Video of Green Comet 45P Puts You Close To The Action

This animation of comet 45P/H-M-P is composed of thirteen delay-Doppler images made during 2 hours of observation using the Arecibo Observatory on Feb. 12. Credit: USRA

Comets hide their central engines well. From Earth, we see a bright, fuzzy coma and a tail or two. But the nucleus, the source of all the hubbub, remains deeply camouflaged by dust, at best appearing like a blurry star.

To see one up close, you need to send a spacecraft right into the comet’s coma and risk getting. Or you can do the job much more cheaply by bouncing radio waves off the nucleus and studying the returning echoes to create a shadowy image.

Although crude compared to optical photos of moons and planets, radar images reveal much about an asteroid including surface details like mountains, craters, shape and rotation rate. They’re also far superior to what optical telescopes can resolve when it comes to asteroids, which, as their name implies, appear star-like or nearly so in even large professional telescopes.

On Feb. 11, green-glowing comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, made an unusually close pass of Earth, zipping just 7.7 million miles away. Astronomers made the most of the encounter by pressing the huge 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) Arecibo radio dish into service to image the comet’s nucleus during and after closest approach.

Arecibo Observatory, the world’s biggest single dish radio telescope, was and is still being used to image comet 45P/H-M-P. Courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

“The Arecibo Observatory planetary radar system can pierce through the comet’s coma and allows us to study the surface properties, size, shape, rotation, and geology of the comet nucleus”, said Dr. Patrick Taylor, USRA Scientist and Group Lead for Planetary Radar at Arecibo.

The two lobes of comet 67P/C-G stand out clearly in this photo taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft while in orbit about the comet on March 6, 2015. Credit: ESA/Rosetta

Does the shape ring a bell? Remember Rubber Ducky? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the comet’s heart resembles the twin-lobed comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbited by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Using the dish, astronomers have seen bright regions and structures on the comet; they also discovered that the nucleus is a little larger than expected with a diameter of 0.8 mile (1.3 km) and rotates about once every 7.6 hours. Go to bed at 10 and wake up at 6 and the comet will have made one complete turn.

Comet 45P is seen here on Feb. 8, 2017. While its overall brightness is about magnitude +8.5, the comet appears diffuse and rather faint. From dark skies, it remains a binocular object at least for a little while. Credit: Chris Schur

Radio observations of 45P/H-M-P will continue through Feb. 17. Right now, the comet is happily back in the evening sky and still visible with 10×50 or larger binoculars around 10-11 p.m. local time in the east. I spotted it low in Bootes last night about 15 minutes before moonrise under excellent, dark sky conditions. It looked like a faint, smoky ball nearly as big as the full moon or about 30 arc minutes across.

This week, the pale green blob (the green’s from fluorescing carbon), vaults upward from Bootes, crosses Canes Venatici and zooms into Coma Berenices. For maps to help you track and find it night by night, please click here. I suggest larger binoculars 50mm and up or a 6-inch or larger telescope. Be sure to use low power — the comet’s so big, you need a wide field of view to get dark sky around it in order to see it more clearly.

Very few comets pass near Earth compared to the number of asteroids that routinely do. That’s one reason 45P is only the seventh imaged using radar; rarely are we treated to such detailed views!

See a Christmas-Time Binocular Comet: 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova captured in its glory on Dec. 22, 2016. It displays a bright, well-condensed blue-green coma and long ion tail pointing east. Credit: Gerald Rhemann
Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova captured in its glory on Dec. 22, 2016. It displays a bright, well-condensed blue-green coma and long ion or gas tail pointing east. Comet observers take note: a Swan Band filter shows a larger coma and increases the comet’s contrast. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays all! I hope the day finds you in the company of family or friends and feeling at peace. While we’ve been shopping for gifts the past few weeks, a returning comet has been brightening up in the evening sky. Named 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, it returns to the hood every 5.25 years after vacationing beyond the planet Jupiter. It’s tempting to blow by the name and see only a jumble of letters, but let’s try to pronounce it: HON-da — MUR-Koz — PIE-doo-sha-ko-vah. Not too hard, right?

Tonight, the comet will appear about 12. 5 degrees to the west of Venus in central Capricornus. You can spot it near the end of evening twilight. Use larger binoculars or a telescope. Stellarium
Tonight, the comet will appear about 12. 5 degrees to the west of Venus in central Capricornus. You can spot it near the end of evening twilight. Use larger binoculars or a telescope. Stellarium

Comet 45P is a short period comet — one with an orbital period of fewer than 200 years — discovered on December 3, 1948 by Minoru Honda along with co-discoverers Antonin Mrkos and Ludmila Pajdusakova. Three names are the maximum a comet can have even if 15 people simultaneously discover it. 45P has a history of brightening rapidly as it approaches the sun, and this go-round is proof. A faint nothing a few weeks back, the comet’s now magnitude +7.5 and visible in 50mm or larger binoculars from low light pollution locations.

You can catch it right around the end of dusk this week and next as it arcs across central Capricornus not far behind the brilliant planet Venus. 45P will look like a dim, fuzzy star in binoculars, but if you can get a telescope on it, you’ll see a fluffy, round coma, a bright, star-like center and perhaps even a faint spike of a tail sticking out to the east. Time exposure photos reveal a tail at least 3° long and a gorgeous, aqua-tinted coma. I saw the color straight off when observing the comet several nights ago in my 15-inch reflector at low power (64x).

Use this map to help you follow the comet night to night. Tick marks start this evening (Dec. 25) and show its nightly position through Jan. 8. Venus, at upper left, is shown through the 28th. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Use this map to help you follow the comet night to night. Tick marks start this evening (Dec. 25) and show its nightly position through Jan. 8 around 6 p.m. local time or about an hour and 15 minutes after sunset. Venus, at upper left, is shown through the 28th with stars to magnitude +7. Click the chart for a larger version you can save and print out for use at your telescope. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Right now, and for the remainder of its evening apparition, 45P will never appear very high in the southwestern sky. Look for it a little before the end of evening twilight, when the sky is reasonably dark and the comet is as high as it gets — about a fist above the horizon as seen from mid-northern latitudes. That’s pretty low, so make the best of your time. I recommend you being around 1 hour 15 minutes after sunset.

The further south you live, the higher 45P will appear. To a point. It hovers low at nightfall this month and next. That will change in February when the comet pulls away from the sun and makes a very close approach to the Earth while sailing across the morning sky.

How about a helping hand? On New Year's Eve, the 2-day-old crescent Moon will be just a few degrees from 45P. This simulation shows the view through 50mm or larger binoculars with an ~6 degree field of view. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium
How about a helping hand? On New Year’s Eve, the 2-day-old crescent Moon will be just a few degrees from 45P. This simulation shows the view through 50mm or larger binoculars with an ~6 degree field of view for the Central time zone. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

45P reaches perihelion or closest distance to the sun on Dec. 31 and will remain visible through about Jan. 15 at dusk. An approximately 2-week hiatus follows, when it’s lost in the twilight glow. Then in early February, the comet reappears at dawn and races across Aquila and Hercules, zipping closest to Earth on Feb. 11 at a distance of only 7.7 million miles. During that time, we may even be able to see this little fuzzball with the naked eye; its predicted magnitude of +6 at maximum is right at the naked eye limit. Even in suburban skies, it will make an easy catch in binoculars then.

I’ll update with new charts as we approach that time, plus you can check out this earlier post by fellow Universe Today writer David Dickinson. For now, enjoy the prospect of ‘opening up’ this cometary gift as the last glow of dusk subsides into night.