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Comet Finlay on December 16th showing a bright coma and short tail. Credit: FRAM team

Comet Finlay on December 16th shows a bright coma and short tail. Its sudden rise  to 9th magnitude was confirmed on December 18th by Australian comet observer Paul Camilleri. The moderately condensed object is about 3 arc minutes in diameter. Credit: J. Cerny, M. Masek, K. Honkova, J. Jurysek, J. Ebr, P. Kubanek, M. Prouza, M. Jelinek

Short-period comet 15P/Finlay, which had been plunking along at a dim magnitude +11, has suddenly brightened in the past couple days to +8.7, bright enough to see in 10×50 or larger binoculars. Czech comet observer Jakub Cerny and his team photographed the comet on December 16th and discovered the sudden surge. Wonderful news!

While comets generally brighten as they approach the Sun and fade as they depart, any one of them can undergo a sudden outburst in brightness. You can find Finlay right now low in the southwestern sky at nightfall near the planet Mars. [click to continue…]

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For those following all the habitability results from the Curiosity rover lately, here’s a special treat — the Discovery Channel will air a behind-the-scenes documentary on the mission tonight (Dec. 18) at 10 p.m. Eastern.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precison landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for Dec. 19, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precison landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for Dec. 19, 2014, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

In a key test of rocket reusability, SpaceX will attempt a daring landing of their Falcon 9 first stage rocket on an ocean platform known as the “autonomous spaceport drone ship” following the planned Friday, Dec. 19, blastoff on a high stakes mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon cargo freighter is slated to liftoff on its next unmanned cargo run, dubbed CRS-5, to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. In a late development, there is a possibility the launch could be postponed to January 2015. [click to continue…]

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This (in blue) is where the Philae lander came to rest on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The graphic is based on topographic modelling of the comet's nucleus and Philae's picture of a nearby cliff (in white). Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CNES/FD/CIVA

This (in blue) is where the Philae lander came to rest on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The graphic is based on topographic modelling of the comet’s nucleus and Philae’s picture of a nearby cliff (in white). Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CNES/FD/CIVA

In scientific style, researchers are slowly narrowing down where the Philae lander arrived on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Earlier today (Dec. 17) at the American Geophysical Union meeting, more pictures from the European spacecraft were released showing its landing site and also what the terrain looked like underneath Philae as it bounced to its destination. The pictures were also placed on NASA’s website.

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The Universe’s Tour Guide

Satellites swarm around the Earth on the Hayden Planetarium's dome. Credit: AMNH.

Satellites swarm around the Earth on the Hayden Planetarium’s dome. Credit: AMNH.

The hazy, white horizon lifts away slowly, giving way to the blue and green, cloud-swept marble we call home. I take in a deep breath, astonished by the Earth’s staggering beauty in stark contrast to the sprinkled backdrop.

People are still shuffling into the 429-seat Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, their shadows projected onto the arched ceiling. A voice resonates in the dome’s spacious cavity. Brian Abbott, the planetarium’s assistant director, is welcoming everyone to the show. It’s a “highlights tour,” he says, covering most of the known universe in one fell swoop.

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