Comet Jacques Brightens Rapidly, Heads North

We’ve got a hot comet on our hands. Comet Jacques barely cracked magnitude +11 at the time of its March 13 discovery, but just three weeks later, amateur astronomers have already spotted it in large binoculars at magnitude +9.5. Expert comet observer Michael Mattiazzo, who maintains the Southern Comets Homepage, predicts that if Comet Jacques continues its rapid rise in brightness, it might become faintly visible with the naked eye by July. 

Discovery images of Comet Jacques by the SONEAR team show a small, condensed object with a short, faint tail. Credit: SONEAR

The comet’s currently inching across the southern constellation Antlia  headed toward Puppis and Monoceros later this month. Observers describe it as “very diffuse” with a large, dim coma and moderately compact core. Photos show a short tail pointing east-northeast. This past weekend C/2014 E2 passed closest to the Earth at 89.3 million miles (144 million km) on its way to perihelion on July 2.

Comet Jacques photographed on April 3, 2014 when it was near two faint galaxies. Credit: Efrain Morales

Right now, observers in southern latitudes have the viewing advantage. As seen from South America and Australia, Comet Jacques floats high in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Observers in mid-northern latitudes can see it too, but have to set their sights lower.  A week ago I tried tracking down this newcomer with a 37-cm (15-inch) Dobsonian reflector around 9 o’clock. With Jacques only 14 degrees high at the time I had to kneel beside the telescope to see into the eyepiece. Try as I might, I suspected only a fuzzy patch at best. Light pollution and low altitude were partly to blame, but Jacques’ diffuse appearance may have contributed to the uncertain observation.  Other mid-northern latitude observers may have shared my sore kneecap experience in similar attempts.

Map dated April 16 showing Comet Jacques’ path from mid-April to mid-May. Positions are marked every 5 days with stars down to magnitude +8. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Mariott’s SkyMap software

But that will soon change. C/2014 E2 continues to increase in altitude throughout the month, offering easier viewing as soon as mid-month.  April 16 through early May the moon will be gone from the sky and provide a needed dark time slot for viewing the comet before it’s lost in evening twilight. Comet Jacques will likely be brighter than magnitude 9 as it slides from Puppis into Monoceros.

Find a place with a dark sky to the southwest and start looking at the end of evening twilight when the comet is highest. The map shows stars in reverse making it easier to use in crowded star fields.

Comet Jacques is approaching the sun from beneath (south of) the plane of the planets indicated by the dark blue curve of its orbit. It crosses northward later this spring (Iight blue). Credit: NASA/JPL

By mid-July, Comet Jacques will have passed perihelion 61 million miles (98 million km) from the sun and transition into the morning sky as it rapidly swings northward across Taurus, Auriga and Perseus. Though the comet will be half again as far from Earth as it is today, it’s expected to become considerably brighter and more condensed after a good “roasting” by the sun.

C/2012 E2 will join a veritable team of comets expected to reach or approach naked eye brightness in late summer and fall: C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS, C/2013 A1 Siding Spring and C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden. Much to look forward to!

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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