Comet Encke Reemerges in the Dawn Sky

Comet 2P Encke glides through Pisces on February 16th. Image credit and copyright: Hisayoshi Kato.

Miss out on Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Padadušáková last month? We’ll admit, it was fairly underwhelming in binoculars… but fear not, there are several other binocular comets in the pipeline for 2017.

Maybe you managed to catch sight of periodic Comet 2P Encke in late February after sunset before it disappeared into the Sun’s glare. Pronounced (En-Key), the comet actually passes through the field of view of the joint NASA/ESA Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from March 8th to March 14th before reemerging in the dawn sky.

Northern hemisphere observers have already got a sneak peek at Encke’s performance low in the dusk in February as it heads towards perihelion. Now the comet heads southward, as it vaults up into the dawn sky for folks south of latitude 30 degrees north in mid-March. From latitude 30 degrees north, Encke will clear 15 degrees elevation above the southeastern horizon around March 31st. Viewers south of the equator will have a much better viewing prospect, as Encke glides southward through Aquarius. When will you first spot it?

The dawn path of 2P Encke through the first week of April as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night.

Also: don’t forget to ‘spring forward’ to Daylight Saving Time this weekend for a majority of North America prior to beginning your dawn comet vigil… Europe and the United Kingdom gets a brief reprieve ’til March 26th.

Her are some upcoming key events for Comet 2P Encke:

Closest to Sun: March 10th, with a perihelion of 0.33 AU.

Closest to Earth: March 12th, at 0.65 AU distant.

Brightest: Around March 15. Encke is currently at magnitude +7, and should top out at magnitude +6, though it’ll only be 14 degrees from the Sun on this date.

The projected light curve for comet 2P Encke. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets.

Next good apparition: 0.4 AU from Earth in 2036.

This is Encke’s 63rd passage through the solar system since Pierre Méchain linked successive passages of the comet to the same in 1819. Like Edmond Halley, Encke didn’t discover the most famous of comets that now bears his name, but instead merely deduced its periodic nature. Halley was 1st, and Encke was second (hence the “2” in 2P…) The shortest short period comet, Encke was captured sometime thousands of years ago into its short period orbit, and is destined to burn out one day as it ventures from 4.1 to 0.33 AU from the Sun. Encke is also the source of the annual Taurid meteor shower in November, notable for producing a high rate of fireballs.

Comet 2P Encke on February 19th. Image credit and copyright: Cajun Astro.

Comets can be elusive beasties, as all of that precious quoted magnitude is smeared out over an extended surface area. Add on top this the fact that comets are also notorious for often under- and occasionally over-performing expectations. Just look at the ‘none more black’ albedo of comet 67P Churumov-Gerasimenko chronicled by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft: it’s a miracle we can see ’em at all. And finally, that low contrast dawn sky can easily hide a faint binocular comet, fading it to invisibility. Start your comet vigil early, sweeping the horizon with binocs. An early start and a clear view are key. The slim waning crescent Moon sits 12 degrees north of Comet Encke on the morning of March 26th, and the comet also passes less than 3 degrees from the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) on (no joke) April Fool’s Day April 1st.

The view on the morning of March 26th, 30 minutes before sunrise. Credit: Stellarium.

Flashback to one Encke orbit ago to 2013 and the comet provided a good dawn preshow to that biggest of cosmic let downs, Comet ISON. And although Encke makes its rounds every 3.3 years, orbital geometry assures that we won’t get another favorable viewing from Earth until 2036.

The orbit of 2P Encke. Credit NASA/JPL

Speaking of great comets that never were, we juuuust missed having a spectacular comet this past month, when recently discovered long-period Comet 2017 E1 Borisov passes just 0.045 AU (!) interior to our orbit. Unfortunately, this occurs five months too early, with the Earth almost exactly at the wrong place in its orbit. Now, if it was only August…

Comet Teaser for 2017

Yeah, the gambler’s fallacy would tell us that we’re due for the next great comet of the century, for sure. In the meantime, we’ve still got Comets 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (late March/April), C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS (May), and C/2015 V2 Johnson (June) on tap as good binocular comets in 2017.

Be sure to enjoy elusive comet Encke as it flits once more though the dawn skies.

-Read about comets, occultations, eclipses and more for the year, in our new free e-book 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 out from Universe Today.

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.

Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina: A Preview for Act I

Live in (or planning on visiting) the southern hemisphere soon? A first time visitor to the inner solar system is ready to put on the first of a two part act starting this month, as Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina breaks +10th magnitude and crosses southern hemisphere skies.

Though we’ve overdue for a this generation’s ‘great comet,’ we’ve had a steady stream of fine binocular comets in 2015, including 2014 Q2 Lovejoy, 2014 Q1 PanSTARRS, and 2015 G2 MASTER. US10 Catalina looks to follow this trend, topping out at just above naked eye visibility in late 2015 going into early 2016.

Discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Halloween 2013, the comet received its unusual ‘US10’ designation as it was initially thought to be an asteroid early on in a periodic six year orbit, until a longer observation arc was completed. This is not an unusual situation, as new objects are often lost in the Sun’s glare before their orbit can be refined.

Recent images of US10 Catalina from may 18th, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe
Recent images of US10 Catalina from May 18th, 2015. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe

We now know that US10 Catalina is on a million year long journey from the distant Oort Cloud. Most likely, it was disturbed by an unrecorded close stellar passage long ago. We say that such comets are dynamically new, and this passage will eject US10 Catalina from the solar system. The comet also has a highly inclined orbit tilted almost 149 degrees relative to the ecliptic, and was at +19th magnitude and 7.7 AU from the Earth when it was discovered, suggesting an intrinsically bright comet.

Prospects for US10 Catalina currently favor latitude 35 degrees north southward in late June, though that’ll change radically as the comet makes the plunge south this summer. As of this writing, US10 Catalina was at +11 magnitude ‘with a bullet’ and currently sits in the constellation Sculptor at a declination -30 degrees in the southern sky.

Image credit:
The orbit of Comet US10 Catalina. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Binoculars are our favorite tools for observing comets, as they’ve easy to sweep the skies with on our cometary quest. As with nebulae and deep sky objects, keep in mind that quoted magnitude for a comet is spread out over its apparent surface area, causing them to appear fainter than a star of the same magnitude.

Here’s a blow-by-blow for Act I for Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina over the next few months:

(Unless otherwise noted, we documented stellar passages below that are within 2 degrees of stars brighter than +5th magnitude, and fine NGC deep sky objects brighter than +8th magnitude)

July 1st: May break binocular visibility, at +10th magnitude.

July 6th: Crosses into the constellation of Phoenix.

July 23rd: Crosses into the constellation Grus.

July 25th: Crosses into the constellation Tucana.

July 26th: Passes the +4th magnitude star Gamma Tucanae.

Image credit: Created using Starry Night Education software
The path of Comet US10 Catalina as seen from 30 degrees south.  Image credit: Created using Starry Night Education software

August 1st: Reaches opposition.

August 2nd: Passes the +4.5th magnitude star Delta Tucanae.

August 4th: Crosses into the constellation Indus.

August 6th: Photo op: Passes 12 degrees from 47 Tucanae and the Small Magellanic Cloud.

August 8th: Crosses into the constellation Pavo.

August 12th: Passes the +4th magnitude star Epsilon Pavonis.

August 14th: Reaches its greatest declination south at almost -74 degrees.

August 15th: Sits at 1.1 AU from the Earth.

August 17th: Crosses into the constellation Apus.

August 19th: Passes 5 degrees from the +7.7 magnitude globular cluster NGC 6362.

August 22nd: Crosses into the constellation Triangulum Australe and passes the +1.9 magnitude star Atria.

August 28th: Passes the +2.8 magnitude star Beta Trianguli Australis.

August 29th: Passes 3 degrees from the +5th magnitude open cluster NGC 6025.

September 1st: Crosses into the constellation Circinus

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The passage of Comet US10 Catalina through the southern sky from mid-June through September 1st. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

From there, Comet US10 Catalina heads towards perihelion 0.8229 astronomical units from the Sun on November 15th, before vaulting up into the northern hemisphere sky in the early dawn.  Like Comet Q2 Lovejoy last winter, US10 Catalina should top out at around +4th magnitude or so as it glides across the constellation Ursa Major just after New Years.

And like many comets, the discriminating factor between a ‘great’ and ‘binocular comet’ this time around is simply a matter of orbital geometry. Had C/2013 US10 Catalina arrived at perihelion in the May time frame, it would’ve passed less than 0.2 AU (30 million kilometres) from the Earth!

Image credit:
The projected light curve for Comet US10 Catalina. The black dots denote actual observations, and the purple vertical line marks the perihelion passage for the comet. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information about Bright Comets

But that’s cosmic irony for you. Keep in mind, with Comet US10 Catalina being a dynamically new first time visitor to the inner solar system, it may well up brighten ahead of expectations.

And there’s more to come… watch for Act II as we follow the continuing adventures of Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina this coming September!

Tales (Tails?) of Two Comets: Prospects for Q1 PanSTARRS & G2 MASTER

Did you catch the performance of Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy earlier this year? Every year provides a few sure bets and surprises when it comes to binocular comets, and while we may still be long overdue for the next truly ‘Great Comet,’ 2015 has been no exception.

This week, we’d like to turn your attention to two icy visitors to the inner solar system which may present the best bets comet-wise over the next few weeks: Comets C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS and C/2015 G2 MASTER.

First up is Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS. Discovered on August 16, 2014 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) based atop Mount Haleakala in Hawaii, we’ve known of the potential for Q1 PanSTARRS to put on a decent show this summer for a while. In fact, it made our roundup of comets to watch for in our 101 Astronomical Events for 2015. Q1 PanSTARRS currently sits at +11th magnitude as a morning sky object in the constellation Pisces. On a 39,000 year long parabolic orbit inclined 45 degrees relative to the Earth’s orbit, Q1 PanSTARRS will leap up across the ecliptic on May 17th and perhaps reach +3rd magnitude as it nears perihelion in early July and transitions to the evening sky.

An image of Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS shortly after discovery. Credit and copyright: Efrain Morales Rivera.
An image of Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS shortly after discovery. Credit and copyright: Efrain Morales Rivera.

Though it may put on its best show in July and August, a few caveats are in order. First, we’ll be looking at Q1 PanSTARRS beyond the summer Sun, and like C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS a few years back, it’ll never leave the dusk twilight, and will always appear against a low contrast backdrop.

May June (AM) Starry Night Education software.
The May-June path of Comet Q1 PanSTARRS through the dawn sky as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Here are some notable upcoming events for Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS:

(Unless otherwise noted, a ‘close pass’ is here considered to be less than one degree of arc, about twice the diameter of a Full Moon.)

May 16: Passes into the constellation Aries.

May 16: The waning crescent Moon passes 2 degrees distant.

May 17: Crosses northward through the ecliptic.

May 20: May break +10th magnitude.

June 11: Passes in to the constellation Taurus.

June 12: Passes 2 degrees from M45 (The Pleiades).

June 15: May break 6th magnitude.

June 20: Passes into Perseus.

June 21: Passes into Auriga.

June 23: Passes +2.7 magnitude star Hassaleh (Iota Aurigae).

June 25: Passes the +7.5 magnitude open cluster IC 410.

June 26: Passes +6 magnitude Pinwheel Open Cluster (M36).

Evening path. Starry Night Education software.
The July-August evening path of Q1 PanSTARRS as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

July 2: Crosses into Gemini.

July 3: Passes the +3.6 magnitude star Theta Geminorum.

July 5: Passes 10 degrees north of the Sun and into the evening sky.

July 6: Passes midway between Castor and Pollux.

July 6: Reaches perihelion at 0.315 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun.

July 7: May top out at +3rd magnitude.

July 8: Crosses into Cancer.

July 12: Photo Op: passes M44, the Beehive Cluster.

July 13: Sits 30 degrees from Comet C/2015 G2 MASTER (see below).

July 15: May drop below +6th magnitude.

July 15: Crosses the ecliptic southward.

July 17: The waxing crescent Moon passes 1.5 degrees south.

July 19: Crosses into Leo.

July 20: Closest to Earth, at 1.18 AU distant.

July 21: Less than 10 degrees from Jupiter and Venus.

July 22: Crosses into Sextans.

July 26: Crosses the celestial equator southward.

August 4: Crosses into Hydra.

August 5: Crosses into Crater.

August 18: Crosses back into Hydra.

August 30: Crosses into Centaurus.

September 1: Drops below +10th magnitude.

Light curve.
The projected light curve of Q1 PanSTARRS over time. The black dots represent observations. Credit: Weekly Information about Bright Comets.

The next comet on deck is the recently discovered C/2015 G2 MASTER. If you live in the southern hemisphere, G2 MASTER is the comet that perhaps you haven’t heard of, but should be watching in the dawn sky. Discovered last month on April 7 as by MASTER-SAAO (The Russian built Mobile Astronomical System of Telescope-Robots at the South African Astronomical Observatory), this is not only the first comet bagged by MASTER, but the first comet discovery from South Africa since 1978. G2 MASTER has already reached magnitude +7 and is currently crossing the constellation Sculptor. It is also currently only visible in the dawn sky south of 15 degrees north latitude, but images already show a short spiky tail jutting out from G2 MASTER, and the comet may rival Q2 Lovejoy’s performance from earlier this year. Expect G2 MASTER to top out at magnitude +6 as it nears perihelion in mid-May. Observers around 30 degrees north latitude in the southern U.S. should get their first good looks at G2 MASTER in late May, as it vaults up past Sirius and breaks 10 degrees elevation in the evening sky after sunset.  Again, as with Q1 PanSTARRS, cometary performance versus twilight will be key!

Credit: Ernesto Guido & Nick Howes/Remanzacco Observatory
An April 10th image of Comet C/2015 G2 MASTER, plus an initial projected light curve versus solar elongation over time.  Credit: Ernesto Guido & Nick Howes/Remanzacco Observatory

Here are some key dates with astronomical destiny for Comet G2 MASTER over the coming weeks:

May 9: Crosses into Fornax.

May 15: May top out at +6th magnitude.

May 13: Closest to Earth at 0.47 AU.

May 14: Crosses into Eridanus.

May 16: Crosses into Caelum.

May 17: Crosses into Lepus.

May 20: Passes the +3.8 magnitude star Delta Leporis.

May 23: Crosses into Canis Major.

May 23: Reaches perihelion at 0.8 AU from the Sun.

May 27: Crosses into Monoceros.

May 28: Passes the +5.9 magnitude Open Cluster M50.

Credit and copyright: Adriano Valvasori
Comet G2 MASTER imaged on May 7th. Credit and copyright: Adriano Valvasori

June 8: Crosses northward over the celestial equator and into the constellation Canis Minor.

July 1: May drop below 10th magnitude.

G2 MASTER also crosses SOHO’s field of view on July 24th through August 4th, though it may be too faint to see at this point.

Here are the Moon phases for the coming weeks to aid you in your comet quest:

Full Moons: June 2nd, July 2nd, July 31st, August 29th.

New Moons: May 18th, June 16th, July 16th, August 14th.

Binoculars are our favorite ‘weapon of choice’ for comet hunting. Online, Heavens-Above is a great resource for quickly and simply generating a given comet’s sky position in right ascension and declination; we always check out the Comet Observers Database and Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information about Bright Comets to see what these denizens of the outer solar system are currently up to.

Good luck, and be sure to regale us with your comet-hunting tales of tragedy and triumph!

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!


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.

Get Out Your Comet Scorecards: Comet Nevski Now Visible With Binoculars

Is 2013 truly the “Year of the Comet?” Perhaps “Comets” might be a better term, as no less than five comets brighter than +10th magnitude grace the pre-dawn sky for northern hemisphere observers.

Comet C/2013 V3 Nevski has just brightened up 6 magnitudes — just over a 250-fold increase in brightness — and now sits at around magnitude +8.8. Comet Nevski was just recently discovered by Vitali Nevski using a 0.4 metre reflecting telescope 12 days ago on November 8th. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Nevski discovered the comet from the Kislovodsk observatory located near Kislovodsk, Russia which is part of the International Scientific Optical Network survey which located comet ISON last year. In fact, there was some brief controversy early on in its discovery that Comet C/2012 S1 ISON should have had the moniker Comet Nevski-Novichonok.

At the time of discovery, Comet Nevski appeared to be nothing special: shining at magnitude +15.1, it was well below our +10 magnitude limit for consideration as “interesting,” and was projected to linger there for the duration of its passage through the inner solar system. About a dozen odd such comet discoveries crop up per year, most of which give astronomers a brief pause as the orbit and size of the comet become better known, only to discern that they’re most likely to be nothing extraordinary.

The orbit of comet Nevski, as seen during the closest approach to the Earth on December 21st. (Credit:  The Solar System Dynamics JPL Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbit of comet Nevski, as seen during the closest approach to the Earth on December 21st. (Credit: The Solar System Dynamics JPL Small-Body Database Browser).

Such was to be the case with Comet Nevski, until it suddenly flared up this past weekend.

Observer Gianluca Masi caught Comet Nevski in outburst, using a Celestron C14 remotely as part of the Virtual Telescope 2.0 project:

Comet Nevski captured on November 14th by
Comet Nevski captured on November 14th by Gianluca Masi. (Credit: The Virtual Telescope 2.0 Project).

You’ll note that Comet Nevski shows a small, spiky tail on the brief exposure. As of this writing, it currently sits at between magnitudes +8 and +9 and should remain there for the coming week if this current outburst holds.

Comet Nevski is well placed for northern hemisphere observers high in the morning sky, and will spend the remainder of November and early December crossing the astronomical constellation of Leo.

The celestial path of Comet Nevski from mid-November to the end of December. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education simulation software).
The celestial path of Comet Nevski from mid-November to the end of December. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education simulation software).

Here’s a blow-by-blow rundown on noteworthy events for this comet for the remainder of 2013:

November 23rd: Passes the +5.3 magnitude star Psi Leonis and crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

December 1st: Passes +3.4 magnitude star Eta Leonis.

December 6th: Passes +4.8 magnitude 40 Leonis and the bright +2nd magnitude star Algieba.

December 15th: Crosses into the constellation Leo Minor.

December 17th: Passes near the +5.5th magnitude star 40 Leonis Minoris.

December 21st: Passes closest to Earth, at 0.847 Astronomical Units (A.U.s), or 126 million kilometres distant.

December 30th: Passes into the constellation Ursae Majoris.

Note that a “close pass” denotes a passage of the comet within a degree of a bright or interesting object.

The orbit of Comet Nevski is inclined 31.5 degrees relative to the ecliptic, and it will be headed for circumpolar for observers based in high northern latitudes as it dips back down below our “interesting” threshold of magnitude +10 in early 2014.

This comet passed perihelion on October 27th, 2013 just over a week prior to discovery. Comet Nevski is Halley-type comet, with a 27.5 year orbit.

So, looking at the “Comet Scorecard,” we currently have:

Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR: Still undergoing a moderate outburst at magnitude +8.2, very low to the north east for northern hemisphere observers at dawn in the constellation Boötes.

Comet 2P/Encke: Reaches perihelion tomorrow at 0.33 AU’s from the Sun, shining at magnitude +7.7 near Mercury in the dawn sky but is now mostly lost in the Sun’s glare.

Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy: is currently well placed in the constellation Ursa Major crossing into Canes Venatici in the hours before dawn. Currently shining at magnitude +5.4, Comet R1 Lovejoy is visible to the unaided eye from a dark sky site. We caught sight of the comet last week with binoculars, looking like an unresolved globular cluster as it passed through the constellations of Leo and Leo Minor.

And of course, Comet C/2012 S1 ISON: As of this writing, ISON is performing up to expectations as it approaches Mercury low in the dawn shining at just above +4th magnitude. We’ve seen some stunning pictures as of late as ISON unfurls its tail, and now the eyes of the astronomical community will turn towards the main act: perihelion on November 28th. Will it fizzle or dazzle? More to come next week!

The recent outbursts of Comets X1 LINEAR and V3 Nevski are reminiscent of the major outburst of Comet Holmes back in 2007. Of course, the inevitable attempts to link these outbursts to the current sputtering solar max will ensue, but to our knowledge, no conclusive correlations exist. Remember, the outburst from Comet Holmes occurred as we were approaching what was to become a profound solar minimum.

Also, it might be tempting to imagine that all of these comets are somehow related, but they are in fact each on unique and very different orbits, and only appear in the rough general direction in the sky as seen from our Earthly vantage point… a boon for dawn patrol sky watchers!

Got pics? Send ‘em in to Universe Today!



Comet LINEAR Suddenly Brightens with Outburst: How to See It

It’s swiftly becoming an “all comets, all the time” sort of observing season. The cyber-ink was barely dry on our “How to Spot Comet 2P/Encke” post this past Monday when we were alerted to another comet that is currently in the midst of a bright outburst.

That comet is C/2012 X1 LINEAR. Discovered on December 8th, 2012 by the ongoing Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey based in Socorro, New Mexico, Comet X1 LINEAR was expected to peak out at about +12th magnitude in early 2014.

That all changed early this week, when amateur observers began to report a swift change in brightness for the otherwise nondescript comet. Japanese observer Hidetaka Sato reported the comet at magnitude +8.5 on October 20th, a full 5.5 magnitudes above its expected brightness of +14. Remember, the magnitude scale is logarithmic, and the lower the number, the brighter the object. Also, 5 magnitudes represent an increase in brightness of 100-fold.

Astronomers Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini and Ernesto Guido used the remote 0.5 metre iTelescope based in New Mexico on the morning of Monday, October 21st to confirm the outburst. Other amateurs and professional instruments are just now getting a look at the “new and improved” Comet X1 LINEAR low in the dawn sky. Romanian amateur observer Maximilian Teodorescu noted on yesterday’s Spaceweather that the comet was not visible through his 4.5 inch refractor, though it was easy enough to image.

Comet X1 LINEAR currently sits in the constellation Coma Berenices about mid-way between the stars Diadem, (Alpha Coma Berenices) and Beta Coma Berenices. Shining at +8.5 magnitude, the coma is about 85” across with a 10” bright central region. This gives X1 LINEAR the appearance of an unresolved +8th magnitude globular cluster. In fact, a classic globular and a star party fave known as M3 lies about 8 degrees away at the junction of the constellations Canes Venatici, Boötes and Coma Berenices. M3 shines at +7th magnitude and will make a great contrast on the hunt for the comet.

Unfortunately, the window of time to search for the comet is currently short. From latitude 30 degrees north, the comet sits only 15 degrees about the northeast horizon 30 minutes before local sunrise. The situation is a bit better for observers farther to the north, and mid-November sees the comet 20 degrees above the horizon in the dawn sky.

Comet X1 LINEAR is currently covering 40’ (2/3rds of a degree, or 1 1/3 the size of a Full Moon) a day, and will spend most of the month of November in the constellation Boötes. Keep in mind, X1 LINEAR is currently still on brightening trend “with a bullet.” Revised light curves now show it on track to reach magnitude +6 near perihelion early next year, but further brightening could still be in the cards for this one. Remember Comet 17P/Holmes a few years back? That one jumped from an uber-faint +17th magnitude to a naked eye brightness of +2.8 in less than 48 hours.

Comet X1 LINEAR will reach a perihelion of 1.6 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) from the Sun on February 21st, 2014, and pass 1.6 A.U.s from the Earth around June 28th, 2014. The comet has a high inclination of 44.4° degrees relative to the ecliptic, and is on a respectable 1872 year orbit.

Here are some notable dates for the comet through the end of 2013;

The path of Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR from October 23 to November 28th. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Created using Starry Night Education Software).
The path of Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR from October 23 to November 28th. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Created using Starry Night Education Software).

-November 2nd: Crosses into the constellation Boötes.

-November 6th: Passes near the +4.9th magnitude star 6 Boötis.

-November 16th: Passes near the bright star Arcturus.

-December 6th: Crosses into the constellation Serpens Caput.

-December 10th: Passes near the +5 magnitude star Tau1 Serpentis.

-December 14th: Comet X1 LINEAR sits only 8 degrees from Comet ISON.

-December 26th: Crosses into the constellation Hercules.

Note: “Passes near” on the above list denotes a pass closer than one degree, except as noted.

Now, we REALLY need the Moon to pass Last Quarter phase this coming Saturday so we can get a good look at all of these dawn comets! As of writing this, the current scorecard of binocular comets— comets with a brightness between magnitude +6 and +10 —sits at:

-2P Encke: +7.9 magnitude in Leo.

-C/2013 R1 Lovejoy: +8.7th magnitude in Canis Minor.

-C/2013 X1 LINEAR: +8.5th magnitude in Coma Berenices.

-C/2012 S1 ISON: +9.7th magnitude in Leo.

-C/2012 V2 LINEAR: +8.9th magnitude in Centaurus.

Comet X1 LINEAR on the morning of October 25th, as seen from latitude 30 degrees north 45 minutes prior to sunrise. (Created using Stellarium).
Comet X1 LINEAR on the morning of October 25th, as seen from latitude 30 degrees north 45 minutes prior to sunrise. (Created using Stellarium).

It’s also amusing to note how the method of notification for these sorts of outbursts has changed in recent years. I first heard of the outburst of X1 LINEAR on Monday evening via Twitter. Contrast this with Comet Holmes in 2007, which came to our attention via message board RSS feed. And way back in 1983, we all read about of the close passage of Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock… weeks after it occurred!

Another curious phenomenon may also work its way through the news cycle. When Comet Holmes became a hit back in 2007, spurious reports of comets brightening became fashionable. If you were to believe everything you read on the web, it suddenly seemed like every comet was undergoing an outburst! This sort of psychological trend towards wish fulfillment may come to pass again as interest in comet outbursts mounts.

It’s also worth noting that, contrary to rumors flying around ye’ ole web, Comet X1 LINEAR is not following Comet ISON. The two are on vastly different orbits, and only roughly lie along the same line of sight as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

The orbital path of Comet X1 LINEAR. (Credit: The JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR. (Credit: The JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).

And that’s it for our weekly (daily?) segment of “As the Comets Turn…” don’t forget to “fall back” one hour and plan your morning comet-hunting vigil accordingly this coming Sunday if you live in Europe-UK. North America still has until November 3rd to follow suit.

Happy comet hunting!

-Got a recent pic of Comet X1 LINEAR? be sure to post it in the Universe Today Flickr forum!

How to See This Season’s “Other” Comet: 2P/Encke

2013 may well go down as “The Year of the Comet.” After over a decade punctuated by only sporadic bright comets such as 17P/Holmes, C/2011 W3 Lovejoy and C/2006 P1 McNaught, we’ve already had two naked eye comets visible this year by way of C/2012 F6 Lemmon and C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS. And of course, all eyes are on Comet C/2012 S1 ISON as it plunges towards perihelion on U.S. Thanksgiving Day, November 28th.

But there’s an “old faithful” of comets that’s currently in our solar neighborhood, and worth checking out as well. Comet 2P/Encke (pronounced EN-key) currently shines at magnitude +7.9 and is crossing from the constellation Leo Minor into Leo this week. In fact, Encke is currently 2 magnitudes— over 6 times brighter than Comet ISON —and is currently the brightest comet in our skies. Encke is expected to top out at magnitude +7 right around perihelion towards the end of November. Encke will be a fine binocular object over the next month, and once the Moon passes Last Quarter phase on October 26th we’ll once again have a good three week window for pre-dawn comet hunting. Comet Encke made its closest pass of the Earth for this orbit on October 17th at 0.48 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) distant. This month sees its closest passage to the Earth since 2003, and the comet won’t pass closer until July 11th, 2030.

The orbital path of Comet 2P/Encke. (Credit: The NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of Comet 2P/Encke. (Credit: The NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).

This will be Comet Encke’s 62nd observed perihelion passage since its discovery by Pierre Méchain in 1786. Encke has the shortest orbit of any known periodic comet, at just 3.3 years. About every 33 years we get a favorable close pass of the comet, as last occurred in 1997, and will next occur in 2030.

But this year’s apparition of Comet Encke is especially favorable for northern hemisphere observers. This is due to its relatively high orbital inclination angle of 11.8 degrees and its passage through the morning skies from north of both the ecliptic and the celestial equator. Encke is about half an A.U. ahead of us in our orbit this month, crossing roughly perpendicular to our line of sight.

Note that Encke is also running nearly parallel to Comet ISON from our vantage point as they both make the plunge through the constellation Virgo into next month. Mark your calendars: both ISON and Encke will fit into a telescopic wide field of view around November 24th in the early dawn. Photo-op!

Here are some key dates to help you in your morning quest for Comet Encke over the next month:

-October 22nd: Crosses into the constellation Leo.

-October 24th: Passes near the +5.3 magnitude star 92 Leonis.

-October 25th: Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 93 Leonis.

-October 27th: Passes briefly into the constellation Coma Berenices.

-October 29th: Passes near the +11th magnitude galaxy M98, and crosses into the constellation Virgo.

-October 30th: Passes near the +10th magnitude galaxy pair of M84 & M86.

2P Encke from 20 Oct to 20 Nov (Created using Starry Night Education Software).
The celestial path of Comet 2P/Encke from October 20th to 20 November 20th. Note that ISON is very near Encke on the final date. Click on the image to enlarge. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).

-November 2nd: Passes between the two +5th magnitude stars of 31 and 32 Virginis.

-November 3rd: A hybrid solar eclipse occurs across the Atlantic and central Africa. It may just be possible to spot comet Encke with binoculars during the brief moments of totality.

-November 4th: Passes near the +3.4 magnitude star Auva (Delta Virginis).

-November 7th: Crosses from north to south over the celestial equator.

-November 11th:  Passes near the +5.7th star 80 Virginis.

-November 17th: The Moon reaches Full, and enters into the morning sky.

-November 18th: Passes 0.02 A.U. (just under 3 million kilometers, or 7.8 Earth-Moon distances) from the planet Mercury. A good chance for NASA’s Messenger spacecraft to perhaps snap a pic of the comet?

-November 19th: Passes 1.5 degrees from Mercury and crosses into the constellation Libra.

-November 20th: Crosses to the south of the ecliptic plane.

-November 21st: Reaches perihelion, at 0.33 AU from the Sun.

-November 24th: Comet Encke passes just 1.25 degrees from Comet ISON. Both will have a western elongation of 15 degrees from the Sun.

-November 26th: Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star Iota Librae and the +6th magnitude star 25 Librae.

-December 1st: Crosses into the constellation Scorpius.

-December 5th: Enters into view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

Note: “Passes near” on the above list indicates a passage of Comet Encke less than one angular degree (about twice the size of a Full Moon) from an interesting object, except where noted otherwise.

Binoculars are your best bet for catching sight of Comet 2P/Encke. For middle northern latitude observers, Comet Encke reaches an elevation above 20 degrees from the horizon about two hours before local sunrise. Keep in mind, Europe and the U.K. “fall back” an hour to Standard Time this coming weekend on October 27th, and most of North America follows suit on November 3rd, pushing the morning comet vigil back an hour as well.

Two other comets are both currently brighter than ISON and also merit searching for: Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, at +8.7th magnitude in Canis Minor, and Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR, currently also in Coma Berenices and undergoing a minor outburst at magnitude +8.5.

Be sure to check these celestial wonders out as we prepare for the “Main Event” of Comet ISON in November 2013!