Help Researchers Track Comet 67/P Through Perihelion

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Calling all light-bucket scope owners: the folks at the European Space Agency want to enlist you in the quest to monitor Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from our Earthbound perspective through perihelion later this summer.

“We are looking to bring an entire community of professional and amateur observers together,” said Rosetta Coordinator of Amateur Observations for Comet 67/P C-G Padma A. Yanamandra-Fisher in a recent press release. “When else can you observe a comet at the same time a spacecraft is viewing it at close proximity and escorting it to perihelion, and be able to correlate both sets of findings?

The Rosetta story thus far has been an amazing tale of discovery. We’ve extensively chronicled the historic approach of the Rosetta spacecraft as the rubber-duck-shaped comet grew in its view here at Universe Today. The world also held its collective breath as the Philae lander, the little washing Euro- washing machine-sized spacecraft that could, descended on to the alien surface. Heck, Philae even knocked a Kardashian out of the top trending spot worldwide, a feat in and of itself.

We also documented the Spinal Tap-esque “None more black” nature of the comet.

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The orbit of comet 67/P Image credit: JPL/NASA

Prospects in 2015: As of this writing, Comet 67P/C-G is 1.9 AU from the Sun and closing. The ‘P’ in ‘67/P’  stands for ‘short term (less than 200 years) periodic,’ and the comet orbits the Sun once every 6.44 years. Perihelion for 67/P occurs on August 13th, 2015 when the comet reaches a distance of 1.24 AU ( 191 million kilometres) from the Sun.

Discovered in 1969 by the Kiev University’s Klim Ivanovych Churyumov while examining a photograph taken by Svetlana Gerasimenko, this is the comet’s seventh apparition. Currently shining at +18th magnitude in the constellation Aquarius, Comet 67P C-G will vault up in the early morning sky for northern hemisphere observers and cross the ecliptic plane in the last week of July, at 43 degrees elongation west of the Sun.

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Light curve for Comet 67/P. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida ([email protected])

The comet is expected to reach a maximum brightness of +11th magnitude near perihelion. Historically, 67P – like most comets – tend to under-perform before perihelion, only to have an energetic lingering outburst phase post-perihelion.

“With each apparition we see it (67P) behave differently.” Yanamandra-Fisher said. “These legacy data sets will aid in our knowledge of this comet, especially when used in combination with the data gathered by the Rosetta spacecraft and the new ground observations made this year.”

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The path of 67/P through the morning sky as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Time on professional scopes is always chronically in short supply, with more astronomers and targets to observe than there are telescopes available. That’s where amateur observers come in. Many private backyard observatories have instruments that would be the envy of many a major institution.  Though the press release suggests that the minimum aperture size needed to observe 67P this summer is 14-inches (35 cm), we urge 10” or 12” inch scope owners – especially those who have the latest generation of Mallincam and faint object CCD  imagers – to give it a try. We’ve seen some amazing results with these, even during quick casual observing sessions such as public star parties! The Rosetta team is looking for everything from professional grade images, to sketches and visual observations with magnitude estimations.

Of course, hunting faint comets is a daunting task at best. +10th magnitude is generally our cut-off for  ‘is interesting enough to alert the public’ in terms of novae or comets, though we’ll let 67/P ‘into the club’ due to its celebrity status.

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Comet 67/P from June 23rd, 2014. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales

To add to the challenge, the comet is only visible against a dark sky during a brief pre-dawn window. You’ll need a planetarium program (we use Starry Night Pro) to generate good finder charts down to 15th magnitude or so. Keep in mind, comets also typically appear a bit fainter visually than stars of the same magnitude due to the fact that said brightness is spread out over a broad surface area.

ESA also has a great page with an ephemeris generator to help you in your 67/P quest.

“This is truly interactive science that people of all observing levels can participate in- from amateurs to professionals.” Yanamandra-Fischer said in closing.

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The orbit of comet 67/P. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Other comets to watch for in 2015 include still bright 2014 Q2 Lovejoy, C/2013 US10 Catalina, C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS, and 19P/Borrelly.

What’ll happen as 67P approaches perihelion? Will those two gigantic lobes crack and separate as Rosetta and the world looks on? Now, I’d pay to see that!

Image credit: David Dickinson
A light bucket scope at the Bruneau Dunes observatory suitable for a faint comet quest. Image credit: David Dickinson

-Register for the Rosetta observation campaign here.

This Comparison of Comet 67/P With Other Solar System Bodies Will Blow Your Mind


There’s darkness out there in the cold corners of the solar system.

And we’re not talking about a Lovecraftian darkness, the kind that would summon Cthulhu himself.  We’re talking of celestial bodies that are, well. So black, they make a Spinal Tap album cover blinding by comparison.

We recently came across the above true color comparison of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko adjusted for true reflectivity contrasted with other bodies in the solar system. 67/P is definitely in the “none more black” (to quote Nigel Tufnel) category as compared to, well, nearly everything.

Welcome to the wonderful world of albedo. Bob King wrote a great article last year discussing the albedo of Comet 67/P. The true albedo (or lack thereof) of 67/P as revealed by Rosetta’s NAVCAM continues to astound us. Are all comets this black close up? After all, we’re talking about those same brilliant celestial wonders that can sometimes be seen in the daytime, and are the crimson harbingers of regal change in The Game of Thrones, right?

There was also a great discussion of the dark realms of 67/P in a recent SETI Talk:

As with many things in the universe, it’s all a matter of perspective. If you live in the U.S. Northeast and are busy like we were earlier today digging yourself out from Snowmageddon 2015, then you were enjoying a planetary surface with a high albedo much more akin to Enceladus pictured above. Except, of course, you’d be shoveling methane and carbon dioxide-laced snow on the Saturnian moon… Ice, snow and cloud cover can make a world shinny white and highly reflective. Earthshine on the dark limb of the crescent Moon can even vary markedly depending on the amount of cloud and snow cover on the Earth that’s currently rotated moonward.

Earthshine or the 'Old Moon in the New Moon's arms' from earlier this week. Photo by author.
A brilliant Earthshine, or the ‘Old Moon in the New Moon’s arms’ from earlier last week. Photo by author.

To confound this, apparent magnitude over an extended object is diffused over its surface area, making the coma of a comet or a nebula appear fainter than it actually is. Engineers preparing for planetary encounters must account for changes in light conditions, or their cameras may just record… nothing.

For example, out by Pluto, Charon, and friends, the Sun is only 1/1600th as bright as seen here on sunny Earth. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will have to adjust for the low light levels accordingly during its historic flyby this July. On the plus side, Pluto seems to have a respectable albedo of 50% to 65%, and may well turn out to look like Neptune’s large moon, Triton.

Triton as imaged by Voyager 2: a dead ringer for Pluto? Credit: NASA/JPL.
Triton as imaged by Voyager 2: a dead ringer for Pluto? Credit: NASA/JPL.

And albedo has a role in heat absorption and reflection as well, in a phenomenon known as global dimming. The ivory snows of Enceladus have an albedo of over 95%, while gloomy Comet 67/P has an albedo of about 5%, less than that of flat black paint. A common practice here in Aroostook County Maine is to take fireplace ashes and scatter them across an icy driveway. What you’re doing is simply lowering the surface albedo and increasing the absorption of solar energy to help break up the snow and ice on a sunny day.

A high albedo snow cover blanketed New England earlier this week! Photo by author.
A high albedo snow cover blanketed New England earlier this week! Photo by author.

Ever manage to see Venus in the daytime?  We like to point out the Cytherean world in the daytime sky to folks whenever possible, often using the nearby Moon as a guide. Most folks are amazed at how easy this daytime feat of visual athletics actually is, owing to the fact that the cloud tops of Venus actually have a higher albedo of 90%, versus the Moon’s murky 8 to 12%.

Venus (upper left) by daylight. Photo by author.
Venus (upper left) by daylight. Photo by author.

Apollo 12 command module pilot Richard Gordon remarked that astronauts Al Bean and Pete Conrad looked like they’d been “playing in a coal bin” on returning from the surface of the Moon. And in case you’re wondering, Apollo astronauts reported that moondust smelled like ‘burnt gunpowder’ once they’d unsuited.

The surface of the Moon closeup: darker than you think! Credit: Apollo 12/NASA.
The surface of the Moon closeup: darker than you think! Credit: Apollo 12/NASA.

Magnitude, global dimming and planetary albedo may even play a role in SETI as well, as we begin to image Earthlike exoplanets… will our first detection of ET be the glow of their cities on the nightside of their homeworld? Does light pollution pervade the cosmos?

And a grey cosmos awaits interstellar explorers as well. Forget Captain Kirk chasing Khan through a splashy, multi-hued nebula: most are of the light grey to faded green varieties close up. Through a telescope, most nebulae are devoid of color. It’s only when a long time exposure is completed that colors too faint to see with the naked eye emerge.

All strange thoughts to consider as we scout out the dark corners of the solar system. Will the Philae lander reawaken as perihelion for Comet 67/P approaches on August 13th, 2015? Will astronauts someday have to navigate over the dark surface of a comet?

I can’t help but think as I look at the duck-like structure of 67/P that one day, those two great lobes will probably separate in a grand outburst of activity. Heck, Comet 17P/Holmes is undergoing just such an outburst now — one of the best it has generated since 2007 — though it’s still below +10th magnitude. How I’d love to get a look at Comet 17P/Holmes up close, and see just what’s going on!