Howard Trottier

Student stargazers witness comet's dazzling visit

November 14, 2007

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By Stuart Colcleugh

Students in Howard Trottier’s Physics 190 introductory astronomy class have been getting a celestial eyeful in the past few weeks, thanks to a rare and stunning visitor in the nighttime sky.

The Holmes comet, which for more than a century remained so faint it was invisible to the naked eye, suddenly brightened a million-fold in October and is now clearly visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere in the northeastern sky.

“We’ve been witnessing an amazing event,” says Trottier, an SFU teaching-excellence laureate and astronomy buff whose Physics 190 classes are primarily designed for liberal-arts majors to satisfy their science requirement, although first-year science students are also welcome.

“It’s one of the strangest celestial sights I have ever seen,” he says. “If you compare it with nearby stars you’ll see the stars look like very sharp points,” whereas Holmes “looks like a fuzzy, cosmic bowling ball — a dead giveaway that it’s something very unusual.”

Trottier’s students begin their stargazing lessons using sight alone so they can appreciate the remarkable wealth of celestial phenomena that are visible without binoculars or telescopes. “We have these ‘star nights’ where they look at the sky and write reports on what they see,” he explains. “And they have some basic physics labs.”

Then he brings out the big guns: “Our department has an excellent eight-inch portable telescope, which is a decent size, although we eventually hope to have a permanent teaching observatory. “We also have an astronomical CCD camera attached to the telescope, which uses silicon rather than film to receive incoming light. You wouldn’t believe the pictures it takes.”

No one knows how much longer Holmes will be visible to the naked eye or what it might do next, says Trottier, “so it’s well worth looking for it on the next clear night.”

For more on the Holmes comet and Physics 190, visit: www.sfu.ca/physics/ugrad/courses/2007-3/p190/

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