Tales (Tails?) Of Three Comets

As the Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times,” and while the promise of Comet ISON dazzling observers didn’t exactly pan out as hoped for in early 2014, we now have a bevy of binocular comets set to grace evening skies for northern hemisphere observers. Comet 2012 K1 PanSTARRS has put on a fine show, and comet C/2014 E2 Jacques has emerged from behind the Sun and its close 0.085 AU passage near Venus and has already proven to be a fine target for astro-imagers. And we’ve got another icy visitor to the inner solar system beating tracks northward in the form of Comet C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden, and a grand cometary finale as comet A1 Siding Spring brushes past the planet Mars. That is, IF a spectacular naked eye comet doesn’t come by and steal the show, as happens every decade or so…

Comet E2 Jacques crossing Cassiopeia as seen from the island of Malta. Credit: Leonard Mercer.

Anyhow, here’s a rapid fire run down on what you can expect from three of these binocular comets that continue to grace the twilight skies this Fall.

(Note that mentions of comets “passing near” a given object denote conjunctions of less than an angular degree of arc unless otherwise stated).

C/2014 E2 Jacques:

Discovered by amateur astronomer Cristovao Jacques on March 13th of this year from the SONEAR Observatory in Brazil, Comet E2 Jacques has been dazzling observers as it passed 35 degrees from the north celestial pole and posed near several deep sky wonders as it transited the constellation of Cassiopeia.

Comet E2 Jacques on August 28th as seen from the MVAS dark sky site in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Credit: John Chumack.

Mid-September finds Jacques 55 degrees above the NE horizon at dusk for northern hemisphere viewers in the constellation Cygnus. It then races southward parallel to the galactic equator, keeping in the +7th to +8th magnitude range before dropping down below +10th magnitude in late October. After this current passage through the inner solar system, Comet Jacques will be on a shortened 12,000 year orbit.

-Brightest: Mid-August at +6th magnitude.

-Perihelion: July 2nd, 2014 (0.66 AU).

-Closest to Earth: August 28, 2014 (0.56 AU).

Some key upcoming dates:

Sep 10: Passes the +3.9 magnitude star Eta Cygni.

Sep 14: Passes near the famous optical double star Albireo and crosses into the constellation of Vulpecula.

Sep 16: Passes in front of the +4.4 magnitude star Alpha Vulpeculae.

Sep 20: Crosses the Coathanger asterism.

Sep 21: Crosses into the constellation Sagitta.

Sep 24: Crosses into Aquila.

The celestial path of Comet Jacques from September 12th thru November 1st.
The celestial path of Comet Jacques from September 12th through November 1st. (All simulations created using Starry Night Education software.

Oct 5: Crosses the galactic plane.

Oct 14: passes near the +7.5 magnitude open cluster NGC 6755.

Oct 15: Drops back below +10th magnitude?

C/2013 V5 Oukaïmeden

Pronounced Ow-KAY-E-Me-dah, (yes, it’s a French name, with a very metal umlaut over the “ï”!) comet C/2013 V5 Oukaïmeden was discovered by the Moroccan Oukaïmeden Sky Survey (MOSS) located in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. After completing a brief dawn appearance in early September, the comet moves into the dusk sky and starts the month of October located 38 degrees east of the Sun at about 14 degrees above the southwestern horizon as seen from latitude 30 degrees north at sunset. Southern hemisphere observers will continue to have splendid dawn views of the comet through mid-September at its expected peak. Comet Oukaïmeden is currently at +8th magnitude “with a bullet” and is expected to top out +6th magnitude in late September shortly before perihelion and perhaps remain a binocular object as it crosses the constellation Libra in October.

An early image of Comet C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden taken in February of this year. Credit: Efrain Morales Rivera.

And its also worth noting that as comet A1 Siding Spring (see below) makes a close physical pass by Mars on October 19th, Comet Oukaïmeden makes a close apparent pass by Saturn as seen from our Earthly vantage point the evening before! To be sure, the dusk apparition of Comet Oukaïmeden will be a tough one, but if you can track down these bright guidepost objects listed below, you’ll have a chance at spying it.

-Brightest: Mid-September.

-Perihelion: September 28th, 2014 (0.63 AU from the Sun).

-Closest to Earth: September 16th, 2014 (0.48 AU).

Some key upcoming dates:

Sep 10 through Oct 4: Threads across the borders of the constellations Hydra, Pyxis, Antlia and Centaurus.

Sep 18: Passes near the +3.5 magnitude star Xi Hydrae.

Sep 19: Passes near the +4.3 magnitude star Beta Hydrae.

Sep 25: Passes 1.5 degrees from the +8th magnitude Southern Pinwheel Galaxy M83.

Oct 1: Passes in front of the +10.2 globular cluster NGC 5694.

The path of Comet ... the Sun position is shown for the final date.
The path of Comet Oukaimeden through the month of October: The Sun position is shown for the final date.

Oct 3: Passes into Libra.

Oct 11: Passes near the +8.5 magnitude globular cluster NGC 5897.

Oct 16: Crosses the ecliptic plane northward.

Oct 18: Passes less than two degrees from Saturn.

Oct 25: Passes less than a degree from the 2 day old Moon and the +3.9 magnitude star Gamma Librae.

Light curve
The projected light curve for Comet Oukaimeden with observational measurements (black dots). Credit:  Seiichi Yoshida.

C/2013 A1 Siding Spring

This comet was discovered on January 3rd, 2013 from the Siding Spring observatory in Australia, and soon caught the eye of astronomers when it was discovered that it would make a nominal pass just 139,000 kilometres from Mars on October 19th.

Comet A1 Siding Spring as seen from NEOWISE early this year. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Comet A1 Siding Spring as seen from NEOWISE early this year. Credit: NASA/JPL.

As seen from the Earth, Comet A1 Siding Spring has just broken 10th magnitude and vaults up towards the planet Mars low to the southwest at dusk this Fall for northern hemisphere observers. A1 Siding Spring is expected to top out at +8th magnitude this month before its Mars encounter, and is on a one million year plus orbit.

-Brightest: Early to Mid-September.

-Perihelion: October 25th, 2014.

-Closest to Earth: October 28th, 2014 (1.4 AU).

Some key upcoming dates:

Sep 17: Passes into the constellation Telescopium.

Sep 20: Passes near the +8.5 magnitude globular NGC 6524.

Sep 21: Passes into the constellation Ara.

Sep 22: Passes the +3.6 magnitude star Beta Arae.

Sep 25: Crosses into Scorpius.

Sep 30: Passes the +3 magnitude star Iota Scorpii.

Mars and Comet A1 Siding Springs crossing paths through the month of October.
Mars and Comet A1 Siding Springs crossing paths through the month of October.

Oct 3: Passes near the +7.2 magnitude globular NGC 6441.

Oct 5: Passes 2 degrees from Ptolemy’s cluster M7.

Oct 8: Passes in front of the Butterfly cluster M6.

Oct 10: Crosses the galactic plane.

Oct 11: Crosses into Ophiuchus.

Oct 19: Passes just 2’ arc minutes from Mars as seen from Earth.

Oct 22: Passes north of the ecliptic.

Oct 30: Drops back below +10th magnitude?

Key moonless windows for evening comet viewing as reckoned from when the Moon wanes from Full to New are: September 9th to September 24th and October 8th to the 23rd.

Looking for resources to find out just what these comets and others  are up to? The COBS Comet Observers database is a great resource for recent observations, as is Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Comet page. For history and current info, Gary Kronk’s Cometography is also a great treasure trove to delve into, as are the Yahoo! Comet and Comet Observer mailing lists.

Be sure to check out these fine icy visitors to the inner solar system coming to a sky near you. We fully expect to see more outstanding images of these comets and more filling up the Universe Today Flickr forum!


Asteroid-Turned-Comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina Brightens: How to See it This Summer

Though ISON may have fizzled in early 2014, we’ve certainly had a bevy of binocular comets to track this year. Thus far in 2014, we’ve had comets R1 Lovejoy, K1 PanSTARRS, and E2 Jacques reach binocular visibility. Now, and asteroid-turned-comet is set to put on a fine show this summer for northern hemisphere observers.

Veteran stargazer and Universe Today contributor Bob King told the tale last month of how the asteroid formerly known as 2013 UQ4 became comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina. Discovered last year on October 23rd 2013 during the routine Catalina Sky Survey searching for Near Earth Objects based outside of Tucson Arizona, this object was of little interest until early this year.

A recent image of 2013 UQ4 Catalina from June 16th. The development of fine tail structure can be seen. Credit: A. Maury & J.G. Bosch.

As it rounded the Sun, astronomers recovered the asteroid and discovered that it had begun to sprout a fuzzy coma, a very un-asteroid-like thing to do. Then, on May 7th, Taras Prystavski and Artyom Novichonok — of Comet ISON fame — conducted observations of 2013 UQ4 and concluded that it was indeed an active comet.

The orbital path of UQ4 Catalina in early July. Created using the JPL Solar System Dynamics Small Body Database Browser.

Hovering around +13th magnitude last month, newly rechristened 2013 UQ4 Catalina was a southern hemisphere object visible only from larger backyard telescopes. That should change, however, in the coming weeks if activity from this comet holds up.

Light curve
The light curve of UQ4 Catalina with current observations (dots) noted. Credit:  Seiichi Yoshida/Aerith.net.

2013 UQ4 belongs to a class of objects known as damocloids. These asteroids are named after the prototype for the class 5335 Damocles and are characterized as long-period bodies in retrograde and highly eccentric orbits. These are thought to be inactive varieties of comet nuclei, and other asteroids in the damocloid series such as C/2001 OG 108 (LONEOS) and C/2002 VQ94 (LINEAR) also turned out to be comets. Damocloids also exhibit the same orbital characteristics of that most famous inner solar system visitor of them all; Halley’s Comet.

The path of Comet 9PM 30deg north
The path of Comet UQ4 Catalina looking towards the NE at 9PM local in early July from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Stellarium.

The good news is, 2013 UQ4 Catalina is brightening on schedule and should be a binocular object greater than +10th magnitude by the end of June. Recent observations, including those made by Alan Hale (of comet Hale-Bopp fame) place the comet at magnitude +11.9 with a bullet. The comet is currently placed high in the east in the constellation Pisces at dawn, and will soon speed northward and vault across the sky as it crosses the ecliptic plane this week. In fact, comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina reaches perihelion on July 6th only four days before its closest approach to the Earth at 47 million kilometres distant, when it may well reach a peak magnitude of +7. At that point, the comet will have an apparent motion of about 7 degrees a day — that’s the span of a Full Moon once every 1 hour and 42 minutes — as it rises in the constellation Cepheus to the northeast at dusk in early July. A fine placement, indeed. And speaking of the Moon, our natural satellite reaches New phase later this month on June 27th, another good reason to begin searching for 2013 UQ4 Catalina now.

Here’s a list of notable events to watch out for and aid you in your quest as comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina crosses the summer sky:

June 16th: The comet crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

June 20th: The waning crescent Moon passes 3 degrees from the comet.

starry nite
The celestial path of the comet from June 16th to July 15th… Credit: Starry Night Education software.

June 29th: Crosses into the constellation of Andromeda.

July 1st: Passes less than one degree from the +2nd magnitude star Alpheratz.

July 2nd: Crosses briefly into the constellation Pegasus before passing back into Andromeda.

July 6th: The comet reaches perihelion or its closest point to the Sun at 1.081 A.U.s distant.

July 7th: Crosses into the constellation of Lacerta and passes the deep sky objects NGCs 7296, 7245, 7226.

July 8th: Crosses into the constellation Cepheus and across the galactic plane.

July 9th: Passes a degree from the Elephant Trunk open star cluster.

July 10th: Passes less than one degree from the stars Eta (magnitude +3.4) and Theta (magnitude +4.2) Cephei.

July 10th: Passes 2 degrees from the +7.8 magnitude Open Cluster NGC 6939.

July 10th: Passes closest to Earth at 0.309 A.U.s or 47 million kilometres distant.

July 11th: Crosses into the constellation Draco.

July 11th: Reaches its most northerly declination of 64 degrees.

July 12th: Photo op: the comet passes 3 degrees from the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

July 15th- August 20th
… and the path of the comet from July 15th to August 20th. Credit: Starry Night.

July 17th: The comet passes into the astronomical constellation of Boötes.

July 31st: Passes just 2 degrees from globular cluster NGC5466 (+9th magnitude) and 6 degrees from the famous globular cluster Messier 3.

From there on out, the comet drops below naked eye visibility and heads back out in its 470 year orbit around the Sun. Be sure to check out comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina this summer… what will the Earth be like next time it passes by in 2484 A.D.?

Comet Jacques Brightens: How to See it in May

A recently discovered comet is headed northward and is set to put on one of two fine performances for binocular observers in 2014 starting this week.

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques was discovered on March 13th 2014 by Cristóvão Jacques, Eduardo Pimentel and João Ribeiro de Barros while observing from the Southern Observatory for Near Earth Asteroids Research (SONEAR) facility located near Oliveira, Brazil.

The comet was just about at +15th magnitude at the time of discovery as it glided across the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus.

While a majority of comet discoveries are destined to remain small and faint, Comet Jacques was immediately shown to be something special. Upon discovery of any new comet, the first task is to gain several observations hours or nights apart to accurately gauge its distance and orbit. Are astronomers looking at a small, garden variety comet close up, or a large, active one far away?

In the case of Comet Jacques, it was something in between: a comet about 1.22 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) distant at time of discovery. Comet Jacques is headed towards perihelion 0.66 A.U. from the Sun in early July and will pass 0.56 A.U. from Earth on August 28th.  Follow up observations carried out using the iTelescope at Siding Spring Australia showed a slightly elongated coma about 2 arc minutes across shortly after discovery, and the comet has recently jumped up to magnitude +8 — ahead of the projected light curve — in just the past week.

Starry Night
The path of Comet Jacques, looking west from latitude 30 degree north 45 minutes after sunset. Credit: Starry Night.

We caught our first good look at Comet Jacques last night while setting up for the Virtual Star Party. While +10 magnitude or brighter is usually a pretty good rule of thumb for binocular visibility, we found that the comet was only apparent as a fuzzy smudge viewing it with a 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope using averted vision at low power. Remember, the brightness of a comet is spread out over its apparent surface area, similar to viewing a diffuse nebula. Our first telescopic views of the ill-fated comet ISON as it breeched +10th magnitude were similar. Certainly, a nearby waxing crescent Moon in Gemini last night didn’t help.

How bright will Comet Jacques get? Current projections call for it to perhaps break naked eye visibility around +6th magnitude after June 1st and reach as bright as +4th magnitude in early July near perihelion. After its first evening act in May and June, Comet Jacques will reemerge in the dawn sky for northern hemisphere observers for Act 2 and trace a path northward paralleling the galactic plane through the star rich fields of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Cygnus in August and September of this year. If our luck holds out, Comet Jacques will remain above 6th magnitude until early September.

Credit JPL
The path of Comet Jacques through the inner solar system. Credit: JPL solar system small body generator.

This comet also created a brief flurry of interest when it was revealed that it will pass just 0.085 AUs or 12,700,000 kilometers from Venus on July 13th, 2014. Though close, this is still 31 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. The only “eyes” that humanity has currently in operation around Venus is ESA’s Venus Express orbiter. During closest approach Comet Jacques will appear just over 3 degrees away from Venus as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

Another comet is also set to photobomb a planet, as Comet A1 Siding Spring passes a nominal distance of 0.0009 A.U.s or 135,000 kilometers from Mars this Fall on October 19th.

Comet Jacques
11 images of Comet Jacques stacked from May 3rd. Credit: Ian Griffin @IanGriffin.

The closest recorded passage of a comet near Earth was Comet  D/1770 L1 Lexell in 1770, which passed us 0.015 A.U.s or 233 million kilometres distant.

Now on to Act 1. May finds Comet Jacques spending most of the month in the long rambling constellation of Monoceros. Currently moving just under 2 degrees a day, Comet Jacques crosses the celestial equator northward this week on May 8th. You’ll note its high orbital inclination of 156.4 degrees as it speeds northward. Comet Jacques has a long orbital period gauged at over 30,000 years — the last time Comet Jacques visited the inner solar system, our ancestors had the Last Glacial Maximum period to look forward to.

Light curve
The projected light curve of comet Jacques with recent observations. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida/aerith.net.

Comet Jacques is currently the brightest comet “with a bullet,” edging out the +9th magnitude comets C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS gilding through Canes Venatici and comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR, currently residing in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle. A great place to keep up with current observations of comets is the Comet Observation Database. We’re also pinging the IAU Minor Planet Center’s quick look page for new discoveries daily.

Here are some highlights to watch out for as Comet Jacques heads towards perihelion. Passages within one degree — twice the size of the Full Moon — near stars brighter than +5th magnitude are noted unless mentioned otherwise:

May 3rd through June 1st
The celestial path of Comet Jacques from May 3rd through June 1st. Credit: Starry Night.

May 8th: Passes the +4.1 magnitude star Delta Monocerotis and crosses north of the celestial equator.

May 10th: Passes planetary nebula NGC 2346.

May 11th: Passes briefly into Canis Minor before reentering the constellation Monoceros.

May 14th: Full Moon occurs, marking the start of a favorable two week period of moonless evenings soon after.

May 24th: Passes the +4.8 magnitude star 17 Monocerotis.

May 28th: New Moon occurs, marking the return of the Moon to early evening skies.

May 29th: Passes the +4.7 magnitude star 15 Monocerotis.

May 30th: Passes the Christmas tree cluster. Photo op!

May 31st: The waxing crescent Moon passes less than 8 degrees from Comet Jacques.

June 1st: Comet Jacques reaches naked eye visibility?

June 6th: Crosses into the constellation Gemini.

June 11th: Crosses into the constellation Taurus.

June 13th: Full Moon occurs.

June 14th: Crosses the galactic plane.

June 21st: Passes into the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

June 27th: New Moon occurs.

July 2nd: Reaches perihelion at 0.6638 A.U. from the Sun.

July 8th: Crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

July 13th: Passes 0.085 A.U. from Venus.

August 28th: Passes 0.56 A.U. from Earth.

And thus, Comet Jacques joins the parade of fine binocular comets in the 2014 night sky, as the stage is set for Act 2 this fall. And keep in mind, the next “big one” could grace our skies at anytime… more to come!

Get Set For Comet K1 PanSTARRS: A Guide to its Spring Appearance

Get those binoculars ready: an icy interloper from the Oort cloud is about to grace the night sky.

The comet is C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, and it’s currently just passed from the constellation Hercules into Corona Borealis and presents a good target for observers high in the sky in the hours before dawn. In fact, from our Tampa based latitude, K1 PanSTARRS is nearly at the zenith at around 6 AM local.

Observers currently place K1 PanSTARRS at magnitude +10.5 and brightening and showing a small condensed coma. Through the eyepiece, a comet at this stage will often resemble a fuzzy, unresolved globular star cluster.

And the good news is, K1 PanSTARRS will continue to brighten, headed northward through the early morning and then into the evening sky before reaching solar conjunction on August 9th, when it’ll actually pass behind the Sun for a few hours as seen from from our vantage point. We actually get two good apparitions of Comet K1 PanSTARRS: one for the northern hemisphere in the Spring and one for the southern hemisphere after it reaches perihelion and crosses south of the ecliptic plane in August.

And it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for K1 PanSTARRS online as well, as it passes into the view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera on August 2 before exiting its 15 degree field of view on August 16th.

This actually means the comet will reach opposition twice from our Earthbound vantage point: once on April 15th, and again on November 7th. And, as is often the case, this comet arrives six months early –or late, depending how you look at it- to be a fine naked eye object. Had K1 PanSTARRS reached perihelion in January, we’d have really been in for a show, with the comet only around 0.05 Astronomical Units (about 7.7 million kilometers) from the Earth!

The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS.
The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. The yellow arrows denote the motion of the planets and the comet as seen from north of the ecliptic plane. Credit-NASA/JPL Horizons Solar System Dynamics generator.

But alas, such was not to be. At its best, K1 PanSTARRS will be hidden by the glare of the Sun at its very best, to emerge into the southern sky. The comet has a steeply inclined 142 degree retrograde orbit, and thus approaches the inner solar system from high above the ecliptic plane.

These coming last weeks of March are a great time to search out K1 PanSTARRS as the Moon reaches Last Quarter this weekend and heads towards New on March 30th, beginning a two week “moonless period for AM observing in early April. Projections by veteran comet observer Seiichi Yoshida suggest that K1 PanSTARRS will begin to brighten dramatically towards +8th magnitude through April. We first picked up the now posthumous comet ISON with binoculars around this magnitude last Fall. Keep in mind, like nebula and galaxies, the apparent brightness of a comet is spread out over its surface area. This can make a +10th magnitude comet much tougher to spot than a pinpoint +10 magnitude star.

We actually prefer our trusty Canon 15x45IS image stabilized binoculars for comet hunting… they’re powerful and easy to deploy on a cold March morning!

Here’s a handy list of notable events to watch for as Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS crosses the springtime sky. Only passages of less than one degree near stars greater than magnitude +6 are mentioned except where otherwise noted:

March 17th: Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS passes into the constellation Corona Borealis.

March 21st: Passes the +5.8 magnitude star Upsilon Coronae Borealis.

March 29th: Passes the +5.4 magnitude star Rho Coronae Borealis.

March 30th: The Moon reaches New phase.

The path of comet K1 PanSTARRS through March and April
The path of comet K1 PanSTARRS in one week intervals through March and April. Created using Stellarium.

April 2nd: Passes the +4.8 magnitude star Kappa Coronae Borealis.

April 7th: Passes the +5.2 magnitude star Mu Coronae Borealis.

April 10th: Passes into the constellation of Boötes.

April 10th: Passes the +5 magnitude wide binary pair Nu Boötis.

April 15th: Comet K1 PanSTARRS reaches opposition, rising opposite to the setting Sun and moving into the evening sky.

April 20th: K1 PanSTARRS becomes circumpolar for observers above 45 degrees north until May 25th.

April 26th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Majoris.

April 29th: Passes the bright +1.9th magnitude star Alkaid in the handle of the Big Dipper asterism. This is the brightest star that K1 PanSTARRS will pass near for this apparition, and Alkaid will make a great “finder” to spot the comet.

April 29th: The Moon reaches New phase.

April 30th: Approaches the +4.7 magnitude star 24 Canum Venaticorum.

Path of comet K1 PanSTARRS Credit: Starry Night Education Software
The Spring path of comet K1 PanSTARRS from mid-March through late June. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

May 1st: Passes into the constellation Canes Venatici.

May 1st:  Passes less than 2 degrees from the galaxy M51… photo op!

May 3rd: Passes the 5.1 magnitude star 21 Canum Venaticorum.

May 6th: K1 PanSTARRS Reaches a maximum declination of 49.5 degrees north.

May 11th: Passes the 5.3 magnitude star 3 Canum Venaticorum.

May 14th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Major.

May 17th: Another great photo ops awaits astrophotographers, as the comet passes the +3.7 magnitude star Chi Ursae Majoris and the +12 magnitude galaxy NGC 3877.

May 25th: Passes the 3rd magnitude star Psi Ursae Majoris.

May 28th: The Moon reaches New phase.

May 28th: Passes the 4.7 magnitude star Omega Ursae Majoris.

June 7th Passes into the constellation Leo Minor.

June 15th: Passes the +4.5 magnitude star 21 Leo Minoris.

June 22nd: Passes into the constellation Leo.

July 1- Passes to within 40 degrees elongation from the Sun.

And from there, Comet K1 PanSTARRS reaches perihelion just outside of the Earth’s orbit at 1.05 A.U. on August 27, and plunges south across the celestial equator on September 15.

Video animation of comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS over the span of an evening. Credit: Dan Crowson of Dardenne Prairie Missouri, used with permission. 

It’s also worth noting that K1 PanSTARRS will make its first of two approaches at a minimum distance of 1.471 A.U.s from Earth May 4th and will be moving at about a degree a day – twice the diameter of the Full Moon – before receding from us once more for a closer 1.056 A.U.  approach to Earth on August 25th.

Discovered on May 19th, 2012 by the PanSTARRS telescope based on the island of Maui, Comet K1 PanSTARRS was first spotted at 8.7 A.U.s distant, well past the orbit of Jupiter.  The PanSTARRS survey has been a prolific discoverer of asteroids and comets, including the brilliant comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS that graced dusk skies in March of last year.

Comet K1 PanSTARRS will join the ranks of comets reaching binocular observability later this year which includes C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden, Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, and the recently discovered C/2014 E2 Jacques, which may reach +7th magnitude as it nears perihelion this coming July.

And those are just the binocular comets that are scheduled to perform… remember, the next “big one” could come barreling in towards the inner solar system at any time to put on a memorable performance worthy of another comet Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp… just not TOO close!

–      Be sure to send those comet pics in to Universe Today.

NEOWISE Spots Mars-Crossing Comet

One of the big ticket astronomical events of 2014 will be the close passage of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring past the planet Mars in October 2014. Discovered just over a year ago from the Australian-based Siding Spring Observatory, this comet generated a surge of excitement in the astronomical community when it was discovered that it was going to pass very close to the planet Mars in late 2014.

Now, a fleet of spacecraft are poised to study the comet in unprecedented detail. Some of the first space-based observations of the comet have been conducted by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the recently reactivated NEOWISE mission. And although the comet may not look like much yet in the infrared eyes of NEOWISE, its estimated 4 kilometre in diameter nucleus is already active and shedding about 100 kilograms of dust per second.

And although an impact has been since ruled out, it’s that dust that may present a hazard for Mars orbiting spacecraft, as well as a unique scientific observing opportunity.

“Our plans for using spacecraft at Mars to observe Comet A1 Siding Spring will be coordinated with plans for how the orbiters will duck and cover, if we need to do so that,” said NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Program chief scientist Rich Zurek.

The 2014 passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The 2014 passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Comet A1 Siding Spring is projected to pass within just 138,000 kilometres of Mars on October 19th, 2014. This is one-third the Earth-Moon distance, and 10 times closer than the closest recorded passage of a comet by the Earth, which was Comet D/1770 Lexell in the late 18th century. The comet will also miss the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos, which have the closest orbits of any moons in the solar system at just 5,989 and 20,063 kilometres above the surface of Mars, respectively.

Assets in orbit around the Red Planet are also slated to observe the close approach and passage of Comet A1 Siding Spring, as well as any extraterrestrial meteor shower that its dust may generate.

“We could learn about the nucleus – its shape, its rotation, whether some areas on its surface are darker than others,” Zurek said in a recent NASA/JPL press release.

The rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are currently active on the surface of Mars. Above in orbit, we’ve got the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, and NASA’s Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).  These will be joined by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft just weeks prior to the comet’s passage.

“A third aspect for investigation could be what effect the infalling particles have on the upper atmosphere of Mars,” Zurek said. “They might heat it and expand it, not unlike the effect of a global dust storm.”

Just last year, Mars based spacecraft caught sight of the ill-fated sungrazer Comet C/2012 S1 ISON as it passed Mars. But that dim passage yielded a scant pixel-sized view in the eyes of MRO’s HiRISE camera; Comet A1 Siding Spring will pass 80 times closer than Comet ISON and could yield a view of its nucleus dozens of pixels across.

Though the tenuous Martian atmosphere will shield to surface rovers from any micro-meteoroid impacts, they may also be witness to a surreptitious meteor shower from the debris shed by the comet, a first seen from the surface of another world.

But engineers will also be assessing the potential hazards that said particles may posed to spacecraft orbiting Mars as well.

“It’s way too early for us to know how much of a threat Siding Spring will be to our orbiters,” said JPL’s Mars Exploration Program chief engineer Soren Madsen recently. “It could go either way. It could be a huge deal or it could be nothing – or anything in between.”

In a worst case scenario, Mars orbiting spacecraft would be shuttered and oriented to “shelter in place” as the dust from the comet passes. There’s precedent for this in Earth orbit, as precious assets such as the Hubble Space Telescope were closed for business during the Leonid meteor storm of 1998.

“How active will Siding Spring be in April and May? We’ll be watching that,” Madsen continued. “But if the red alarm starts sounding in May, it would be too late to start planning how to respond. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing right now.”

Comet A1 Siding Spring was the first comet discovered in 2013 at 7.2 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant. From our Earth based perspective, the comet will reach opposition on August 25th at 0.96 AU from the Earth, and approach 7’ from Mars on October 19th in the constellation Ophiuchus in evening skies. The comet reaches perihelion just 4 days later, and is slated to be a binocular comet around that time shining at magnitude +8.

The comet nucleus itself is moving in a retrograde orbit relative to Mars. Particles from A1 Siding Spring will slam into the atmosphere of Mars — and any spacecraft that happens to be in their way — at a velocity of 56 kilometres per second. For context, the recent January Quadrantids have a more sedate atmospheric impact velocity of 41 kilometres a second.

The unfolding 2014 drama of “Mars versus the Comet” will definitely be worth keeping an eye on… more to come!