Comet Hunting? Beware the Dragon

The best way to find your way through the night sky is to start with what you know, and for most of us, that’s the Big Dipper, the most popular asterism in the northern hemisphere. Once you can identify the handle and ladle, you can make your way to a lot of other night sky wonders, including Comet ZTF, the green comet that has dominated the astronomy headlines for several weeks now.

To find the comet from the Big Dipper, locate the ladle. Starting with the star that marks the outside bottom of the ladle, draw a line through the top star of the ladle and keep going, that points you to Polaris, the north star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.

This week, Comet ZTF is whizzing right past this imaginary line. But! Best beware what else is in this region of sky, because between the dippers snakes the tail of Draco, the Dragon. Once upon a time Draco possessed the Pole Star, and it’s easy to imagine that since he has lost this prized possession, he’s been snaking around on the look out for it ever since!

Comet ZTF makes its closest approach to earth on Tuesday, February 1st, just after it slips beyond the tail of the dragon, and then it speeds on toward the bright star Capella, in the constellation Auriga. The green comet will make this part of its journey just as we pass through the winter cross quarter time, halfway through the season when the mysteries of inner light are celebrated.

Simeon’s song of praise, Rembrandt, 1669

In the New Testament story, this is the time when Mary takes the Christ Child to the temple and Simeon prophecies over the child, telling her that a sword shall pierce her soul, that the thoughts in the hearts of many may be revealed. I wonder if a silent green comet speeding past the tail of the dragon, between the dippers and onto Capella also draws attention to such mysteries of the quiet heart?

Wishing you clear skies!


Hear this episode on Interlochen Public Radio on Monday mornings, and on podcasts everywhere, anytime, at The Storyteller’s Night Sky.

    Cover image from Michigan State University Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar.