See Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS at its Best

ER61 PanSTARRS
ER61 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS shortly after outburst on April 8th. Image credit and copyright: John Purvis.

Have you been following the springtime parade of bright comets? Thus far, the Oort cloud has offered up several fine binocular comets, including Comet 2/P Encke, 41/P Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE and C/2017 E4 Lovejoy. Now, another comet joins the dawn ranks, as it brightens up ahead of expectations: 2015 ER61 PanSTARRS.

Discovered on March 15th, 2015 by the prolific PanSTARRS-1 NEO survey atop Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii, Comet ER61 PanSTARRS made our who’s-who list of bright comets to watch for in 2017. The odd “ER61” designation stems from the early identification of the object as an asteroid, before it presented observers with a cometary appearance.

ER61 PanSTARRS Skychart
The path of Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS through the sky from early May through mid-August. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Late northern hemisphere Spring through Summer sees the comet maintaining a decent elevation above the eastern horizon at dawn, gliding north and parallel to the ecliptic plane through the constellations Pisces, Aries and Taurus from May through mid-August. The comet passed 1.08 AU from the Earth last month on April 4th, and is now racing away from us. The comet’s location near the March equinoctial point on the celestial hemisphere assures an equally good apparition for both the northern and southern hemisphere. As seen from latitude 30 degrees north, the comet sits 30 degrees above the eastern horizon, through the remainder of May. Venus also makes a brilliant beacon to track down Comet ER61 PanSTARRS, as the planet heads towards greatest elongation 46 degrees west of the Sun on June 3rd.

The orbit of Comet ER61 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The comet is also on a 7,591 year long orbit inbound, which takes it out nearly 2,500 AU from the Sun. That’s 190 times the Pluto-Sun distance, and the fourth most distant aphelion of any solar system object known. The 2015-2017 passage of the comet through the inner solar system actually shortened the orbit of Comet ER61 PanSTARRS down to an aphelion of ‘only’ 854 AU due to a 0.9 AU pass near Jupiter last year on March 28th, 2016. A similar orbital shortening by Jove occurred for Comet Hale-Bopp in 1996, which came in on an 4,200 year orbit and departed the inner solar system on a shorter 2,500 year path around the Sun.

The projected light curve for Comet C/2015 ER51 PanSTARRS. The purple line denotes perihelion, and the black dots are actual observations. Adapted from Seiichii Yoshida’s Weekly Information for Bright Comets.

Prospects and Prognostications

Observers reported an outburst from the comet last month in the first week of April, causing it to jump about 2 magnitudes in brightness. Right now, it’s holding steady at +7th magnitude. Unfortunately, the Moon reaches Full phase this week on May 10th, though you’ve still got a slim window to hunt for the comet after Moonset and before sunrise. Once the Moon moves towards a slender crescent phase next late week, we’ll once again have dark predawn skies ideal for comet hunting.

Here are some key dates for Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS as it glides through the dawn sky:

(Stars highlighted are brighter than +5th magnitude, and passes are less than a degree unless otherwise noted.)

May 10th: Reaches perihelion at 1.04 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun.

May 12th: Passes near the +4.9 magnitude star 19X Piscium.

May 20-23rd: Passes less than 10 degrees from Venus.

May 21st: The waning crescent Moon passes less than 10 degrees to the south.

June 10th: Passes near the +3.6 magnitude star Eta Piscium.

June 11th: Passes near the galaxy M74.

June 16th: Passes into the constellation Aries.

June 19th: The waning crescent Moon passes 9 degrees to the south.

July 13th: Passes near (less than 5′) the +4.6 magnitude star Epsilon Arietis.

July 18th: The waning crescent Moon passes 9 degrees to the south.

July 23rd: Passes near the +4.8 star Zeta Arietis.

The comet versus Venus in the dawn sky – looking eastward on May 15th. Credit: Stellarium.

August 2nd: Crosses into the constellation Taurus.

August 15th: The waning crescent Moon passes 8 degrees to the south.

August 16th: Passes near M45 (The Pleiades)

After mid-August, Comet 2015 ER61 PanSTARRS will drop back down below +10th magnitude, not to return for several millennia to come.

Observing a comet like ER61 PanSTARRS is as simple as knowing where and when to look, then starting to slowly sweep the suspect area with binoculars for a little fuzzball looking like a globular cluster stubbornly refusing to snap into focus. In pre-telescopic times, ER61 PanSTARRS would’ve entered and exited the inner solar system unrecorded.

April ER61 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS from April 12th. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.

Next up: We’ve got one more predicted comet on tap for 2017, as C/2015 V2 Johnson brightens up to +7th magnitude in mid-June. Keep watching the skies, as the next great comet of the century could always appear unannounced at any time.

Surprise: Comet E4 Lovejoy Brightens

Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy from the morning of Monday, April 3rd, courtesy of Gianluca Masi. Credit and copyright: The Virtual Telescope Project

Had your fill of binocular comets yet? Thus far this year, we’ve had periodic comets 2P/Encke, 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková and 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák all reach binocular visibility above +10th magnitude as forecasted. Now, we’d like to point out a surprise interloper in the dawn sky that you’re perhaps not watching, but should be: Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy.

If that name sounds familiar, that’s because E4 Lovejoy is the sixth discovery by prolific comet hunter Terry Lovejoy. Comets that have shared the Lovejoy moniker include the brilliant sungrazer C/2011 W3 Lovejoy, which amazed everyone by surviving its 140,000 kilometer (that’s about 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance!) pass near the blazing surface of the Sun on December 16th, 2011 and went on to be a great comet for southern hemisphere skies.

The path of Comet E4 Lovejoy through the end of April. Credit: Starry Night.

Unfortunately, E4 Lovejoy won’t get quite that bright, but it’s definitely an over achiever. Shining at a faint +15th magnitude when it was first discovered last month on March 9th, 2017, it has since jumped up to +7th magnitude (almost 160 times in brightness) in just a few short weeks. We easily picked it out near the +2.4 magnitude star Enif (Epsilon Pegasi) on Saturday morning April 1st in the pre-dawn sky. E4 Lovejoy was an easy catch with our Canon 15×45 image-stabilized binocs, and looked like a tiny +7 magnitude globular (similar to nearby Messier 15) that stubbornly refused to snap into focus. In fact, I’d say that E4 Lovejoy was a much easier comet to observe than faint Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák, which made its closest pass 0.142 Astronomical Units (21.2 million kilometers) from the Earth on the same day.

Comet E4 Lovejoy from the morning of April 4th. Image credit and copyright: Gerald Rhemann/Sky Vistas.

Prospects and Prognostications 

E4 Lovejoy will remain an early pre-dawn object through April for northern hemisphere observers as it glides through the constellations Pegasus, Andromeda and Triangulum. If current predictions hold true, the comet should reach a maximum brightness of magnitude +6 around April 15th. On an estimated ~ 600,000 year orbit, Comet E4 Lovejoy may be a first time visitor to the inner solar system, and its current outburst may also be short-lived. In fact, there’s lots of speculation that Comet E4 Lovejoy may disintegrate altogether, very soon. Plus, the Moon is headed towards Full next week on April 11th, making this week the best time to catch a glimpse of this fleeting comet.

The projected light curve for Comet E4 Lovejoy. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets.

And to think: we just missed having a bright naked eye comet! That’s because Comet E4 Lovejoy very nearly passed through the space that the Earth will occupy just next month. In fact, the comet passed just 0.11 AU (17 million kilometers) interior to the Earth’s orbit on March 22nd, 2017. Had it done the same on May 4th, it would have been 5 times closer and 25 (about 3 to 4 magnitudes) times brighter!

The orbit of Comet E4 Lovejoy through the inner solar system. NASA/JPL

A tantalizing miss, for sure. Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy reaches perihelion at 0.5 AU (77.5 million kilometers) from the Sun on April 23rd, and passed 0.6 AU (93 million kilometers) from the Earth on March 31st. This week, it will be moving through Pegasus at a rate of about four degrees (8 Full Moon diameters) a day. With an orbital inclination of 88 degrees, Comet E4 Lovejoy’s path is very nearly perpendicular to the ecliptic path traced out by the Earth. The comet swung up from the south during discovery, and is now headed northward towards perihelion.

Here are some key dates for Comet C/2017 E4 Lovejoy to watch out for in April:

April 7th: Passes less than one degree from the +3.5 magnitude star Sadal Bari (Lambda Pegasi).

April 9th: Passes less than 10′ from the +2.4 magnitude star Scheat (Beta Pegasi).

April 13th: Crosses into the constellation Andromeda.

April 19th: Photo-op, as the comet passes 4 degrees from the Andromeda Galaxy M31.

April 22nd: Passes between the +2nd magnitude star Mirach and the +4th magnitude star Mu Andromedae.

April 27th: Passes five degrees from the Pinwheel Galaxy M33.

April 28th: Crosses into the constellation Triangulum.

Looking to the northeast at 6 pm local on the morning of April 19th from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Stellarium.

Teaser for 2017 Comets

We’re barely a quarter of the way through 2017, with more cometary action to come. We’re expecting 2015 ER51 PanSTARRS (May), and 2015 V2 Johnson (June) to reach binocular visibility. You can read about comets, occultations, and more in our guide to 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, a free e-book from Universe Today.

We’re due for the next big one, for sure. It always seems like there’s a “Great Comet” per every generation or so, and its been 20 years now since comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake graced northern skies.

Binoculars are the best tool for observing comets like E4 Lovejoy, as they offer a generous true (i.e. not inverted) field of view. A good finder chart and dark skies also help. We like to find a good nearby ‘anchor’ object such as a bright star, then hop into the suspected comet area and start sweeping.

One thing’s for sure: we need more comets with names like Lovejoy… if nothing else, it’s much easier to pronounce, and us science writers don’t have to keep hunting through the ‘insert’ menu for those strange letter symbols that grace many of these icy denizens of the Oort Cloud as they pay a visit to the inner solar system.