Tales (Tails?) Of Three Comets


As the Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times,” and while the promise of Comet ISON dazzling observers didn’t exactly pan out as hoped for in early 2014, we now have a bevy of binocular comets set to grace evening skies for northern hemisphere observers. Comet 2012 K1 PanSTARRS has put on a fine show, and comet C/2014 E2 Jacques has emerged from behind the Sun and its close 0.085 AU passage near Venus and has already proven to be a fine target for astro-imagers. And we’ve got another icy visitor to the inner solar system beating tracks northward in the form of Comet C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden, and a grand cometary finale as comet A1 Siding Spring brushes past the planet Mars. That is, IF a spectacular naked eye comet doesn’t come by and steal the show, as happens every decade or so…

Comet E2 Jacques crossing Cassiopeia as seen from the island of Malta. Credit: Leonard Mercer.

Anyhow, here’s a rapid fire run down on what you can expect from three of these binocular comets that continue to grace the twilight skies this Fall.

(Note that mentions of comets “passing near” a given object denote conjunctions of less than an angular degree of arc unless otherwise stated).

C/2014 E2 Jacques:

Discovered by amateur astronomer Cristovao Jacques on March 13th of this year from the SONEAR Observatory in Brazil, Comet E2 Jacques has been dazzling observers as it passed 35 degrees from the north celestial pole and posed near several deep sky wonders as it transited the constellation of Cassiopeia.

Comet E2 Jacques on August 28th as seen from the MVAS dark sky site in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Credit: John Chumack.

Mid-September finds Jacques 55 degrees above the NE horizon at dusk for northern hemisphere viewers in the constellation Cygnus. It then races southward parallel to the galactic equator, keeping in the +7th to +8th magnitude range before dropping down below +10th magnitude in late October. After this current passage through the inner solar system, Comet Jacques will be on a shortened 12,000 year orbit.

-Brightest: Mid-August at +6th magnitude.

-Perihelion: July 2nd, 2014 (0.66 AU).

-Closest to Earth: August 28, 2014 (0.56 AU).

Some key upcoming dates:

Sep 10: Passes the +3.9 magnitude star Eta Cygni.

Sep 14: Passes near the famous optical double star Albireo and crosses into the constellation of Vulpecula.

Sep 16: Passes in front of the +4.4 magnitude star Alpha Vulpeculae.

Sep 20: Crosses the Coathanger asterism.

Sep 21: Crosses into the constellation Sagitta.

Sep 24: Crosses into Aquila.

The celestial path of Comet Jacques from September 12th thru November 1st.
The celestial path of Comet Jacques from September 12th through November 1st. (All simulations created using Starry Night Education software.

Oct 5: Crosses the galactic plane.

Oct 14: passes near the +7.5 magnitude open cluster NGC 6755.

Oct 15: Drops back below +10th magnitude?

C/2013 V5 Oukaïmeden

Pronounced Ow-KAY-E-Me-dah, (yes, it’s a French name, with a very metal umlaut over the “ï”!) comet C/2013 V5 Oukaïmeden was discovered by the Moroccan Oukaïmeden Sky Survey (MOSS) located in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. After completing a brief dawn appearance in early September, the comet moves into the dusk sky and starts the month of October located 38 degrees east of the Sun at about 14 degrees above the southwestern horizon as seen from latitude 30 degrees north at sunset. Southern hemisphere observers will continue to have splendid dawn views of the comet through mid-September at its expected peak. Comet Oukaïmeden is currently at +8th magnitude “with a bullet” and is expected to top out +6th magnitude in late September shortly before perihelion and perhaps remain a binocular object as it crosses the constellation Libra in October.

An early image of Comet C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden taken in February of this year. Credit: Efrain Morales Rivera.

And its also worth noting that as comet A1 Siding Spring (see below) makes a close physical pass by Mars on October 19th, Comet Oukaïmeden makes a close apparent pass by Saturn as seen from our Earthly vantage point the evening before! To be sure, the dusk apparition of Comet Oukaïmeden will be a tough one, but if you can track down these bright guidepost objects listed below, you’ll have a chance at spying it.

-Brightest: Mid-September.

-Perihelion: September 28th, 2014 (0.63 AU from the Sun).

-Closest to Earth: September 16th, 2014 (0.48 AU).

Some key upcoming dates:

Sep 10 through Oct 4: Threads across the borders of the constellations Hydra, Pyxis, Antlia and Centaurus.

Sep 18: Passes near the +3.5 magnitude star Xi Hydrae.

Sep 19: Passes near the +4.3 magnitude star Beta Hydrae.

Sep 25: Passes 1.5 degrees from the +8th magnitude Southern Pinwheel Galaxy M83.

Oct 1: Passes in front of the +10.2 globular cluster NGC 5694.

The path of Comet ... the Sun position is shown for the final date.
The path of Comet Oukaimeden through the month of October: The Sun position is shown for the final date.

Oct 3: Passes into Libra.

Oct 11: Passes near the +8.5 magnitude globular cluster NGC 5897.

Oct 16: Crosses the ecliptic plane northward.

Oct 18: Passes less than two degrees from Saturn.

Oct 25: Passes less than a degree from the 2 day old Moon and the +3.9 magnitude star Gamma Librae.

Light curve
The projected light curve for Comet Oukaimeden with observational measurements (black dots). Credit:  Seiichi Yoshida.

C/2013 A1 Siding Spring

This comet was discovered on January 3rd, 2013 from the Siding Spring observatory in Australia, and soon caught the eye of astronomers when it was discovered that it would make a nominal pass just 139,000 kilometres from Mars on October 19th.

Comet A1 Siding Spring as seen from NEOWISE early this year. Credit: NASA/JPL.
Comet A1 Siding Spring as seen from NEOWISE early this year. Credit: NASA/JPL.

As seen from the Earth, Comet A1 Siding Spring has just broken 10th magnitude and vaults up towards the planet Mars low to the southwest at dusk this Fall for northern hemisphere observers. A1 Siding Spring is expected to top out at +8th magnitude this month before its Mars encounter, and is on a one million year plus orbit.

-Brightest: Early to Mid-September.

-Perihelion: October 25th, 2014.

-Closest to Earth: October 28th, 2014 (1.4 AU).

Some key upcoming dates:

Sep 17: Passes into the constellation Telescopium.

Sep 20: Passes near the +8.5 magnitude globular NGC 6524.

Sep 21: Passes into the constellation Ara.

Sep 22: Passes the +3.6 magnitude star Beta Arae.

Sep 25: Crosses into Scorpius.

Sep 30: Passes the +3 magnitude star Iota Scorpii.

Mars and Comet A1 Siding Springs crossing paths through the month of October.
Mars and Comet A1 Siding Springs crossing paths through the month of October.

Oct 3: Passes near the +7.2 magnitude globular NGC 6441.

Oct 5: Passes 2 degrees from Ptolemy’s cluster M7.

Oct 8: Passes in front of the Butterfly cluster M6.

Oct 10: Crosses the galactic plane.

Oct 11: Crosses into Ophiuchus.

Oct 19: Passes just 2’ arc minutes from Mars as seen from Earth.

Oct 22: Passes north of the ecliptic.

Oct 30: Drops back below +10th magnitude?

Key moonless windows for evening comet viewing as reckoned from when the Moon wanes from Full to New are: September 9th to September 24th and October 8th to the 23rd.

Looking for resources to find out just what these comets and others  are up to? The COBS Comet Observers database is a great resource for recent observations, as is Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Comet page. For history and current info, Gary Kronk’s Cometography is also a great treasure trove to delve into, as are the Yahoo! Comet and Comet Observer mailing lists.

Be sure to check out these fine icy visitors to the inner solar system coming to a sky near you. We fully expect to see more outstanding images of these comets and more filling up the Universe Today Flickr forum!


Comet Jacques Makes a ‘Questionable’ Appearance

Comet Jacques and IC 405, better known as the Flaming Star Nebula, align to create a temporary question mark in the sky this morning July 26. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

What an awesome photo! Italian amateur astronomer Rolando Ligustri nailed it earlier today using a remote telescope in New Mexico and wide-field 4-inch (106 mm) refractor. Currently the brightest comet in the sky at magnitude 6.5, C/2014 E2 Jacques has been slowly climbing out of morning twilight into a darker sky over the last two weeks. This morning it passed the Flaming Star Nebula in the constellation Auriga. Together, nebula and pigtailed visitor conspired to ask a question of the sky in a rare display of celestial punctuation.  IC 405 is a combination emission-reflection nebula. Some of its light stems from starlight reflecting off grains of cosmic dust, but the deep red results from hydrogen excited to fluorescence by powerful ultraviolet light from those same stars. The depth of field hidden within the image is enormous: the nebula lies 1,500 light years away, the comet a mere 112 million miles or 75 million times closer. Coincidentally, the comet also glows in similar fashion. The short dust tail to the left of the coma is sunlight reflecting off minute grains of dust boiled from the nucleus. The long, straight tail is primarily composed of carbon monoxide gas fluorescing in ultraviolet light from the sun.

Follow Jacques in a small telescope or binoculars in its travels across Auriga into Perseus in the next two weeks before the moon interferes again. Comet positions are shown for 4 a.m. CDT every 5 days. Stars to magnitude +8.0. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Follow Jacques in a small telescope or binoculars in its travels across Auriga into Perseus during the next two weeks before the moonlight interferes. Comet positions are shown for 4 a.m. CDT every 5 days. Stars to magnitude +8.0. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

As Jacques swings toward its closest approach to Earth in late August, it’s gradually picking up speed from our perspective and pushing higher into the morning sky. A week ago, twilight had the upper hand. Now the comet’s some 20º high (two ‘fists’) above the northeastern horizon around 4 a.m. This morning I had no difficulty seeing it as a small, ‘fuzzy star’ in 10×50 binoculars. In my dusty but trusty 10-inch (25 cm) telescope at 76x, Comet Jacques was a dead ringer for one of those fuzzy dingle-balls hanging from a sombrero. I caught a hint of the very short dust tail but couldn’t make out the gas tail that shows so clearly in the photo. That will have to await darker skies.

A different perspective on Comet Jacques. This negative image, which accentuates detail in the comet's tails, was shot July 26, 2014 with an 8-inch (20 cm) telescope. Credit: Michael Jaeger
A different perspective on Comet Jacques. This negative image, which emphasizes details in the comet’s tails, was shot July 26, 2014 with an 8-inch (20 cm) telescope. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Maybe you’d like to try your own eyes on Jacques. Start with a pair of 40mm or larger binoculars or small telescope and use the map above to help you spot it. Oh, and don’t forget to keep an exclamation mark handy when you get that first look.

Comet Jacques Is Back! Joins Venus and Mercury at Dawn

Will you see it? Comet Jacques will pass about 3.5 degrees north of brilliant Venus tomorrow morning July 13. This map shows the sky facing northeast about 1 hour before sunrise. Stellarium

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques has returned! Before it disappeared in the solar glow this spring, the comet reached magnitude +6, the naked eye limit. Now it’s back at dawn, rising higher each morning as it treks toward darker skies. Just days after its July 2 perihelion, the fuzzball will be in conjunction with the planet Venus tomorrow morning July 13. With Mercury nearby, you may have the chance to see this celestial ‘Rat Pack’ tucked within a 8° circle.

First photo of Comet Jacques on its return to the morning sky taken on July 7. Credit: Gerald Rhemann
First photo of Comet Jacques on its return to the morning sky taken on July 11. Two tails are visible – a short, dust tail pointing to the lower left of the coma and longer gas or ion tail to the right. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

While I can guarantee you’ll see Venus and probably Mercury (especially if you use binoculars), morning twilight and low altitude will undoubtedly make spotting Comet Jacques challenging. A 6-inch telescope might nail it. Look for a small, fuzzy cloud with a brighter core against the bluing sky. Patience is the sky observer’s most useful tool. It won’t be long before the comet’s westward motion combined with the seasonal drift of the stars will loft it into darkness again.

Use this map to follow Comet Jacques as it moves west across Taurus and Auriga over the next few weeks. Planet positions are shown for July 13 with stars to magnitude +6. Jacques' position is marked every 5 days. Source: Chris Mariott's SkyMap
Use this map to follow Comet Jacques as it moves west across Taurus and Auriga over the next few weeks. Planet positions are shown for July 13 with stars to magnitude +6. Jacques’ position is marked every 5 days. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Mariott’s SkyMap

A week from now, when the moon’s slimmed to half, the comet will be nearly twice as high and should be easily visible in 50mm binoculars at the start of morning twilight.

Comet Jacques is expected to remain around magnitude +6 through the remainder of July into early August and then slowly fade. It will be well-placed in Perseus at the time of the Perseid meteor shower on Aug. 12-13. Closest approach to Earth occurs on August 29 at 52.4 million miles (84.3 million km). Good luck and let us know if you see it.

Comet Jacques Brightens: How to See it in May

Comet Jacques as imaged on March 18th, shortly after discovery. Credit: Efrain Morales Rivera.

A recently discovered comet is headed northward and is set to put on one of two fine performances for binocular observers in 2014 starting this week.

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques was discovered on March 13th 2014 by Cristóvão Jacques, Eduardo Pimentel and João Ribeiro de Barros while observing from the Southern Observatory for Near Earth Asteroids Research (SONEAR) facility located near Oliveira, Brazil.

The comet was just about at +15th magnitude at the time of discovery as it glided across the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus.

While a majority of comet discoveries are destined to remain small and faint, Comet Jacques was immediately shown to be something special. Upon discovery of any new comet, the first task is to gain several observations hours or nights apart to accurately gauge its distance and orbit. Are astronomers looking at a small, garden variety comet close up, or a large, active one far away?

In the case of Comet Jacques, it was something in between: a comet about 1.22 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) distant at time of discovery. Comet Jacques is headed towards perihelion 0.66 A.U. from the Sun in early July and will pass 0.56 A.U. from Earth on August 28th.  Follow up observations carried out using the iTelescope at Siding Spring Australia showed a slightly elongated coma about 2 arc minutes across shortly after discovery, and the comet has recently jumped up to magnitude +8 — ahead of the projected light curve — in just the past week.

Starry Night
The path of Comet Jacques, looking west from latitude 30 degree north 45 minutes after sunset. Credit: Starry Night.

We caught our first good look at Comet Jacques last night while setting up for the Virtual Star Party. While +10 magnitude or brighter is usually a pretty good rule of thumb for binocular visibility, we found that the comet was only apparent as a fuzzy smudge viewing it with a 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope using averted vision at low power. Remember, the brightness of a comet is spread out over its apparent surface area, similar to viewing a diffuse nebula. Our first telescopic views of the ill-fated comet ISON as it breeched +10th magnitude were similar. Certainly, a nearby waxing crescent Moon in Gemini last night didn’t help.

How bright will Comet Jacques get? Current projections call for it to perhaps break naked eye visibility around +6th magnitude after June 1st and reach as bright as +4th magnitude in early July near perihelion. After its first evening act in May and June, Comet Jacques will reemerge in the dawn sky for northern hemisphere observers for Act 2 and trace a path northward paralleling the galactic plane through the star rich fields of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Cygnus in August and September of this year. If our luck holds out, Comet Jacques will remain above 6th magnitude until early September.

Credit JPL
The path of Comet Jacques through the inner solar system. Credit: JPL solar system small body generator.

This comet also created a brief flurry of interest when it was revealed that it will pass just 0.085 AUs or 12,700,000 kilometers from Venus on July 13th, 2014. Though close, this is still 31 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. The only “eyes” that humanity has currently in operation around Venus is ESA’s Venus Express orbiter. During closest approach Comet Jacques will appear just over 3 degrees away from Venus as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

Another comet is also set to photobomb a planet, as Comet A1 Siding Spring passes a nominal distance of 0.0009 A.U.s or 135,000 kilometers from Mars this Fall on October 19th.

Comet Jacques
11 images of Comet Jacques stacked from May 3rd. Credit: Ian Griffin @IanGriffin.

The closest recorded passage of a comet near Earth was Comet  D/1770 L1 Lexell in 1770, which passed us 0.015 A.U.s or 233 million kilometres distant.

Now on to Act 1. May finds Comet Jacques spending most of the month in the long rambling constellation of Monoceros. Currently moving just under 2 degrees a day, Comet Jacques crosses the celestial equator northward this week on May 8th. You’ll note its high orbital inclination of 156.4 degrees as it speeds northward. Comet Jacques has a long orbital period gauged at over 30,000 years — the last time Comet Jacques visited the inner solar system, our ancestors had the Last Glacial Maximum period to look forward to.

Light curve
The projected light curve of comet Jacques with recent observations. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida/aerith.net.

Comet Jacques is currently the brightest comet “with a bullet,” edging out the +9th magnitude comets C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS gilding through Canes Venatici and comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR, currently residing in the constellation of Aquila the Eagle. A great place to keep up with current observations of comets is the Comet Observation Database. We’re also pinging the IAU Minor Planet Center’s quick look page for new discoveries daily.

Here are some highlights to watch out for as Comet Jacques heads towards perihelion. Passages within one degree — twice the size of the Full Moon — near stars brighter than +5th magnitude are noted unless mentioned otherwise:

May 3rd through June 1st
The celestial path of Comet Jacques from May 3rd through June 1st. Credit: Starry Night.

May 8th: Passes the +4.1 magnitude star Delta Monocerotis and crosses north of the celestial equator.

May 10th: Passes planetary nebula NGC 2346.

May 11th: Passes briefly into Canis Minor before reentering the constellation Monoceros.

May 14th: Full Moon occurs, marking the start of a favorable two week period of moonless evenings soon after.

May 24th: Passes the +4.8 magnitude star 17 Monocerotis.

May 28th: New Moon occurs, marking the return of the Moon to early evening skies.

May 29th: Passes the +4.7 magnitude star 15 Monocerotis.

May 30th: Passes the Christmas tree cluster. Photo op!

May 31st: The waxing crescent Moon passes less than 8 degrees from Comet Jacques.

June 1st: Comet Jacques reaches naked eye visibility?

June 6th: Crosses into the constellation Gemini.

June 11th: Crosses into the constellation Taurus.

June 13th: Full Moon occurs.

June 14th: Crosses the galactic plane.

June 21st: Passes into the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

June 27th: New Moon occurs.

July 2nd: Reaches perihelion at 0.6638 A.U. from the Sun.

July 8th: Crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

July 13th: Passes 0.085 A.U. from Venus.

August 28th: Passes 0.56 A.U. from Earth.

And thus, Comet Jacques joins the parade of fine binocular comets in the 2014 night sky, as the stage is set for Act 2 this fall. And keep in mind, the next “big one” could grace our skies at anytime… more to come!