Get your astronomical trick-or-treat bags ready. An excursion under the Halloween morning sky will allow you fill it in a hurry — with comets! We’ve known for months that ISON and 2P/Encke would flick their tails in the October dawn, but no one could predict they’d be joined by Terry Lovejoy’s recent comet discovery, C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), and the obscure C/2012 X1 (LINEAR). The last surprised all of us when it suddenly brightened by more than 200 times in a matter of days. Almost overnight, a comet found on precious few observing lists became bright enough to see in binoculars. Now comet watchers the world over are losing sleep to get a glimpse of it.
Since it’s unusual to have four relatively bright comets in the same chunk of sky at the same time, you don’t want to miss this opportunity. Now that the moon has dwindled to the slightest crescent, this is THE time to hunt for these ghostly apparitions before dawn.
Brightest of the bunch at magnitude 8 and your best bet to see in a standard pair of 50mm binoculars is Comet Lovejoy. Using the maps, look for a round, fuzzy spot with a brighter center not far from the bright star Procyon in Canis Minor. In the coming days, Lovejoy will brighten by an additional 2 to 3 magnitudes as it trucks across Cancer headed toward the Big Dipper. This is one to watch. Lovejoy will likely reach naked eye brightness by mid-November. Small telescope users can see the comet with ease but its developing gas tail is still to faint to spot visually.
Comet Encke treks around the sun every 3.3 years. Sometimes it’s well placed for viewing and sometimes not. Because of its short period, dedicated comet watchers meet up with it a half dozen or more times during their lives. This apparition is a favorable one with the comet well-positioned in the east at dawn near peak brightness. Current estimates place it magnitude 7.5-8 with only the wispiest of tails. Like Lovejoy, 50mm binoculars under a dark sky should nab it.
A week before Encke reaches its peak magnitude of 6 or 7 at perihelion on Nov. 21, it chases the into the glare of morning twilight. If you want to see this comet, you’ve got about 2 weeks of viewing time left. Make sure to set up in a place with an open view to the east-southeast or you’ll find it hidden by the treeline.
Comet C/2012 X1 would have deprived us of a unique sight had it followed the rules. Instead, an eruption of fresh, dust-laden ices from its surface blasted into space to form a gigantic glowing sphere of material that vaulted the comet’s magnitude from a wimpy 13.5 to a vol-luminous 7.5. That’s a difference of 6 magnitudes or a brightness factor of 250 times!
Outbursts of this consequence are rare; the best example of a similar blow-out happened in 2007 when Comet 17P/Holmes cut loose and brightened by half a million times from magnitude 17 to 2.8 in just under two days.
As with any explosion, the cloud of debris around C/2012 X1 continues to expand. Presently measuring a healthy ~8 arc minutes in diameter (1/4 the size of the full moon), the comet will almost certainly continue to grow and fade with time. Catch it now with binoculars and small telescopes before its veil-like coma thins to invisibility. Like Encke, X1 LINEAR requires an open eastern horizon and best viewed at the start of dawn. Make it the last comet on your observing list after Lovejoy, Encke and ISON.
Ah, ISON. Halloween morning wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this year’s the most anticipated comet.. If it can hold itself together after a searing graze of the sun on November 28, the comet will undoubtedly become a most pleasing sight during the first three weeks of December. Right now it’s a little behind schedule on brightness, but don’t let that worry you – its best days are still ahead.
Of our four morning treats, Comet ISON is currently the faintest at around magnitude 9.5. Observers with binoculars in the 70-100mm range will see it under dark skies but most of us will need a 6-inch or larger scope at least until mid-November. That’s when ISON’s expected to brighten to magnitude 6, the naked eye limit. Just before it slips into the solar glare, ISON could reach 3rd magnitude around Nov. 21, normally an easy catch with the naked eye, but low altitude will hamper the view.
So open your bag wide tomorrow before dawn and keep it open the next few mornings. Trick or treat!