How to Find Rosetta’s Comet In Your Telescope

How would you like to see one of the most famous comets with your own eyes? Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko plies the morning sky, a little blot of fuzzy light toting an amazing visitor along for the ride — the Rosetta spacecraft. When you look at the coma and realize a human-made machine is buzzing around inside, it seems unbelievable. 

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko plows through a rich star field in Gemini on the morning of August 20, 2015. Photos show a short, faint tail to the west not visible to the eye in most amateur telescopes. Credit: Efrain Morales

If you have a 10-inch or larger telescope, or you’re an experienced amateur with an 8-inch and pristine skies, 67P is within your grasp. The comet glows right around magnitude +12, about as bright as it will get this apparition. Periodic comets generally appear brightest around and shortly after perihelion or closest approach to the Sun, which for 67P/C-G occurred back on August 13.

The surface of Comet 67P/C-G is extensively fractured due to loss of volatile ices, the expansion and contraction of the comet from solar heating and bitter cold and possibly even tectonic forces. The smaller polygonal shapes outlined by fractures in the lower right photo are just 6-16 feet (2-5 meters) across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

You’ll be looking for a small, 1-arc-minute-diameter, compact, circular patch of nebulous light shortly before dawn when it’s highest in the east. Rosetta’s Comet will spend the remainder of August slicing across Gemini the Twins north of an nearly parallel to the ecliptic. I spotted 67P/C-G for the first time this go-round about a week ago in my 15-inch (37 cm) reflector. While it appears like a typical faint comet, thanks to Rosetta, we know this particular rough and tumble mountain of ice better than any previous comet. Photographs show rugged cliffs, numerous cracks due to the expansion and contraction of ice, blowholes that serve as sources for jets and smooth plains blanketed in fallen dust.

Geysers of dust and gas shooting off the comet’s nucleus are called jets. The material they deliver outside the nucleus builds the comet’s coma. Credit: ESA/Rostta/NAVCAM

The jets are geyser-like sprays of dust and gas that loft grit and rocks from the comet’s interior and surface into space to create a coma or temporary atmosphere. This is what you’ll see in your telescope. And if you’re patient, you’ll even be able to catch this glowing tadpole on the move. I was surprised at its speed. After just 20 minutes, thanks to numerous field stars that acted as references, I could easily spot the comet’s eastward movement using a magnification of 245x.

Facing east around 4 a.m. local time in late August, you’ll see the winter constellations Gemini and Orion. 67P/C-G’s path is shown through early September. Brighter stars near the path are labeled. Time shown is 4 a.m. CDT. Use this map to get oriented and then switch to the one below for telescope use. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Tomorrow morning, 67P/C-G passes very close to the magnitude +5 star Omega Geminorum. While this will make it easy to locate, the glare may swamp the comet. Set your alarm for an hour before dawn’s start to allow time to set up a telescope, dark-adapt your eyes and track down the field where the comet will be that morning using low magnification.

Once you’ve centered 67P/C-G’s position, increase the power to around 100x-150x and use averted vision to look for a soft, fuzzy patch of light. If you see nothing, take it to the next level (around 200-250x) and carefully search the area. The higher the magnification, the darker the field of view and easier it will be to spot it.

Detailed map showing the comet’s path through central Gemini daily August 21-28, 2015 around 4 a.m. CDT. Brighter stars are marked with Greek letters and numbers. “57”= 57 Geminorum. North is up, east to the left and stars to magnitude +13.5. Click for a larger version you can print out. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Besides being relatively faint, the comet doesn’t get very high in the east before the onset of twilight. Low altitude means the atmosphere absorbs a share of the comet’s light, making it appear even fainter. Not that I want to dissuade you from looking! There’s nothing like seeing real 67P photons not to mention the adventure and sense of accomplishment that come from finding the object on your own.

As we advance into late summer and early fall, 67P/C-G will appear higher up but also be fading. Now through about August 27 and again from September 10-24 will be your best viewing times. That’s when the Moon’s absent from the sky.

Given the comet’s current distance from Earth of 165 million miles and apparent visual size of just shy of 1 arc minute, the coma measures very approximately 30,000 miles across. Rosetta orbits the comet’s 2.5-mile-long icy nucleus at a distance of about 115 miles (186 km), meaning it’s snug up against the nuclear center from our point of view on the ground.

If you do find and follow 67P/C-G, consider sharing your observations with the Pro-Amateur Collaborative Astronomy (PACA) campaign to help increase our knowledge of its behavior. Interested? Sign up HERE.

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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