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New comet found by SA telescope

Durban – Astronomers have discovered a new comet – the first to be discovered in South Africa since 1978.

It will be at its brightest on May 23 and will be visible in the night sky if one is away from city lights and uses binoculars.

Nicola Loaring, an astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory, said that the comet had been discovered by an unmanned telescope known as MASTER-SAAO, a Russian/South African-run telescope near Sutherland.

It had been scanning the southern skies since December on the lookout for “southern optical transients”, or new objects that suddenly appeared in the sky.

The discovery of the comet – called Comet C/2015 G2 – was confirmed by the Minor Planet Centre at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the US. It is the 20th comet to be discovered this year.

Loaring said comets were sometimes described as “dirty snowballs” – balls of ice containing chemicals and dust.

“As a comet approaches the sun, it begins to melt, resulting in a halo of gas and dust surrounding the solid nucleus, called the coma. The solar wind pushes the gas and dust away from the comet, resulting in the beautiful tails that we see associated with comets,” Loaring said.

There were actually two tails to a comet, one made of gas from the frozen compounds that begin to melt and the other a dust tail caused by the gases from the nucleus evaporating, taking the dust with them.

She said astronomers were interested in studying comets because they represented the oldest and most primitive objects in the solar system, so it gave astronomers insight to conditions at the formation of our solar system.

The comet is now 180 million kilometres away.

The robotic telescope is one of a network operated by Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Sternberg Astronomical Observatory.

Only two of the telescopes in the network are in the southern hemisphere, the one near Sutherland and another in Argentina.

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