- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

It’s green and gassy, it’s got two tails and it travels backward. A vintage Cadillac?

No, it’s Comet Lulin, which arrives within cosmic spittin’ distance of Earth late Monday night, trailing a full escort of rapt scientists who can barely contain their curiosity and excitement over this rare, quirky visitor.

Lulin will come within 38 million miles of Earth, a distance comparable to our closest brushes with planetary neighbors: Mars can come within 35 million miles, Venus within 24 million.

The comet will be visible to the naked eye in clear night skies, about 45 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern skies, below Saturn. After 11 p.m. is ideal viewing time.

NASA has been tracking Lulin via satellite since Jan. 28, revealing myriad details about the celestial object, which was discovered in 2007 by Ye Quanzhi, a determined Chinese meteorology student who found the comet on photographic plates taken by Lulin Observatory in Taiwan.

Mr. Ye blogs about his ongoing experiences with Lulin, now heralded as one of the top 10 celestial events for 2009 by both the Discovery Channel and Sky News, a Canadian science journal.

“I made something special to celebrate the only Valentine’s Day with Comet Lulin: For the first time in my life, I make up my hair to match the appearance of the comet,” he wrote. He included an intense portrait of himself, complete with spiky hairdo.

“Can you find the ‘ion-tail’ on my forehead?” Mr. Ye asked.

Lulin, meanwhile, charges on in a clockwise, parabolic orbit, traveling at 60,000 mph in a retrograde or “backward” direction compared with the solar system’s planets. Scientists speculate that this may be Lulin’s one and only swing by Earth.

“This comet is quite active,” said Dennis Bodewits, a NASA postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. “The ultraviolet/optical telescope data show that Lulin was shedding nearly 800 gallons of water each second,” enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in less than 15 minutes.

It has a tail and an “antitail” stretching from its icy crown and brilliant atmosphere, which collectively measure 311,000 miles across. Lulin trails another 250,000 miles of assorted dust and gases, curving right because of the influence of solar radiation. Its green appearance emanates from toxic cyanide gas.

Astrologers are watching Lulin with the same interest as astronomers. Something big could be brewing, said Lynn Hayes, an astrologer for Beliefnet.com.

The comet arrives on the first day of a new moon “in Pisces,” with six planets in Aquarius and cosmic flirtations from Saturn and Uranus, heralding “openness to the spiritual realms that can be quite intense,” Ms. Hayes said.

“There is a transformational element at work here. … A dramatic turn of events that gets our attention.”

Such a sweeping pedigree might suggest that Lulin would threaten Earth, a topic that came up on “Coast to Coast,” a popular late-night talk-radio program that typically explores the paranormal and odd happenstance. Host George Noory asked his guest James McCanney, a physicist and author of “Planet-X, Comets and Earth Changes,” whether there was a chance of a collision of sci-fi proportions.

“It might contribute to some severe weather,” Mr. McCanney jokingly replied.

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