary one known as the Northern Crown, and in that is a recurring nova – one that happens in cycles. There are actually about ten of these kinds of novae that astronomers have found. This one sits in the constellation of Corona Borealis.

One star is a red giant, which keeps dumping its material out onto its companion white dwarf star in the system. This, according to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, eventually creates a series of thermonuclear reactions that result in the star firing off in a massive explosion of star stuff and light.

When you can see this in areas like Port Orford, Lincoln City, Pacific City or Ocean Park?

Many scientists around the world are watching this closely, but NASA is pointing out it's not a 100 percent chance that the “blaze star” - or T CrB for short – will hit the pyrotechnics this year, though many are predicting there's a good chance it will happen by September.

“Don’t confuse a nova with a supernova, a final, titanic explosion that destroys some dying stars,” Hounsell said through NASA. “In a nova event, the dwarf star remains intact, sending the accumulated material hurtling into space in a blinding flash. The cycle typically repeats itself over time, a process which can carry on for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.”

Right now, to the naked eye it's still a dark spot within the constellation (which is just to the right of Hercules). When it goes, then a star will appear that wasn't there before. When it was first seen in 1217 it was described as a “green light.”

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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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