Catch Comet C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS in Outburst

Comet S3 PanSTARRS
Comet S3 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS from July 22nd. Image credit and copyright: hodorgabor

Comets are one of those great question marks in observational astronomy. Though we can plot their orbits thanks to Newton and Kepler, just how bright they’ll be and whether or not they will fizzle or fade is always a big unknown, especially if they’re a dynamic newcomer from the Oort Cloud just visiting the inner solar system for the first time.

We had just such a surprise from a cosmic visitor over the past few weeks, as comet C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS erupted twice, brightening into binocular visibility. Discovered on December 23rd 2017 during the PanSTARRS survey based on Haleakala, Hawai’i, S3 PanSTARRS is on a long-period, hyperbolic orbit and is most likely a first time visitor to the inner solar system.

The orbital path of comet S3 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. Credit NASA/JPL.

S3 PanSTARRS was not only rocked by two new outbursts in quick succession, but seems to have undergone a tail disconnection event just last week, leveling off its brightness at around +8 magnitude and holding. This puts it in the range of binoculars under dark skies, looking like a fuzzy globular that refuses to snap into focus as it currently glides through the constellation of Camelopardalis the Giraffe the dawn sky.

The path of comet S3 PanSTARRS through August. Credit: Starry Night.

As July closes out, the time to catch sight of Comet S3 PanSTARRS is now, before it’s lost in the Sun’s glare. From latitude 40 degrees north, the comet sits 20 degrees above the northeastern horizon, about an hour before sunrise. By August 7th however, it drops below 10 degrees altitude. From there, the comet begins to circle the Sun as seen from the Earth beginning to favor southern hemisphere observers at dawn, who may be able to track it straight through perihelion on August 16th, if its brightness holds up. From there, northern hemisphere viewers may get a second view at dawn in September, again, if its brightness holds.

The dawn path of the comet looking northeast at dawn from latitude 35 degrees north, from July 31st through the first week of August. Credit: Starry Night.

You never know when it comes to comets. Here’s a brief rundown of the celestial happenings for comet C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS:


3- Crosses into the constellation Gemini.

4- Passes near the bright star Castor.

5- Passes near the bright star Pollux.

7- Crosses into the constellation Cancer.

7- Passes closest to the Earth, at 0.758 Astronomical Units (AU) distant.

8- Crosses southward over the ecliptic plane.

9- Passes just 4 degrees from the Beehive cluster, M44.

11- Passes 2 degrees from the open cluster M67.

12- Passes 10.5 degrees from Sun (1st apparent close pass as seen from the Earth)

13- Crosses into the constellation Hydra.

15- Reaches maximum brightness: the comet may top +2nd magnitude in mid-August.

16- Reaches perihelion at 0.21 AU from the Sun.

18- Crosses into the constellation Sextans.

30-Crosses into the constellation Leo.

31-Crosses the ecliptic plane northward.

The projected light curve for comet S3 PanSTARRS. The black dots are actual observations. Credit Seiichi Yoshida.


3- passes 4 degrees from the Sun.

25- Crosses into the constellation Coma Berenices.

From there, Comet C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS drops back below 6th magnitude in September, then below 10th magnitude in October as it heads back off into the icy realms of the outer solar system.

Be sure to nab this icy interloper why you can. The quote comet hunter David Levy, “Comets are like cats… they have tails, and they do exactly what they want.”

Celestial Photobomb: Rare Occultation of Mercury by the Moon Set for Next Week

Have you caught sight of Mercury yet? This coming week is a good time to try, looking low to the west at dusk. We just managed to to nab it with binoculars for the first time during the current apparition this past Sunday from the rooftop of our Air BnB in Casablanca, Morocco.

Mercury is a tough grab under any circumstance, that’s for sure. Brilliant Venus and Jupiter make great guides to finding the elusive planet in late July, as it ping-pongs between the two. The waxing crescent Moon joins the scene in the first week of August, and for a very lucky few, actually occults (passes in front of ) the diminutive innermost world shortly after passing New.

Mercury (arrowed) near the Moon on the morning of June 3rd, 2016. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.
Mercury (arrowed) near the Moon on the morning of June 3rd, 2016. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.

Here’s the low down on everything Mercurial, and circumstances for the coming weeks.

Mercury passes 18′ from the star Regulus on Saturday, July 30th at 19:00 Universal Time (UT), representing the closest passage of a planet near a first magnitude star for 2016.

The Moon then reaches New phase, marking the start of lunation 1158 on August 2nd at 20:45 UT. The Moon then moves on to occult Mercury on Thursday, August 4th at 22:00 UT, just over 48 hours later. The occultation is visible at dusk for observers based in southern Chile and southern Argentina. The rest of us see a close pass. Note that although it is a miss for North America, viewers based on the continent share the same colongitude and will see Mercury only a degree off of the northern limb of the Moon on the night of August 4th. Mercury shines at magnitude +0.01, and presents a 67% illuminated disk 6.3” in size, while the Moon is a slender 5% illuminated.

Credit: Occult 4.2
Occultations of Mercury for 2016. Credit: Occult 4.2. (click image to enlarge).

How early can you see the waxing crescent Moon? Catching the Moon with the naked eye under transparent clear skies isn’t usually difficult when it passes 20 hours old. This cycle, first sightings favor South Africa westward on the night of August 3rd.

Mercury reaches greatest elongation 27.4 degrees east of the Sun 12 days after this occultation on August 16th.

How rare is it? Well occultations of Mercury by the Moon are the toughest to catch of all the naked eye planets, owing to the fact that the planet never strays far from the Sun. Nearly all of these events go unwitnessed, as they occur mainly under daytime skies. And while you can observe Mercury in the daytime near greatest elongation with a telescope, safety precautions need to be taken to assure the Sun is physically blocked from view. Astronomers of yore did exactly that, hoping to glimpse fleeting detail on Mercury while it was perched higher in the sky above the murk of the atmosphere low to the horizon.

In fact, a quick search of ye ole web reveals very few convincing captures of an occultation of Mercury (see the video above). The closest grab thus far comes from astrophotographer Cory Schmitz on June 3rd 2016 based in South Africa:

Image credit:
Can you see it? The Moon about to occult Mercury on June 3rd. Image credit and copyright: Cory Schmitz.

Can’t wait til next week? The Moon crosses the Hyades open star cluster this week, occulting several stars along the way. The action occurs on the morning of Friday, July 29th culminating with an occultation of +1 magnitude Aldebaran by the 23% illuminated Moon. Texas and Mexico are well-placed to see this event under dark skies. A small confession: we actually prefer occultations of planets and stars by the waxing Moon, as the dark edge of the Moon is leading during ingress, making it much easier to witness and the exact moment the Moon blots out the object.

Still want more? The Moon actually goes on to occult Jupiter on August 6th for the South Pacific. Viewers farther west in southeast Asia might just spy this one in the daytime. This is the second occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in a series of four in 2016.

Looking west on the evening of August 4th. Image credit: Stellarium.
Looking west on the evening of August 4th. Image credit: Stellarium.

Keep and eye on those planets in August, as they’re now all currently visible in the dusk sky. The Moon, Regulus and Venus also form a tight five degree triangle on the evening of August 4th, followed by a slightly wider grouping of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon around August 25th.

More to come on that soon. Be sure to check the planet Mercury off of your life list this coming week, using the nearby waxing crescent Moon as a guide.

A Spectacular Dawn Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter Set For August 18th

“What are those two bright stars in the morning sky?”

About once a year we can be assured that we’ll start fielding inquires to this effect, as the third and fourth brightest natural objects in the sky once again meet up.

We’re talking about a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Venus. Venus has been dominating the dawn sky for 2014, and Jupiter is fresh off of solar conjunction on the far side of the Sun on July 24th and is currently racing up to greet it.

We just caught sight of Jupiter for the first time for this apparition yesterday from our campsite on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We’d just wrapped up an early vigil for Perseid meteors and scrambled to shoot a quick sequence of the supermoon setting behind a distant wind farm. Jupiter was an easy catch, first with binoculars, and then the naked eye, using brilliant Venus as a guide post.

The view looking eastward at dawn on August 18th, including a five degree telrad (red circles) and a one degree telescopic field of view (inset). Created using Stellarium.

And Jupiter will become more prominent as the week progresses, climaxing with a fine conjunction of the pair on Monday, August 18th. This will be the closest planet versus planet conjunction for 2014. At their closest — around 4:00 Universal Time or midnight Eastern Daylight Saving Time — Venus and Jupiter will stand only 11.9’ apart, less than half the diameter of a Full Moon. This will make the pair an “easy squeeze” into the same telescopic field of view at low power. Venus will shine at magnitude -3.9, while Jupiter is currently about 2 magnitudes or 6.3 times fainter at magnitude -1.8. In fact, Jupiter shines about as bright as another famous star just emerging into the dawn sky, Sirius. Such a dawn sighting is known as a heliacal rising, and the first recovery of Sirius in the dawn heralded the flooding of the Nile for the ancient Egyptians and the start what we now term the Dog Days of Summer.

To the naked eye, enormous Jupiter will appear to be the “moon” that Venus never had next weekend. The spurious and legendary Neith reported by astronomers of yore lives! You can imagine the view of the Earth and our large Moon as a would-be Venusian astronomer stares back at us (you’d have to get up above those sulfuric acid clouds, of course!)

Said conjunction is only a product of our Earthly vantage point. Venus currently exhibits a waxing gibbous disk 10” across — three times smaller than Jupiter — but Venus is also four times closer to Earth at 1.61 astronomical units distant. And from Jupiter’s vantage point, you’d see a splendid conjunction of Venus and the Earth, albeit only three degrees from the Sun:

Earth meets Venus, as seen from Jupiter on August 18th. Note the Moon nearby. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

How often do the two brightest planets in the sky meet up? Well, Jupiter reaches the same solar longitude (say, returns back to opposition again) about once every 13 months. Venus, however, never strays more than 47.1 degrees elongation from the Sun and can thus always be found in either the dawn or dusk sky. This means that Jupiter pairs up with Venus roughly about once a year:

A list
A list of Venus and Jupiter conjunctions, including angular separation and elongations (west=dawn, east=dusk) from now until 2020. Created by author.

Note that next year and 2019 offer up two pairings of Jupiter and Venus, while 2018 lacks even one. And the conjunction on August 27th, 2016 is only 4’ apart! And yes, Venus can indeed occult Jupiter, although that hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t be seen again from Earth until – mark your calendars – November 22nd, 2065, though only a scant eight degrees from the Sun. Hey, maybe SOHO’s solar observing successor will be on duty by then…

Venus has been the culprit in many UFO sightings, as pilots have been known to chase after it and air traffic controllers have made furtive attempts to hail it over the years. And astronomy can indeed save lives when it comes to conjunctions: in fact, last year’s close pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the dusk sky nearly sparked an international incident, when Indian Army sentries along the Himalayan border with China mistook the pair for Chinese spy drones. Luckily, Indian astronomers identified the conjunction before shots were exchanged!

Earth strikes back...
Earth strikes back… firing a 5mw green laser at the 2013 conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Photo by author.

Next week’s conjunction also occurs against the backdrop of Messier 44/Praesepe, also known as the “Beehive cluster”. It’ll be difficult to catch sight of M44, however, because the entire “tri-conjunction” sits only 18 degrees from the Sun in the dawn sky. Binocs or a low power field of view might tease out the distant cluster from behind the planetary pair.

And to top it off, the waning crescent Moon joins the group on the mornings of August 23rd and 24th, passing about five degrees distant. Photo op! Can you follow Venus up into the daytime sky, using the Moon as a guide? How about Jupiter? Be sure to block that blinding Sun behind a hill or building while making this attempt.

The Moon photobombs the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on the weekend of August 23rd. Credit: Stellarium.

The addition of the Moon will provide the opportunity to catch a skewed “emoticon” conjunction. A rare smiley face “:)” conjunction occurred in 2009, and another tight skewed tri-conjunction is in the offering for 2056. While many national flags incorporate examples of close pairings of Venus and the crescent Moon, we feel at least one should include a “smiley face” conjunction, if for no other reason than to highlight the irony of the cosmos.

A challenge: can you catch a time exposure of the International Space Station passing Venus and Jupiter? You might at least pull off a “:/” emoticon image!

Don’t miss the astronomical action unfolding in a dawn sky near you over the coming weeks. And be sure to spread the word: astronomical knowledge may just well avert a global catastrophe. The fate of the free world lies in the hands of amateur astronomers!