PanSTARRS K1, the Comet that Keeps Going and Going and Going

Thank you K1 PanSTARRS for hanging in there!  Some comets crumble and fade away. Others linger a few months and move on. But after looping across the night sky for more than a year, this one is nowhere near quitting. Matter of fact, the best is yet to come.

This new visitor from the Oort Cloud making its first passage through the inner solar system, C/2012 K1 was discovered in May 2012 by the Pan-STARRS 1 survey telescope atop Mt. Haleakala in Hawaii at magnitude 19.7. Faint! On its the inbound journey from the Oort Cloud, C/2012 K1 approached with an orbit estimated in the millions of years. Perturbed by its interactions with the planets, its new orbit has been reduced to a mere  ~400,000 years.  That makes the many observing opportunities PanSTARRS K1 has provided that much more appreciated. No one alive now will ever see the comet again once this performance is over.

Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS' changing appearance over the past year. Credit upper left clockwise: Carl Hergenrother, Damian Peach, Chris Schur and Rolando Ligustri
Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS’ changing appearance over the past year. Credit upper left clockwise: Carl Hergenrother, Damian Peach, Chris Schur and Rolando Ligustri

Many amateur astronomers first picked up the comet’s trail in the spring of 2013 when it had brightened to around magnitude 13.5. My observing notes from June 2, 2013, read:

“Very small, about 20 arc seconds in diameter. Pretty faint at ~13.5 and moderately condensed but not too difficult at 142x . Well placed in Hercules.” Let’s just say it was a faint, fuzzy blob.

K1 PanSTARRS slowly brightened in Serpens last fall until it was lost in evening twilight. Come January this year it returned to the morning sky a little closer to Earth and Sun and a magnitude brighter. As winter snow gave way to frogs and flowers, the comet rocketed across Corona Borealis, Bootes and Ursa Major. Its fat, well-condensed coma towed a pair of tails and grew bright enough to spot in binoculars at magnitude 8.5 in late May.

Skywatchers can find C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS in the morning just in Hydra-Puppis just before dawn. The map shows its location daily with stars to magnitude 8.5. The numbers next to some stars are standard Flamsteed atllas catalog numbers. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Skywatchers can find C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS in the morning sky in the Hydra and Puppis just before dawn when it’s highest in the southeastern sky. The map shows its location daily with stars to magnitude 8.5. The numbers next to some stars are standard Flamsteed atlas catalog numbers. Click for a larger version. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

By July, it hid away in the solar glare a second time only to come back swinging in September’s pre-dawn sky.  Now in the constellation Hydra and even closer to Earth, C/2012 K1 has further brightened to magnitude 7.5. Though low in the southeast at dawn, I was pleasantly surprised to see it several mornings ago. Through my 15-inch (37-cm) reflector at 64x I saw a fluffy, bright coma punctuated by a brighter, not-quite-stellar nucleus and a faint tail extending 1/4º to the northeast.

Mid-northern observers can watch the comet’s antics through mid-October. From then on, K1 will only be accessible from the far southern U.S. and points south as it makes the rounds of Pictor, Dorado and Horologium. After all this time you might think the comet is ready to depart Earth’s vicinity. Not even. C/2012 K1 will finally make its closest approach to our planet on Halloween (88.6 million miles – 143 million km) when it could easily shine at magnitude 6.5, making it very nearly a naked-eye comet.

PanSTARRS K1’s not giving up anytime soon. Southern skywatchers will keep it in view through the spring of 2015 before it returns to the deep chill from whence it came. After delighting skywatchers for nearly two years, it’ll be hard to let this one go.

Virtual Star Party – May 4, 2014: It’s Galaxy Season!

Hosts: Fraser Cain and Scott Lewis
Astronomers: Gary Gonella, Andrew Dumbleton, Stuart Foreman, David Dickinson, Shahrin Ahmad and special guest Henna Khan from Bombay, India

Tonight’s Views:
the Moon’s surface
M44 Beehive Cluster
Neutron Star B224 from HST
All-Sky View
Mars with ice caps and Hellas Basin visible
Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS
Stuart demonstrating how to work with software to process images
M51a Whirlpool Galaxy
M53 Globular Cluster
Rosette Nebula – NGC 2237, 2238, 2239 and 2246
Saturn
Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33 in emission nebula IC 434) and Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) with a satellite trail
NGC 5139 Omega Centauri
M42 Orion Nebula
M63 Sunflower Galaxy
NGC 7635 Bubble Nebula
Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

We hold the Virtual Star Party every Sunday night as a live Google+ Hangout on Air. We begin the show when it gets dark on the West Coast. If you want to get a notification, make sure you circle the Virtual Star Party on Google+. You can watch on our YouTube channel or here on Universe Today.

Take a Look: Comet PANSTARRS K1 Swings by the Big Dipper this Week, Sprouts Second Tail

Comets often play hard to get. That’s why we enjoy those rare opportunities when they pass close to naked eye stars. For a change, they’re easy to find! That’s exactly what happens in the coming nights when the moderately bright comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS slides past the end of the Big Dipper’s handle. I hope Rolando Ligustri’s beautiful photo, above,  entices you roll out your telescope for a look.

Comet K5 PANSTARRS glides from northern Bootes up the handle of the Big Dipper this coming week not far from the famed Whirlpool Galaxy M51. This map shows the sky facing east (west is at top, east at bottom) with stars to magnitude +11.  Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet K1 PANSTARRS glides from northern Bootes up the handle of the Big Dipper this coming week not far from the bright star Alkaid and M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. This map shows the sky facing east (west is at top, east at bottom) with stars to magnitude +11 and the comet’s position at 10 p.m. CDT daily. Click to enlarge and then print out a copy you can use at the telescope. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

If you’ve put off viewing this fuzzball because it’s been lost in the wilds of northern Bootes too long, hesitate no more. I saw it several nights ago through a 15-inch (37-cm) scope and can report a teardrop-shaped coma with a bright, not-quite-stellar nucleus. The comet sports an 8 arc minute long faint tail (1/4 the diameter of the full moon) and glows around magnitude 9-9.5. Granted I observed from dark skies, but K1 PANSTARRS could even be seen faintly in the 10×50 finderscope, putting it within range of ordinary binoculars.

Use this map to get oriented. It shows the sky facing east around 10 o'clock in late April. The comet passes very near Alkaid on April 28-29. Stellarium
Use this map to get oriented. It shows the sky facing east around 10 o’clock in late April. The comet passes very near Alkaid on April 28-29. Stellarium

Ligustri’s photo shows both gas and dust tails, but most observers will probably pick up the dust tail and strain to see the other. The comet has been moving north and slowly waxing in brightness all winter and spring. Right now, it’s ideally placed for viewing in the early evening sky and remains up all night for northern hemisphere observers. On Monday and Tuesday April 28-29 it’s within 1 degree of Alkaid, the bright star at the end of the Dipper’s handle.

C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS, discovered with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope high up the Haleakala volcano on  Maui, Hawaii. Credit: Carl Hergenrother
C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS, discovered in May 2012 with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope from Hawaii, has been under observation a long time. Here on Sept. 13, 2013 it was a still a small, dim object of magnitude ~+13. Credit: Carl Hergenrother

In a 6-inch (15-cm) scope, expect to see a faint puff with a brighter core; observers with 8-inch and larger telescopes will more easily see the tail. K1 PANSTARRS continues to brighten through the spring and summer as it saunters from the Great Bear into Leo. In late July it will be too near the sun to view but re-emerge a month later in Hydra in the morning sky. Southern hemisphere skywatchers will be favored during the fall and early winter, though the comet will continue to hover very low in the southern morning sky for northerners. Predictions call for the PANSTARRS to reach peak brightness around magnitude +6 to +7 in mid-October.

Sounds like old C/2012 K1 will be around a good, long time. Why not get acquainted?

Comets Prospects for 2014: A Look Into the Crystal Ball

As 2014 opens, most of the half dozen comets traversing the morning and evening sky are faint and require detailed charts and a good-sized telescope to see and appreciate. Except for Comet Lovejoy. This gift to beginner and amateur astronomers alike keeps on giving. But wait, there’s more. Three additional binocular-bright comets will keep us busy starting this spring.

Track of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy in the morning sky marked at 3-day intervals shortly before the start of dawn (6 a.m. local time) tomorrow through Jan. 31. Stars shown for Dec. 29 to magnitude 5.8. Her = Hercules and Oph = Ophiuchus. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Track of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy in the morning sky marked at 3-day intervals shortly before the start of dawn (6 a.m. local time) tomorrow through Jan. 31. Stars shown for Dec. 29 to magnitude 5.8. Her = Hercules and Oph = Ophiuchus. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Still glowing around the naked eye limit at magnitude 6, the Lovejoy remains easy to see in binoculars from  dark skies as it tracks from southern Hercules into Ophiuchus in the coming weeks.

The best time to view the comet is shortly before the start of dawn when it sails highest in the eastern sky at an altitude of around 30 degrees or “three fists” up from the horizon. By January’s end, the comet will still be 25 degrees high in a dark sky. My last encounter with Lovejoy was a week ago when 10×50 binoculars revealed a bright coma and 1.5 degree long tail to the northwest. Through the telescope the stark contrast between bright, compact nucleus and gauzy coma struck me as one of the most beautiful sights I’d seen all month.

Path of Comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS this spring when it should be a nice comet for small to medium sized telescopes. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Path of Comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS this spring when it should be a nice comet for small to medium sized telescopes. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Looking ahead to 2014 there are at present three comets beside Lovejoy that are expected to wax bright enough to see in binoculars and possibly with the naked eye: C/2012 K1 PanSTARRSC/2013 V5 Oukaimeden and C/2013 A1 Siding Spring  The first lurks in Hercules but come early April should bulk up to magnitude 9.5, bright enough to track in a small telescope for northern hemisphere observers. Watch K1 PANSTARRS amble from Bootes across the Big Dipper and down through Leo from mid-spring through late June hitting magnitude 7.5 before disappearing in the summer twilight glow. K1 will be your go-to comet during convenient viewing hours.

Come early September after K1 PANSTARRS leaves the sun’s ken, it reappears in the morning sky, traveling westward from Hydra into Puppis. Southern hemisphere observers are now favored, but northerners won’t suffer too badly. The comet is expected to crest to magnitude 5.5  in mid-October just before it dips too far south for easy viewing at mid-northern latitudes.

Comet Oukaimeden may glow around 8th magnitude in late August 2014 when it rises with the winter stars before dawn. Stellarium.
Comet Oukaimeden may glow around 8th magnitude in late August 2014 when it rises with the winter stars before dawn. Stellarium.

Comet C/2013 V5 (Oukaimeden), discovered November 15 at Oukaimeden Observatory in Marrekesh, Morocco. Preliminary estimates place the comet at around magnitude 5.5 in mid-September. It should reach binocular visibility in late August in Monoceros the Unicorn east of Orion in the pre-dawn sky before disappearing in the twilight glow for mid-northern latitude observers. Southern hemisphere skywatchers will see the comet at its best and brightest before dawn in early September and at dusk later that month.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring is currently a faint 14th magnitude object in Eridanus. Photo taken on Dec. 30, 2013. Credit: Rolando Ligustri
Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring is currently a faint 14th magnitude object in Eridanus. Photo taken on Dec. 30, 2013. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

2014’s most anticipated comet has to be  C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, expected to reach magnitude 7.5 and become binocular-worthy for southern hemisphere skywatchers as it traverses the southern circumpolar constellations this September. Northerners will have to wait until early October for the comet to climb into the evening sky by way of Scorpius and Sagittarius. Watch for an 8th magnitude hazy glow in the southwestern sky at that time.

As October ticks by, A1 Siding Spring creeps closer and closer to Mars until it overlaps the planet on the 19th. Normally, a comet will only appear to pass in front of stars and deep sky objects because it’s in the same line of sight. Not this time. Siding Spring may actually “touch” Mars for real.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will overlap Mars on October 19, 2014. With the planet at magnitude
Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will overlap Mars on October 19, 2014. Assuming magnitude 8 at the time, the comet should look like a hazy glow around the planet through binoculars and telescopes. Stellarium

On October 19 the comet will pass so close to the planet that its outer coma or atmosphere may envelop Mars and spark a meteor shower. The sight of a bright planet smack in the middle of a comet’s head should be something quite wonderful to see through a telescope.

While the list of predicted comets is skimpy and arguably not bright in the sense of headliners like Hale-Bopp in 1997 or even L4 PANSTARRS from last spring,  all should be visible in binoculars from a dark sky site.

Every year new comets are discovered, some of which can swiftly brighten and put on a great show like Comet Lovejoy (discovered Sept. 7) did last fall and continues to do. In 2013, 64 new comets were found, 14 of them by amateur astronomers. Comets with the potential to make us ooh and aah are out there –  we just have to find them.