Asteroid-Turned-Comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina Brightens: How to See it This Summer


Though ISON may have fizzled in early 2014, we’ve certainly had a bevy of binocular comets to track this year. Thus far in 2014, we’ve had comets R1 Lovejoy, K1 PanSTARRS, and E2 Jacques reach binocular visibility. Now, and asteroid-turned-comet is set to put on a fine show this summer for northern hemisphere observers.

Veteran stargazer and Universe Today contributor Bob King told the tale last month of how the asteroid formerly known as 2013 UQ4 became comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina. Discovered last year on October 23rd 2013 during the routine Catalina Sky Survey searching for Near Earth Objects based outside of Tucson Arizona, this object was of little interest until early this year.

A recent image of 2013 UQ4 Catalina from June 16th. The development of fine tail structure can be seen. Credit: A. Maury & J.G. Bosch.

As it rounded the Sun, astronomers recovered the asteroid and discovered that it had begun to sprout a fuzzy coma, a very un-asteroid-like thing to do. Then, on May 7th, Taras Prystavski and Artyom Novichonok — of Comet ISON fame — conducted observations of 2013 UQ4 and concluded that it was indeed an active comet.

The orbital path of UQ4 Catalina in early July. Created using the JPL Solar System Dynamics Small Body Database Browser.

Hovering around +13th magnitude last month, newly rechristened 2013 UQ4 Catalina was a southern hemisphere object visible only from larger backyard telescopes. That should change, however, in the coming weeks if activity from this comet holds up.

Light curve
The light curve of UQ4 Catalina with current observations (dots) noted. Credit:  Seiichi Yoshida/

2013 UQ4 belongs to a class of objects known as damocloids. These asteroids are named after the prototype for the class 5335 Damocles and are characterized as long-period bodies in retrograde and highly eccentric orbits. These are thought to be inactive varieties of comet nuclei, and other asteroids in the damocloid series such as C/2001 OG 108 (LONEOS) and C/2002 VQ94 (LINEAR) also turned out to be comets. Damocloids also exhibit the same orbital characteristics of that most famous inner solar system visitor of them all; Halley’s Comet.

The path of Comet 9PM 30deg north
The path of Comet UQ4 Catalina looking towards the NE at 9PM local in early July from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Stellarium.

The good news is, 2013 UQ4 Catalina is brightening on schedule and should be a binocular object greater than +10th magnitude by the end of June. Recent observations, including those made by Alan Hale (of comet Hale-Bopp fame) place the comet at magnitude +11.9 with a bullet. The comet is currently placed high in the east in the constellation Pisces at dawn, and will soon speed northward and vault across the sky as it crosses the ecliptic plane this week. In fact, comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina reaches perihelion on July 6th only four days before its closest approach to the Earth at 47 million kilometres distant, when it may well reach a peak magnitude of +7. At that point, the comet will have an apparent motion of about 7 degrees a day — that’s the span of a Full Moon once every 1 hour and 42 minutes — as it rises in the constellation Cepheus to the northeast at dusk in early July. A fine placement, indeed. And speaking of the Moon, our natural satellite reaches New phase later this month on June 27th, another good reason to begin searching for 2013 UQ4 Catalina now.

Here’s a list of notable events to watch out for and aid you in your quest as comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina crosses the summer sky:

June 16th: The comet crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

June 20th: The waning crescent Moon passes 3 degrees from the comet.

starry nite
The celestial path of the comet from June 16th to July 15th… Credit: Starry Night Education software.

June 29th: Crosses into the constellation of Andromeda.

July 1st: Passes less than one degree from the +2nd magnitude star Alpheratz.

July 2nd: Crosses briefly into the constellation Pegasus before passing back into Andromeda.

July 6th: The comet reaches perihelion or its closest point to the Sun at 1.081 A.U.s distant.

July 7th: Crosses into the constellation of Lacerta and passes the deep sky objects NGCs 7296, 7245, 7226.

July 8th: Crosses into the constellation Cepheus and across the galactic plane.

July 9th: Passes a degree from the Elephant Trunk open star cluster.

July 10th: Passes less than one degree from the stars Eta (magnitude +3.4) and Theta (magnitude +4.2) Cephei.

July 10th: Passes 2 degrees from the +7.8 magnitude Open Cluster NGC 6939.

July 10th: Passes closest to Earth at 0.309 A.U.s or 47 million kilometres distant.

July 11th: Crosses into the constellation Draco.

July 11th: Reaches its most northerly declination of 64 degrees.

July 12th: Photo op: the comet passes 3 degrees from the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

July 15th- August 20th
… and the path of the comet from July 15th to August 20th. Credit: Starry Night.

July 17th: The comet passes into the astronomical constellation of Boötes.

July 31st: Passes just 2 degrees from globular cluster NGC5466 (+9th magnitude) and 6 degrees from the famous globular cluster Messier 3.

From there on out, the comet drops below naked eye visibility and heads back out in its 470 year orbit around the Sun. Be sure to check out comet 2013 UQ4 Catalina this summer… what will the Earth be like next time it passes by in 2484 A.D.?

Asteroid 2013 UQ4 Suddenly Becomes a Dark Comet with a Bright Future

Comet C/2013 UQ4, once thought to be an asteroid, now shows characteristics of a comet including a coma. This photo was made on May 7, 2014. Credit: Artyom Novichonok and Taras Prystavski

On October 23, 2013,  astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey picked up a very faint asteroid with an unusual orbit more like a that of a comet than an asteroid. At the time 2013 UQ4 was little  more than a stellar point with no evidence of a hazy coma or tail that would tag it as a comet. But when it recently reappeared in the morning sky after a late January conjunction with the sun, amateur astronomers got a surprise.

On May 7, Comet ISON co-discoverer Artyom Novichonok, and Taras Prystavski used a remote telescope located in Siding Spring, Australia to take photos of 2013 UQ4 shortly before dawn in the constellation Cetus. Surprise, surprise. The asteroid had grown a little fuzz, making the move to comethood. No longer a starlike object, 2013 UQ4 now displays a substantial coma or atmosphere about 1.5 arc minutes across with a more compact inner coma measuring 25 arc seconds in diameter. No tail is visible yet, and while its overall magnitude of +13.5 won’t make you break out the bottle of champagne, it’s still bright enough to see in a 12-inch telescope under dark skies.

Wide field map showing the comet's movement from Cetus through Pisces and into Cepheus in July when it becomes circumpolar for skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes. It should reach peak brightness of 7th magnitude in early July. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap program
Wide field map showing the comet’s movement from Cetus through Pisces and into Cepheus in July when it becomes circumpolar for skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes. It should reach a peak brightness of 7th magnitude in early July. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

The best is yet to come. Assuming the now renamed C/2013 UQ4 continues to spout dust and water vapor, it should brighten to magnitude +11 by month’s end as it moves northward across Pisces and into a dark morning sky. Perihelion occurs on June 5 with the comet reaching magnitude +8-9 by month’s end. Peak brightness of 7th magnitude is expected during its close approach of Earth on July 10 at 29 million miles (46.7 million km).

This should be a great summer comet, plainly visible in binoculars from a dark sky as it speeds across Cepheus and Draco during convenient viewing hours at the rate of some 7 degrees per night! That’s 1/3 of a degree per hour or fast enough to see movement through a telescope in a matter of minutes when the comet is nearest Earth.

Lightcurve showing the date on the bottom and magnitude along the vertical. Work by Artyom Novichonok and Taras Prystavski
Light curve showing C/2013 UQ4 brightening to a sharp peak in early July and then quickly fading. Created by Artyom Novichonok and Taras Prystavski

Come August, C/2013 UQ4 rapidly fades to magnitude +10 and then goes the way of so many comets – a return to a more sedentary lifestyle in the cold bones of deep space.

C/2013 UQ4 belongs to a special category of asteroids called damocloids (named for asteroid 5335 Damocles) that have orbits resembling the Halley-family comets with long periods, fairly steep inclinations and highly eccentric orbits (elongated shapes). Some, like Comet Halley itself, even travel backwards as they orbit the sun, an orbit astronomers describe as ‘retrograde’.

Evolution of a comet as it orbits the sun. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Sciences/ NASA
Evolution of a comet as it orbits the sun. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Sciences/ NASA

Damocloids are thought to be comets that have lost all their fizz. With their volatile ices spent from previous trips around the sun, they stop growing comas and tails and appear identical to asteroids. Occasionally, one comes back to life. It’s happened in at least four other cases and appears to be happening with C/2013 UQ4 as well.

Studies of the comet/asteroid’s light indicate that UQ4 is a very dark but rather large object some 4-9 miles (7-15 km) across. It’s estimated that C/2013 UQ4 takes at least 500 years to make one spin around the sun. Count yourself lucky this damocloid decided to spend its summer vacation in Earth’s skies. We’ll have more detailed maps and updates as the comet becomes more easily visible next month. Stay tuned.