With excitement building as Comet Siding Spring rapidly approaches the Red Planet, we’ll soon have the opportunity to spot it through our own telescopes. Dark skies return this week with the moon now past full and rising later each night. Until recently, the comet could only be seen by skywatchers living in southern latitudes. Now it’s popped high enough above the southern horizon to see from mid-northern latitudes, albeit low in the sky. Observers with 8-inch (20 cm) or larger telescopes can follow the comet as it travels from Scorpius north to Ophiuchus and its encounter with Mars on October 19.
Until late September, the comet had been brightening as forecast based on the simple principle that the closer an object is to Earth the brighter it appears in the sky. Siding Spring came just shy of 1 A.U. of Earth in early September and has since been slip-sliding away. All through the first weeks of September it glowed at magnitude +9-10 and could be spotted in small telescopes trekking across the south polar constellations. Now on the cusp of its big moment with Mars, Siding Spring has been fading faster than expected.
It could be running low on exposed ice or concluding a long, slow outburst. Maybe it’s as simple as our changing perspective on the comet’s tail – we see it from the side now instead of looking down the tail where reflective dust piles up along our line of sight. No one knows exactly why, but given that comets are famous for their unpredictability due to their fragile nature and the varying rates at which they sputter away ice and dust, we shouldn’t be too surprised.
So what does that mean for observers? The most recent observations put the comet at about magnitude +11 with a loosely condensed coma and diameter of about one arc minute or a little larger than Jupiter appears in a telescope. It’s a small, relatively faint object now but should be visible in 8-inch and larger telescopes from a dark sky assuming it doesn’t “drop off the deep end” and fade even faster. With Mars nearby, finding the general location of Siding Spring is easy. The maps will help you pinpoint it.
The good news is that the comet is heading straight north and getting higher in the sky every night. The bad news is that it’s also dropping westward each evening mostly negating its northerly altitude gains. Those in the southern U.S. will have the best viewing window with Siding Spring 20º high at nightfall (14º in the central states and 6º in the north). To ensure success, find a spot with a wide open view as far down to the southwestern horizon as possible. You’ll make best use of your time and see the comet highest if you set up during evening twilight and begin searching as soon as the sky is dark. Given that Mars is 1st magnitude and the comet has faded more than expected, it may be difficult to see against the planet’s glare on the 19th. Not that I want to dissuade you from trying, but the nights leading up to and after the encounter will prove better for comet spotting.
The fluffball passed the glittery Butterfly Cluster (M6) in Scorpius on October 9 displaying an attractive curved tail pointing southeast. Tim Reyes of Universe Today calculated the current tail length at ~621,000 miles (1 million km) with a coma ~19,900 miles across (32,000 km). Closest approach occurs around 1:28 p.m. Central Daylight Time (18:28 UT) October 19 when the comet will miss Mars by only 88,000 miles (141,600 km). Dust particles leaving the coma will rip by the planet at ~125,000 mph (56 km/sec). Will they pass close enough to set the Martian sky a-sparkle with meteors?
According to a recent NASA press release, the period of greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft will start about 90 minutes after the closest approach of the comet’s nucleus and will last about 20 minutes, when Mars will come closest to the center of the widening trail of dust flying from the comet’s nucleus. Since the comet will barely graze the planet, dust impacts on orbiting spacecraft may or may not happen.
Back on Earth we can watch the daredevil pass by telescope or catch it live on the Web here:
* SLOOH: broadcast begins Sunday Oct. 19 at 9:51 a.m. CDT (14:51 UT)
* Gianluca Masi’s Virtual Telescope: streaming begins Sunday, Oct. 19 at 11:45 a.m. CDT (16:45 UT)