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 PanSTARRSerupted 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
I see you… Comet 2P Encke is now in SOHO’s LASCO C3 field of view, above Mercury (the bright object) moving in the opposite direction: pic.twitter.com/gcYwv0Sdkp
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?
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.
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.
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-Gerasimenkochronicled 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
-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!