Comet Catalina Grows Two Tails, Soars at Dawn

Amateur astronomer Chris Schur of Arizona had only five minutes to observe and photograph Comet Catalina this morning before twilight got the better of the night. In that brief time, he secured two beautiful images and made a quick observation through his 80mm refractor. He writes:

“Very difficult observation on this one. (I observed) it visually with the 35mm Panoptic ocular. It was a round, slightly condensed object with no sign of the twin tails that show up in the images. After five minutes, we lost it visually as it was 2° degrees up in bright twilight. Images show it for a longer time and a beautiful emerald green head with two tails forming a Y shaped fan.” 

Comet Catalina was about 3 high over Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. IU.S.) at 5:55 a.m. this morning. Stars are labeled with their magnitudes. Details: 200mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 1250, 3-seconds.
Comet Catalina stands some 3° high over Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. (U.S.) at 5:55 a.m. this morning, Nov. 22. Stars are labeled with their magnitudes. Details: 200mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 1250, 3-seconds. Credit: Bob King

Schur estimated the comet’s brightness at around magnitude +6. What appears to be the dust tail extends to the lower right (southeast) with a narrower ion tail pointing north. With its twin tails, I’m reminded of a soaring eagle or perhaps a turkey vulture rocking back and forth on its wings. While they scavenge for food, Catalina soaks up sunlight.

I also headed out before dawn for a look. After a failed attempt to spot the new visitor on Saturday, I headed down to the Lake Superior shoreline at 5:30 a.m. today and waited until the comet rose above the murk. Using 7×50 binoculars in a similar narrow observing window, I could barely detect it as a small, fuzzy spot 2.5° south of 4th magnitude Lambda Virginis at 5:50 a.m. 10 minutes after the start of astronomical twilight. The camera did better!

Chris's first photo was taken when the comet rose. This one was photographed minutes later with twilight coming on. Credit: Chris Schur
Chris’s first photo was taken when the comet rose. This one was photographed minutes later with twilight coming on. Credit: Chris Schur

With the comet climbing about 1° per day, seeing conditions and viewing time will continue to improve. The key to seeing it is finding a location with an unobstructed view to the southeast — that’s why I chose the lake — and getting out while it’s still dark to allow time to identify the star field and be ready when the comet rises to greet your gaze.

Two views of Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina made around 6:23 a.m. EST (11:23 Universal Time) on Nov. 21st. The left photo is a 30-second exposure with dawn light approaching fast. Exposure at right was 10 seconds.
North is up and east to the left in these two photos of the comet made by Dr. D.T. Durig at 6:23 a.m. EST on Nov. 21st from Cordell-Lorenz Observatory in Sewanee, Tenn. He estimated the coma diameter at ~2 arc minutes with a tail at least 10 arc minutes long . “I get a nuclear magnitude of 10.3 and an total mag of around 7.8, but that is with only 5-10 reference stars,” wrote Durig. Credit: Dr. Douglas T. Durig

Alan Hale, discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp, also tracked down Catalina this morning with an 8-inch (20-cm) reflector at 47x. He reported its magnitude at ~+6.1 with a 2-arc-minute, well-condensed coma and a faint wisp of tail to the southeast. In an e-mail this morning, Hale commented on the apparent odd angle of the dust tail:

“Since the comet is on the far side of the sun as seen from Earth, with the typical dust tail lagging behind, that would seem to create the somewhat strange direction. It  (the tail) almost seems to be directed toward the Sun, but it’s a perspective effect.”

Venus glares inside the cone of the zodiacal light this morning at the start of astronomical twilight over the shoreline of northern Wisconsin. Jupiter is seen at top and Mars two-thirds of the way from Jupiter to Venus. Credit: Bob King
Venus glares inside the cone of the zodiacal light this morning at the start of astronomical twilight. Jupiter is seen at top and Mars two-thirds of the way from Jupiter to Venus. Arcturus shines at far left. Credit: Bob King

There were side benefits to getting up early today. Three bright planets lit up Leo’s tail and Virgo’s “Cup” and a magnificent display of zodiacal light rose from the lake to encompass not only the comet but all the planets as well.

It’s Finally Here! Comet Catalina Greets Dawn Skywatchers

If you love watching comets and live north of the equator, you’ve been holding your breath a l-o-n-g time for C/2013 US10 Catalina to make its northern debut. I’m thrilled to report the wait is over. The comet just passed perihelion on Nov. 15th and has begun its climb into morning twilight. 

Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina leaps into the morning sky in eastern Virgo this weekend at around magnitude +7. Comet positions are marked by small crosses every 5 days around 6 a.m. CST (12:00 Universal Time). Planet positions are shown for Nov. 21st. Stars to mag. +7. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Map showing the sky facing southeast around the start of dawn. Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina leaps into the morning sky in eastern Virgo beginning this weekend at around magnitude +7. Comet positions are marked by small crosses every 5 days around 6 a.m. CST (12:00 Universal Time) for mid-northern latitudes (Minneapolis, specifically). Planet positions are shown for Nov. 21st. Stars to mag. +7. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

The first post-perihelion photo, taken on Nov. 19th by astrophotographer Ajay Talwar from Devasthal Observatory high in the Indian Himalayas, show it as a starry dot with a hint of a tail only 1° above the eastern horizon at mid-twilight. Additional photos made on the following mornings show the comet inching up from the eastern horizon into better view. Estimates of its current brightness range from magnitude +6.8-7.0.

Sometimes black and white is better. This is the same chart as above. Credit: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Sometimes black and white is better. This is the same chart as above but in a handier version for use at the telescope. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Talwar, who teaches astrophotography classes and is a regular contributor to The World at Night (TWAN), drove 9 hours from his home to the Himalaya mountains, then climbed up the observatory dome to get enough horizon to photograph the comet. The window of opportunity was very narrow; Talwar had only 10 minutes to bag his images before the comet was overwhelmed by zodiacal light and twilight glow. When asked if it was visible in binoculars, he thought it would be but had too little time to check despite bringing a pair along.

The very first post-perihelion photo of Comet Catalina taken Nov. 19th from Devasthal Observatory. Prior to perihelion, the comet was only visible from the southern hemisphere. Copyright: Ajay Talwar
Ajay Talwar recorded the very first post-perihelion photo of Comet Catalina on Nov. 19th from Devasthal Observatory. Prior to perihelion, the comet was only visible from the southern hemisphere. Copyright: Ajay Talwar

A difficult object at the moment, once it frees itself from the horizon haze in about a week, Catalina should be easily visible in ordinary binoculars. Watch for it to gradually brighten through the end of the year, peaking around magnitude +5.5 — just barely naked eye — in late December and early January, when it will be well-placed high in the northeastern sky near the star Arcturus (see map). Matter of fact, on the first morning of the new year, it creeps only 1/2° southwest of the star for a splendid conjunction.

Even before perihelion, Comet Catalina was a beauty. This photo was taken on October 1, 2015. Credti: Jose Chambo
Even before perihelion, Comet Catalina was a beautiful thing. This photo was taken on October 1, 2015. Credit: Jose Chambo

Halloween 2013 was an auspicious one. That’s when Comet C/2013 US10 was first picked up by the Catalina Sky Survey. The “US10” part comes from initial observations that suggested it was an asteroid. Additional photos and observations instead revealed a fuzzy comet on a steeply tilted orbit headed for the inner Solar System after a long sojourn in the Oort Cloud.

Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina will slice through the plane of the Solar System at an angle of 149 never to return. Credit: JPL Horizons
Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina will slice through the plane of the Solar System at an angle of 149° never to return. It comes closest to Earth on Jan. 12, 2016. After that time, the comet will recede and fade. Credit: JPL Horizons

Its sunward journey has been nothing short of legendary, requiring several million years of inbound travel from the frigid fringe to the relative warmth of the inner Solar System. Catalina will pass closest to Earth on Jan. 12th at 66.9 million miles (107.7 million km) before buzzing off into interstellar space. Yes, interstellar. Perturbations by the planets have converted its orbit into a one-way ticket outta here.

Wow - check this out! Look to the east at the start of dawn on Dec. 7th to see a remarkable pairing of comet, Venus and the waning lunar crescent with earthshine. Source: Stellarium
Check this out! Look to the east at the start of dawn on Dec. 7th to see a remarkable pairing of comet, Venus and the waning lunar crescent with earthshine. Source: Stellarium

When using the maps above, keep in mind they show the comet’s changing position, but the constellations and planets can only be shown for the one date, Nov. 21st. Like the comet, they’ll also be slowly sliding upward in the coming days and mornings due to Earth’s revolution around the Sun; stars that are near the horizon on Nov. 21 at 5:30 or 6 a.m. will be considerably higher up in a darker sky by the same time in December. Adding the shift of the stars to that of the comet, Catalina gains about 1° of altitude per day in the coming two weeks.

When you go out to find Catalina in binoculars, note its location on the map and then use the stars as steppingstones, starting with a bright obvious one like Spica and “stepping” from there to the next until you arrive at the one closest to the comet.

I’m so looking forward to finding Catalina. Nothing like a potentially naked eye comet to warm up those cold December mornings. Mark your calendar for the morning of Dec. 7th, when this rare visitor will join Venus and the crescent Moon in the east at the start of morning twilight. See you in spirit at dawn!

Comet US10 Catalina: Our Guide to Act II

Itching for some cometary action? After a fine winter’s performance from Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, 2015 has seen a dearth of good northern hemisphere comets. That’s about to change, however, as Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina joins the planetary lineup currently gracing the dawn sky in early November. Currently located in the constellation Centaurus and shining at magnitude +6, Comet US10 Catalina has already put on a fine show for southern hemisphere observers over the last few months during Act I

Currently buried in the dusk sky, Comet US10 Catalina is bashful right now, as it shares nearly the same right ascension with the Sun over the next few weeks, passing just eight degrees from our nearest star as seen from our Earthly vantage point on November 7th — and perhaps passing juuusst inside of the field of view for SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera — and into the dawn sky.

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The altitude of Comet US10 Catalina in November and December at dawn as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Image credit: Starry Night Education software.

The hunt is on come early November, as Comet US 10 Catalina vaults into the dawn sky. From 30 degrees north latitude here in Central Florida, the comet breaks 10 degrees elevation an hour prior to local sunrise right around November 20th. This should see the comet peaking in brightness right around magnitude +5 near perihelion the same week on November 16th.

Image credit:
The projected light curve of Comet US10 Catalina, with observations thus far (black dots) Image credit: Adapted from Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets

The angle of the comet’s orbit is favorable for northern hemisphere viewers in mid-November, as viewers start getting good looks in the early morning from latitude 30 degrees northward and the comet gains about a degree of elevation per day. This will bring it up out of the murk of twilight and into binocular view.

Mark your calendar for the morning of December 7th, as the crescent Moon, Venus and a (hopefully!) +5 magnitude comet US10 Catalina will all fit within a five degree circle.

Image credit:
The view on the morning of December 7th. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Here are some key dates with celestial destiny for Comet US10 Catalina for the remainder of 2015:

October

20-Crosses into the constellation Hydra.

November

2-Crosses into the constellation Libra.

16-Crosses into the constellation Virgo.

16-Reaches perihelion at 0.823 AU (127.6 million kilometers) from Sun.

26-Crosses the ecliptic plane northward.

27-Passes less than one degree from the +4.5 magnitude star Lambda Virginis.

Image Credit:
The celestial path of Comet US 10 Catalina through the end of 2015. Image Credit: Starry Night Education software

December

7-Fits inside a five degree circle with Venus and the waning crescent Moon.

8-Passes less than one degree from the +4 magnitude star Syrma (Iota Virginis).

17-Crosses the celestial equator northward.

24-Crosses into the constellation Boötes.

In January, Comet US10 Catalina starts the New Year passing less than a degree from the -0.05 magnitude star Arcturus. From there, the comet may drop below +6 magnitude and naked eye visibility by mid-month, just prior to its closest approach to the Earth at 0.725 AU (112.3 million kilometers) on January 17th. By February 1st, the comet may drop below +10th magnitude and binocular visibility, into the sole visual domain of large light bucket telescopes under dark skies.

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Comet US10 Catalina imaged from Australia on July 21st, 2015. Image credit: Alan Tough

Or not. Comets and predictions of comet brightness are always notoriously fickle, and rely mainly on just how the comet performs near perihelion. Then there’s twilight extinction to contend with, and the fact that the precious magnitude of the comet is diffused over its extended surface area, often causing the comet to appear fainter visually than the quoted magnitude.

But do not despair. Comets frequently under-perform pre-perihelion passage, only to put on brilliant shows after. Astronomers discovered Comet US10 Catalina on Halloween 2013 from the Catalina Sky Survey based just outside of Tucson, Arizona. On a several million year orbit, all indications are that Comet US10 Catalina is a dynamically new Oort Cloud visitor and will probably get ejected from the solar system after this all-too brief fling with the Sun. Its max velocity at perihelion will be 46.4 kilometers per second, three times faster than the New Horizons spacecraft currently on an escape trajectory out of the solar system.

The odd ‘US10’ designation comes from the comet’s initial identification as an asteroidal object, later upgraded to cometary status.  The comet’s high orbital inclination of 149 degrees assured two separate showings, as the comet approached the Sun as seen from the Earth’s southern hemisphere, only to then vault up over the northern hemisphere post-perihelion. As is often the case, the comet was closest to the Sun at exactly the wrong time: had perihelion occurred around May, the comet would’ve passed the Earth just 0.17 AU (15.8 million miles or 26.3 million kilometers) distant! That might’ve placed the comet in the negative magnitudes and perhaps earned it the title of ‘the Great Comet of 2015…’

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The orbit of Comet US10 Catalina and the view during closest Earth approach. Image credit: NASA/JPL

But such was not to be.

Ah, but the next ‘big one’ could come at any time. In 2016, we’re tracking comet C/2013 X1 PanSTARRS, which will ‘perhaps’ become a fine binocular comet next summer…

More to come. Perhaps we’ll draft up an Act III for US10 Catalina in early January if it’s a top performer.