It’s Finally Here! Comet Catalina Greets Dawn Skywatchers

If you love watching comets and live north of the equator, you’ve been holding your breath a l-o-n-g time for C/2013 US10 Catalina to make its northern debut. I’m thrilled to report the wait is over. The comet just passed perihelion on Nov. 15th and has begun its climb into morning twilight. 

Map showing the sky facing southeast around the start of dawn. Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina leaps into the morning sky in eastern Virgo beginning this weekend at around magnitude +7. Comet positions are marked by small crosses every 5 days around 6 a.m. CST (12:00 Universal Time) for mid-northern latitudes (Minneapolis, specifically). Planet positions are shown for Nov. 21st. Stars to mag. +7. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

The first post-perihelion photo, taken on Nov. 19th by astrophotographer Ajay Talwar from Devasthal Observatory high in the Indian Himalayas, show it as a starry dot with a hint of a tail only 1° above the eastern horizon at mid-twilight. Additional photos made on the following mornings show the comet inching up from the eastern horizon into better view. Estimates of its current brightness range from magnitude +6.8-7.0.

Sometimes black and white is better. This is the same chart as above but in a handier version for use at the telescope. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Talwar, who teaches astrophotography classes and is a regular contributor to The World at Night (TWAN), drove 9 hours from his home to the Himalaya mountains, then climbed up the observatory dome to get enough horizon to photograph the comet. The window of opportunity was very narrow; Talwar had only 10 minutes to bag his images before the comet was overwhelmed by zodiacal light and twilight glow. When asked if it was visible in binoculars, he thought it would be but had too little time to check despite bringing a pair along.

Ajay Talwar recorded the very first post-perihelion photo of Comet Catalina on Nov. 19th from Devasthal Observatory. Prior to perihelion, the comet was only visible from the southern hemisphere. Copyright: Ajay Talwar

A difficult object at the moment, once it frees itself from the horizon haze in about a week, Catalina should be easily visible in ordinary binoculars. Watch for it to gradually brighten through the end of the year, peaking around magnitude +5.5 — just barely naked eye — in late December and early January, when it will be well-placed high in the northeastern sky near the star Arcturus (see map). Matter of fact, on the first morning of the new year, it creeps only 1/2° southwest of the star for a splendid conjunction.

Even before perihelion, Comet Catalina was a beautiful thing. This photo was taken on October 1, 2015. Credit: Jose Chambo

Halloween 2013 was an auspicious one. That’s when Comet C/2013 US10 was first picked up by the Catalina Sky Survey. The “US10” part comes from initial observations that suggested it was an asteroid. Additional photos and observations instead revealed a fuzzy comet on a steeply tilted orbit headed for the inner Solar System after a long sojourn in the Oort Cloud.

Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina will slice through the plane of the Solar System at an angle of 149° never to return. It comes closest to Earth on Jan. 12, 2016. After that time, the comet will recede and fade. Credit: JPL Horizons

Its sunward journey has been nothing short of legendary, requiring several million years of inbound travel from the frigid fringe to the relative warmth of the inner Solar System. Catalina will pass closest to Earth on Jan. 12th at 66.9 million miles (107.7 million km) before buzzing off into interstellar space. Yes, interstellar. Perturbations by the planets have converted its orbit into a one-way ticket outta here.

Check this out! Look to the east at the start of dawn on Dec. 7th to see a remarkable pairing of comet, Venus and the waning lunar crescent with earthshine. Source: Stellarium

When using the maps above, keep in mind they show the comet’s changing position, but the constellations and planets can only be shown for the one date, Nov. 21st. Like the comet, they’ll also be slowly sliding upward in the coming days and mornings due to Earth’s revolution around the Sun; stars that are near the horizon on Nov. 21 at 5:30 or 6 a.m. will be considerably higher up in a darker sky by the same time in December. Adding the shift of the stars to that of the comet, Catalina gains about 1° of altitude per day in the coming two weeks.

When you go out to find Catalina in binoculars, note its location on the map and then use the stars as steppingstones, starting with a bright obvious one like Spica and “stepping” from there to the next until you arrive at the one closest to the comet.

I’m so looking forward to finding Catalina. Nothing like a potentially naked eye comet to warm up those cold December mornings. Mark your calendar for the morning of Dec. 7th, when this rare visitor will join Venus and the crescent Moon in the east at the start of morning twilight. See you in spirit at dawn!

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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