Here Comes Comet Heinze for the Holidays

Comet C/2017 T1 Heinze passes near the galaxy NGC 2706 on November 25th. Image credit and copyright: Charles Bell.

Yeah, we’re still all waiting for that next great “Comet of the Century” to make its presence known. In the meantime, we’ve had a steady stream of good binocular comets over the past year both expected and new, including Comet C/2017 O1 ASASSN1, 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková and Comet 41P Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (links). Now, another newcomer is set to bring 2017 in over the finish line.

The Discovery: Astronomer Aren Heinze discovered Comet C/2017 T1 Heinze as a tiny +18th magnitude fuzzball on the night of October 2nd, 2017. The comet will juuust breech our “is interesting, take a look” +10th magnitude cutoff in the final weeks of December leading into January, perhaps topping out around +8th magnitude.

Heinze discovered his first comet as part of the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) search program looking for hazardous objects using the eight 50 cm Wright-Schmidt telescope array atop Haleakala and Mauna Loa in the Hawaiian Islands.

The passage of Comet Heinze through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

The orbit for Comet Heinze is an intriguing one, and as is often the case with comets, tempts us with what could have been. Heinze will vault over the ecliptic headed northward on Christmas Day, and reaches perihelion 87 million km (0.58 AU) from the Sun on February 21st, 2018. Closest passage from Earth for Comet Heinze is 33 million km (0.22 AU) on January 4th, 2018, when the comet will appear to move an amazing seven degrees a day through the constellation Camelopardalis.

But it’s the southward passage of Heinze though the ecliptic on April 1st that gives us pause, only 0.0144 AU exterior of Earth’s orbit… had this occurred on July 4th, we might’ve been in for a show, with the comet only 2.1 million kilometers away! Heinze seems like a tiny body as comets go, and there’s discussion that the comet is dynamically new and may end up shredding its nucleus all together. (link)

On a steep 97 degree inclined retrograde orbit, Comet Heinze also has a knife edge hyperbolic eccentricity of nearly 1.0. As with many long period comet, it’s tough to tell if Comet Heinze is a true denizen of our solar system, or just visiting. 2017 also saw the first asteroid whose extra-solar source was clear, as I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua, which passed through the inner solar system this past October.

The December path of Comet Heinze. Starry Night.

The Prospects: Currently, Comet Heinze is located highest to the south around 5AM local for northern hemisphere observers. Expect this situation to change to around 2 AM towards months end, as the comet is higher placed in the constellation Lynx come January 1st, 2018 as it nears opposition.

Comet observer Charles Bell noted on November 27th that Comet Heinze currently displays a short fan-shaped tail, about 88 days before perihelion.

Here’s the blow-by-blow for Comet Heinze for the next few months (passages mentioned here are to within a degree unless otherwise noted).

December

7- Crosses the celestial equator northward.

16- Passes near +3 magnitude star Zeta Hydrae.

18- Crosses into the constellation Cancer.

21- Passes near the open cluster M67.

25- Photo op: passes near the Beehive Cluster M44 and crosses the ecliptic northward.

29- Skirts the corner of the constellation Gemini and crosses into the Lynx.

The January 2018 passage of Comet Heinze through the inner solar system. Starry Night

January

1- May break +10th magnitude?

1- Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 21 Lyncis.

2- Reaches opposition.

3- Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 2 Lyncis and into the constellation Camelopardalis.

5- Passes near the +4 magnitude star Alpha Camelopardalis.

6- Passes 31 degrees from the north celestial pole.

7- Crosses into the constellation Cassiopeia.

10-Crosses the galactic equator southward.

13- Crosses into the constellation Andromeda.

14-Crosses into the constellation Lacerta.

17- Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 6 Lacertae.

21- Passes near the +4 magnitude star 1 Lacertae.

23- Crosses into the constellation Pegasus.

February

26- Passes near the globular cluster M15.

March

1- May drop back down below +10th magnitude?

heinze
The projected light curve for Comet Heinze. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Info on Bright Comets.

And though Comet Heinze won’t join their ranks, here’s a list of the great comets of the past century:

You could say we’re due.

See Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS at its Best

ER61 PanSTARRS
ER61 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS shortly after outburst on April 8th. Image credit and copyright: John Purvis.

Have you been following the springtime parade of bright comets? Thus far, the Oort cloud has offered up several fine binocular comets, including Comet 2/P Encke, 41/P Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE and C/2017 E4 Lovejoy. Now, another comet joins the dawn ranks, as it brightens up ahead of expectations: 2015 ER61 PanSTARRS.

Discovered on March 15th, 2015 by the prolific PanSTARRS-1 NEO survey atop Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii, Comet ER61 PanSTARRS made our who’s-who list of bright comets to watch for in 2017. The odd “ER61” designation stems from the early identification of the object as an asteroid, before it presented observers with a cometary appearance.

ER61 PanSTARRS Skychart
The path of Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS through the sky from early May through mid-August. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Late northern hemisphere Spring through Summer sees the comet maintaining a decent elevation above the eastern horizon at dawn, gliding north and parallel to the ecliptic plane through the constellations Pisces, Aries and Taurus from May through mid-August. The comet passed 1.08 AU from the Earth last month on April 4th, and is now racing away from us. The comet’s location near the March equinoctial point on the celestial hemisphere assures an equally good apparition for both the northern and southern hemisphere. As seen from latitude 30 degrees north, the comet sits 30 degrees above the eastern horizon, through the remainder of May. Venus also makes a brilliant beacon to track down Comet ER61 PanSTARRS, as the planet heads towards greatest elongation 46 degrees west of the Sun on June 3rd.

The orbit of Comet ER61 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The comet is also on a 7,591 year long orbit inbound, which takes it out nearly 2,500 AU from the Sun. That’s 190 times the Pluto-Sun distance, and the fourth most distant aphelion of any solar system object known. The 2015-2017 passage of the comet through the inner solar system actually shortened the orbit of Comet ER61 PanSTARRS down to an aphelion of ‘only’ 854 AU due to a 0.9 AU pass near Jupiter last year on March 28th, 2016. A similar orbital shortening by Jove occurred for Comet Hale-Bopp in 1996, which came in on an 4,200 year orbit and departed the inner solar system on a shorter 2,500 year path around the Sun.

The projected light curve for Comet C/2015 ER51 PanSTARRS. The purple line denotes perihelion, and the black dots are actual observations. Adapted from Seiichii Yoshida’s Weekly Information for Bright Comets.

Prospects and Prognostications

Observers reported an outburst from the comet last month in the first week of April, causing it to jump about 2 magnitudes in brightness. Right now, it’s holding steady at +7th magnitude. Unfortunately, the Moon reaches Full phase this week on May 10th, though you’ve still got a slim window to hunt for the comet after Moonset and before sunrise. Once the Moon moves towards a slender crescent phase next late week, we’ll once again have dark predawn skies ideal for comet hunting.

Here are some key dates for Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS as it glides through the dawn sky:

(Stars highlighted are brighter than +5th magnitude, and passes are less than a degree unless otherwise noted.)

May 10th: Reaches perihelion at 1.04 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun.

May 12th: Passes near the +4.9 magnitude star 19X Piscium.

May 20-23rd: Passes less than 10 degrees from Venus.

May 21st: The waning crescent Moon passes less than 10 degrees to the south.

June 10th: Passes near the +3.6 magnitude star Eta Piscium.

June 11th: Passes near the galaxy M74.

June 16th: Passes into the constellation Aries.

June 19th: The waning crescent Moon passes 9 degrees to the south.

July 13th: Passes near (less than 5′) the +4.6 magnitude star Epsilon Arietis.

July 18th: The waning crescent Moon passes 9 degrees to the south.

July 23rd: Passes near the +4.8 star Zeta Arietis.

The comet versus Venus in the dawn sky – looking eastward on May 15th. Credit: Stellarium.

August 2nd: Crosses into the constellation Taurus.

August 15th: The waning crescent Moon passes 8 degrees to the south.

August 16th: Passes near M45 (The Pleiades)

After mid-August, Comet 2015 ER61 PanSTARRS will drop back down below +10th magnitude, not to return for several millennia to come.

Observing a comet like ER61 PanSTARRS is as simple as knowing where and when to look, then starting to slowly sweep the suspect area with binoculars for a little fuzzball looking like a globular cluster stubbornly refusing to snap into focus. In pre-telescopic times, ER61 PanSTARRS would’ve entered and exited the inner solar system unrecorded.

April ER61 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS from April 12th. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.

Next up: We’ve got one more predicted comet on tap for 2017, as C/2015 V2 Johnson brightens up to +7th magnitude in mid-June. Keep watching the skies, as the next great comet of the century could always appear unannounced at any time.

Surprise: Comet E4 Lovejoy Brightens

Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy from the morning of Monday, April 3rd, courtesy of Gianluca Masi. Credit and copyright: The Virtual Telescope Project

Had your fill of binocular comets yet? Thus far this year, we’ve had periodic comets 2P/Encke, 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková and 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák all reach binocular visibility above +10th magnitude as forecasted. Now, we’d like to point out a surprise interloper in the dawn sky that you’re perhaps not watching, but should be: Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy.

If that name sounds familiar, that’s because E4 Lovejoy is the sixth discovery by prolific comet hunter Terry Lovejoy. Comets that have shared the Lovejoy moniker include the brilliant sungrazer C/2011 W3 Lovejoy, which amazed everyone by surviving its 140,000 kilometer (that’s about 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance!) pass near the blazing surface of the Sun on December 16th, 2011 and went on to be a great comet for southern hemisphere skies.

The path of Comet E4 Lovejoy through the end of April. Credit: Starry Night.

Unfortunately, E4 Lovejoy won’t get quite that bright, but it’s definitely an over achiever. Shining at a faint +15th magnitude when it was first discovered last month on March 9th, 2017, it has since jumped up to +7th magnitude (almost 160 times in brightness) in just a few short weeks. We easily picked it out near the +2.4 magnitude star Enif (Epsilon Pegasi) on Saturday morning April 1st in the pre-dawn sky. E4 Lovejoy was an easy catch with our Canon 15×45 image-stabilized binocs, and looked like a tiny +7 magnitude globular (similar to nearby Messier 15) that stubbornly refused to snap into focus. In fact, I’d say that E4 Lovejoy was a much easier comet to observe than faint Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák, which made its closest pass 0.142 Astronomical Units (21.2 million kilometers) from the Earth on the same day.

Comet E4 Lovejoy from the morning of April 4th. Image credit and copyright: Gerald Rhemann/Sky Vistas.

Prospects and Prognostications 

E4 Lovejoy will remain an early pre-dawn object through April for northern hemisphere observers as it glides through the constellations Pegasus, Andromeda and Triangulum. If current predictions hold true, the comet should reach a maximum brightness of magnitude +6 around April 15th. On an estimated ~ 600,000 year orbit, Comet E4 Lovejoy may be a first time visitor to the inner solar system, and its current outburst may also be short-lived. In fact, there’s lots of speculation that Comet E4 Lovejoy may disintegrate altogether, very soon. Plus, the Moon is headed towards Full next week on April 11th, making this week the best time to catch a glimpse of this fleeting comet.

The projected light curve for Comet E4 Lovejoy. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets.

And to think: we just missed having a bright naked eye comet! That’s because Comet E4 Lovejoy very nearly passed through the space that the Earth will occupy just next month. In fact, the comet passed just 0.11 AU (17 million kilometers) interior to the Earth’s orbit on March 22nd, 2017. Had it done the same on May 4th, it would have been 5 times closer and 25 (about 3 to 4 magnitudes) times brighter!

The orbit of Comet E4 Lovejoy through the inner solar system. NASA/JPL

A tantalizing miss, for sure. Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy reaches perihelion at 0.5 AU (77.5 million kilometers) from the Sun on April 23rd, and passed 0.6 AU (93 million kilometers) from the Earth on March 31st. This week, it will be moving through Pegasus at a rate of about four degrees (8 Full Moon diameters) a day. With an orbital inclination of 88 degrees, Comet E4 Lovejoy’s path is very nearly perpendicular to the ecliptic path traced out by the Earth. The comet swung up from the south during discovery, and is now headed northward towards perihelion.

Here are some key dates for Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy to watch out for in April:

April 7th: Passes less than one degree from the +3.5 magnitude star Sadal Bari (Lambda Pegasi).

April 9th: Passes less than 10′ from the +2.4 magnitude star Scheat (Beta Pegasi).

April 13th: Crosses into the constellation Andromeda.

April 19th: Photo-op, as the comet passes 4 degrees from the Andromeda Galaxy M31.

April 22nd: Passes between the +2nd magnitude star Mirach and the +4th magnitude star Mu Andromedae.

April 27th: Passes five degrees from the Pinwheel Galaxy M33.

April 28th: Crosses into the constellation Triangulum.

Looking to the northeast at 6 pm local on the morning of April 19th from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Stellarium.

Teaser for 2017 Comets

We’re barely a quarter of the way through 2017, with more cometary action to come. We’re expecting 2015 ER51 PanSTARRS (May), and 2015 V2 Johnson (June) to reach binocular visibility. You can read about comets, occultations, and more in our guide to 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, a free e-book from Universe Today.

We’re due for the next big one, for sure. It always seems like there’s a “Great Comet” per every generation or so, and its been 20 years now since comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake graced northern skies.

Binoculars are the best tool for observing comets like E4 Lovejoy, as they offer a generous true (i.e. not inverted) field of view. A good finder chart and dark skies also help. We like to find a good nearby ‘anchor’ object such as a bright star, then hop into the suspected comet area and start sweeping.

One thing’s for sure: we need more comets with names like Lovejoy… if nothing else, it’s much easier to pronounce, and us science writers don’t have to keep hunting through the ‘insert’ menu for those strange letter symbols that grace many of these icy denizens of the Oort Cloud as they pay a visit to the inner solar system.

Watch Comet 45P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková Fly Past Earth This Week

A recent image of Comet 45P from February 4th. Image credit and copyright: Hisayoshi Kato.

Hankering for some cometary action? An interplanetary interloper pays us a visit this weekend, sliding swiftly through the pre-dawn northern hemisphere sky.

If you’ve never caught sight of periodic comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, this week is a good time to try. Currently shining at magnitude +6.5, the comet makes a close 0.08 AU (7.4 million miles or 12.3 million kilometers) pass near the Earth on Saturday, February 11, at 14:44 Universal Time (UT) or 9:44 AM Eastern Standard Time. This is the closest passage of the comet for the remainder of this century, and with the Moon also reaching Full this weekend, the time to track down this comet is now.

The path of Comet 45/P through Monday, February 13th. Credit: Starry Night Edu.

We wrote about the first act for this comet last December, and Bob King also wrote up a preview last month. The comet passed perihelion 0.53 AU (49.3 million miles/ 82.1 million kilometers) from the Sun on New Year’s Eve 2016, reemerging into the dawn sky. It’s now on a swift sprint through the constellation Ophiuchus, and will cross Hercules at closest approach and into Corona Borealis and Boötes in just one week. At its closest, it’ll be moving at a whooping 23 arc minutes per hour, about three-quarters the diameter of a Full Moon!

The position of Comet 45/P as seen from latitude 30 degrees north at 4 AM. Credit: Stellarium.

At closest approach, the comet may just top naked eye brightness under dark skies at +6 magnitude.

Independently discovered by three observers worldwide in late 1948, Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková orbits the Sun once every 5.25 years. The cumbersome name is often abbreviated as “Comet 45P HMP” or sometimes simply “Comet 45P.” The comet actually passed close enough back in 2011 for Arecibo radar to ping it, one of the very few comets to do so.

Not all apparitions of a given comet are equal, and most passages of Comet 45P were and will be uneventful. Dr. P. Clay Sharrod of the Arkansas Sky Observatory recently wrote a great account of the 1974 passage of Comet 45P, hearkening back to the same year when we were all awaiting Comet Kohoutek and Comet West was yet to come. This account might also hint at what could be in store for comet hunters this weekend.

A sketch of Comet 45P from December 10th, 1974. Image credit and copyright: Dr P. Clay Sherrod.

We managed to nab Comet 45P for the first time this AM from central Florida, though its still a tough catch. Shining at magnitude +7.5, we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed it as we swept along with our trusty Canon 15×45 image-stabilized binocs. Star-hopping finally brought us to the comet, a little fuzzy ‘star’ that stubbornly refused to snap into focus.

Comet 45P from early January, post-perihelion. Image credit and copyright: Sharin Ahmad (@shahgazer).

Unfortunately, the Moon reaches Full on Friday night, entering into the dawn sky this weekend. I’d advise hunting for the comet on every clear morning leading up to this weekend as the comet vaults northward into the pre-dawn sky. Friday night’s subtle penumbral eclipse won’t help much by way of dimming the Moon, though you can always place a house or hill between yourself and the Moon in a bid to block it out and aid in your cometary quest. There’s also a great photo op on February 16, when Comet 45P passes less than three degrees from the globular cluster M3.

As close shaves go, this passage of Comet 45P ranks as the 21st closest recorded passage of a comet near the Earth. The record goes to Comet Lexell, which passed just 0.0151 AU (1.4 million miles, or just under six times the distance to the Moon) past the Earth on July 1st, 1770. At its closest, Lexell had a visible coma spanning more than two degrees, more than four times the diameter of a Full Moon. In recent times, the last close passage of a comet other than 45P was Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock, which zipped 0.063 AU past the Earth on June 12, 1983.

Ah, those were the days… a depiction of the Great Comet of 1769 as seen from Amsterdam, just one year (!) prior to the passage of Lexell’s Comet. Image in the Public Domain.

The gambler’s fallacy would say we’re due for the next big bright comet, though the universe seems to stubbornly refuse to roll the dice. In addition to 45P, 2017 does host a string of binocular comets, including Comet 2P Encke (March), Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (April), Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS (May), and Comet C/2015 V2 Johnson (June). These are all explored in detail in our free e-book guide to the year, 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 out from Universe Today.

Stay warm on your comet vigil, and let us know of those observational tales of tribulation and triumph.

Comet U1 NEOWISE: A Possible Binocular Comet?

U1 NEOWISE
U1 NEOWISE
Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE on December 23rd as seen from Jauerling, Austria. Image credit: Michael Jäger.

Well, it looks like we’ll close out 2016 without a great ‘Comet of the Century.’ One of the final discoveries of the year did, however, grab our attention, and may present a challenging target through early 2017: Comet U1 NEOWISE.

Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is expected to reach maximum brightness during the second week on January. Discovered by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) space observatory on its extended mission on October 21st, 2016, Comet U1 NEOWISE orbits the Sun on an undefined hyperbolic orbit that is perhaps millions on years long. This also means that this could be Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE’s first venture through the inner solar system. Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is set to break binocular +10th magnitude brightness this week, and may just top +6th magnitude (naked eye brightness) in mid-January near perihelion.

The orbit of Comet U1 NEOWISE. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Visibility prospects: At its brightest, Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will pass through the constellations Ophiuchus to Serpens Cauda and Sagittarius, and is best visible in the dawn sky 12 degrees from the Sun at maximum brightness. This apparition favors the northern hemisphere. Perihelion for Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE occurs on January 13th, 2017 at 0.319 AU from the Sun, and the comet passed 0.709 AU from the Earth on December 13th.

This is the ninth comet discovered by the extended NEOWISE mission since 2014.

The pre-dawn view on the morning of December 28th. Image credit: Starry Night.

Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE ends 2016 and early January 2017 as a difficult early dawn target, sitting 25 degrees above the eastern horizon as seen from latitude 30 degrees north about 30 minutes before dawn. Things will get much more difficult from there, as the comet passes just 12 degrees from the Sun as seen from our Earthly vantage point during the final week of January. The comet sits 16 degrees from the Sun in the southern hemisphere constellation of Microscopium on the final day of January, though it is expected to shine at only +10th magnitude at this point, favoring observers in the southern hemisphere.

The time to try to catch a brief sight of Comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE is now. Recent discussions among comet observers suggest that the comet may be slowing down in terms of brightness, possibly as a prelude to a pre-perihelion breakup. Keep a eye on the Comet Observer’s database (COBS) for the latest in cometary action as reported and seen by actual observers in the field.

Finding C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be a battle between spying an elusive fuzzy low-contrast coma against a brightening twilight sky. Sweep the suspect area with binoculars or a wide-field telescopic view if possible.

The path of Comet U1 NEOWISE through perihelion on January 13th. Credit: Starry Night.

Here are some key dates to watch out for in your quest:

December

25-Crosses in to Ophiuchus.

26-Passes near +3 mag Kappa Ophiuchi.

January

1-Crosses the celestial equator southward.

3-Passes near M14.

7-Passes near the +3 mag star Nu Ophiuchi.

8-Crosses into the constellation Serpens Cauda.

10-Passes near M16, the Eagle Nebula.

11-Passes near M17 the Omega Nebula, crosses the galactic equator southward.

12-Crosses into the constellation Sagittarius.

13-Passes near M25.

16-Crosses the ecliptic southward.

27-Crosses into the constellation Microscopium.

28-Passes near +4.8 mag star Alpha Microscopii.

February

1-May drop back below +10 magnitude.

C/2016 U1 NEOWISE (23.nov.2016) from Oleg Milantiev on Vimeo.

A rundown on comets in 2016, a look ahead at 2017

C/2016 U1 NEOWISE was one of 50 comets discovered in 2016. Notables for the year included C/2013 X1 PanSTARRS, 252/P LINEAR and C/2013 US10 Catalina. What comets are we keeping an eye on in 2017? Well, Comet 2/P Encke, 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS, C/2015 V2 Johnson are all expected to reach +10 magnitude brightness in the coming year… and Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková has already done so, a bit ahead of schedule. These are all broken down in our forthcoming guide to the top 101 Astronomical Events for 2017. Again, there’s no great naked eye comet on the horizon (yet), but that all could change… 2017 owes us one!

Preview: Comet 45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková Brightens in December

Looking for a good binocular comet? Well, if luck is on our side, we should be getting our first looks at periodic Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková as it tops +10th magnitude in dusk skies over the next few weeks. 

Image credit: Starry Night.
The swift path of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková on the nights of February 9th to February 12th. Image credit: Starry Night.

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková is expected to reach maximum brightness around late February 2017. Discovered independently by astronomers Minoru Honda, Antonin Mrkos and L’udmila Pajdušáková on December 3rd, 1948, Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková orbits the Sun once every 5.25 years on a short period orbit. Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková is set to break binocular +10th magnitude brightness in mid-December 2017, and may reach a maximum brightness of magnitude +7 from January through February 2017.

Slovak astronomer ?udmila Pajdušáková
Slovak astronomer ?udmila Pajdušáková, co-discoverer of 5 comets, including Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. Image credit: The Skalnaté Pleso Observatory.

Currently and through the end of 2016, the comet sits towards the center of the Milky Way Galaxy in Sagittarius at a faint +15th magnitude in the evening sky. The comet may break +10th magnitude and become very briefly visible in the first few weeks of December before getting too close to the Sun to observe in late 2016 and crossing into the morning sky in early 2017.

The path of Comet 45/P from mid-November through December 15th, 2016. Image credit: Starry Night.
The path of Comet 45/P from mid-November through December 15th, 2016. Image credit: Starry Night.

Visibility prospects: At its brightest, Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková will be passing through the constellation Hercules during closest approach on February 11th. The comet then passes through the constellations of Corona Borealis, Boötes, Canes Venatici, Ursa Major into Leo through to the end of February as it recedes. In the second week of February, the comet is visible in the dawn sky 82 degrees west of the Sun at maximum brightness. This apparition favors the northern hemisphere. The comet will reach perihelion on December 29th, 2016 at 0.53 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun, and the comet passes just 0.08 AU (7.4 million miles) from the Earth on February 11th at 14:44 UT. The comet made a slightly closer pass in 2011, and was a fine binocular object that time around. At its closest, the comet will cross nine degrees of sky from one night to the next. Some notable dates for comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková are:

November 23rd: Venus passes 6′ from the comet.

December 12th: May break 10th magnitude.

December 14th: Passes near M75.

December 15th: Crosses into the constellation Capricornus.

January 4th: Passes near the +4th magnitude star Theta Capricorni

January 10th: Crosses the ecliptic northward.

January 16th: Passes into Aquarius.

January 22nd: Passes near NGC 7009, M72 and M73.

January 25th: Passes 8 degrees from the Sun and into the dawn sky.

January 28th: Crosses into Aquila.

February 3rd: Crosses the celestial equator northward.

February 4th: Passes 4′ from the star +3.3 magnitude star Delta Aquilae.

February 6th: Crosses the Galactic equator.

February 7th: Crosses into Ophiuchus.

February 9th: Crosses into Hercules.

February 16th: makes a wide pass near M3.

February 19th: Drops back below +10th magnitude.

Image credit: NASA/JPL.
The path of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková through the inner solar system. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

This is the final close (less than 0.1 AU) passage of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková near the Earth for this century.

On July 1st 1770, Comet D/1770 L1 Lexell passed 0.0151AU from the Earth; a comet in 1491 may have passed closer. Next year’s passage of 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková ranks as the 21st closest passage of a comet near the Earth.

The light curve of Comet 45/P
The light curve of Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets.

Why do comets end up with such cumbersome names? Well, comets derive their names from the first three discovers that submit the find within a 24 hour period to the Minor Planet Center’s Central Bereau for Astronomical Telegrams, which, in fact, received its last ‘telegram’ during the discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp around two decades ago. Increasingly, comets are receiving names of all sky surveys such as LINEAR and PanSTARRS from robotic competition against amateur hunters. It does seem like you need an umlaut or the chemical symbol for boron to in your moniker to qualify these days… rare is the ‘Comet Smith.’ But hey, it’s still fun to watch science journalists try and spell the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull and comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko over and over… Perhaps, we should insist that our first comet discovery is actually spelled Comet Dîckînsðn…

And Comet 45/P is just one of the fine binocular comets on deck for 2017. We’re also expecting Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák, 2/P Encke, C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS Comet C/2015 V2 Johnson to break +10th magnitude next year… and the next great naked eye ‘Comet of the Century’ could light up the skies at any time.

Goldstone radar pings comet 45/P back in 2011. Image credit: NASA.
Goldstone radar pings comet 45/P back in 2011. Image credit: NASA.

Binoculars are the best tool to observe bright comets, as they allow you to simply sweep the star field and admire the full beauty of a comet, coma, tail(s) and all. Keep in mind, a comet will often appear visually fainter than its quoted brightness… this is because, like nebulae, that intrinsic magnitude is ‘smeared out’ over an extended area. To my eye, a binocular comet often looks like a fuzzy, unresolved globular cluster that stubbornly refuses to snap into focus.

Don’t miss your first looks at Comet 45/P 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, as it spans 2016 into 2017.