Get Set For Comet K1 PanSTARRS: A Guide to its Spring Appearance

Comet c/2012 K1 PanSTARRS as imaged by Dan Crowson on February 22nd, 2014. Image credit: Dan Crowson, used with permission.

Get those binoculars ready: an icy interloper from the Oort cloud is about to grace the night sky.

The comet is C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, and it’s currently just passed from the constellation Hercules into Corona Borealis and presents a good target for observers high in the sky in the hours before dawn. In fact, from our Tampa based latitude, K1 PanSTARRS is nearly at the zenith at around 6 AM local.

Observers currently place K1 PanSTARRS at magnitude +10.5 and brightening and showing a small condensed coma. Through the eyepiece, a comet at this stage will often resemble a fuzzy, unresolved globular star cluster.

And the good news is, K1 PanSTARRS will continue to brighten, headed northward through the early morning and then into the evening sky before reaching solar conjunction on August 9th, when it’ll actually pass behind the Sun for a few hours as seen from from our vantage point. We actually get two good apparitions of Comet K1 PanSTARRS: one for the northern hemisphere in the Spring and one for the southern hemisphere after it reaches perihelion and crosses south of the ecliptic plane in August.

And it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for K1 PanSTARRS online as well, as it passes into the view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera on August 2 before exiting its 15 degree field of view on August 16th.

This actually means the comet will reach opposition twice from our Earthbound vantage point: once on April 15th, and again on November 7th. And, as is often the case, this comet arrives six months early –or late, depending how you look at it- to be a fine naked eye object. Had K1 PanSTARRS reached perihelion in January, we’d have really been in for a show, with the comet only around 0.05 Astronomical Units (about 7.7 million kilometers) from the Earth!

The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS.
The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. The yellow arrows denote the motion of the planets and the comet as seen from north of the ecliptic plane. Credit-NASA/JPL Horizons Solar System Dynamics generator.

But alas, such was not to be. At its best, K1 PanSTARRS will be hidden by the glare of the Sun at its very best, to emerge into the southern sky. The comet has a steeply inclined 142 degree retrograde orbit, and thus approaches the inner solar system from high above the ecliptic plane.

These coming last weeks of March are a great time to search out K1 PanSTARRS as the Moon reaches Last Quarter this weekend and heads towards New on March 30th, beginning a two week “moonless period for AM observing in early April. Projections by veteran comet observer Seiichi Yoshida suggest that K1 PanSTARRS will begin to brighten dramatically towards +8th magnitude through April. We first picked up the now posthumous comet ISON with binoculars around this magnitude last Fall. Keep in mind, like nebula and galaxies, the apparent brightness of a comet is spread out over its surface area. This can make a +10th magnitude comet much tougher to spot than a pinpoint +10 magnitude star.

We actually prefer our trusty Canon 15x45IS image stabilized binoculars for comet hunting… they’re powerful and easy to deploy on a cold March morning!

Here’s a handy list of notable events to watch for as Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS crosses the springtime sky. Only passages of less than one degree near stars greater than magnitude +6 are mentioned except where otherwise noted:

March 17th: Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS passes into the constellation Corona Borealis.

March 21st: Passes the +5.8 magnitude star Upsilon Coronae Borealis.

March 29th: Passes the +5.4 magnitude star Rho Coronae Borealis.

March 30th: The Moon reaches New phase.

The path of comet K1 PanSTARRS through March and April
The path of comet K1 PanSTARRS in one week intervals through March and April. Created using Stellarium.

April 2nd: Passes the +4.8 magnitude star Kappa Coronae Borealis.

April 7th: Passes the +5.2 magnitude star Mu Coronae Borealis.

April 10th: Passes into the constellation of Boötes.

April 10th: Passes the +5 magnitude wide binary pair Nu Boötis.

April 15th: Comet K1 PanSTARRS reaches opposition, rising opposite to the setting Sun and moving into the evening sky.

April 20th: K1 PanSTARRS becomes circumpolar for observers above 45 degrees north until May 25th.

April 26th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Majoris.

April 29th: Passes the bright +1.9th magnitude star Alkaid in the handle of the Big Dipper asterism. This is the brightest star that K1 PanSTARRS will pass near for this apparition, and Alkaid will make a great “finder” to spot the comet.

April 29th: The Moon reaches New phase.

April 30th: Approaches the +4.7 magnitude star 24 Canum Venaticorum.

Path of comet K1 PanSTARRS Credit: Starry Night Education Software
The Spring path of comet K1 PanSTARRS from mid-March through late June. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

May 1st: Passes into the constellation Canes Venatici.

May 1st:  Passes less than 2 degrees from the galaxy M51… photo op!

May 3rd: Passes the 5.1 magnitude star 21 Canum Venaticorum.

May 6th: K1 PanSTARRS Reaches a maximum declination of 49.5 degrees north.

May 11th: Passes the 5.3 magnitude star 3 Canum Venaticorum.

May 14th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Major.

May 17th: Another great photo ops awaits astrophotographers, as the comet passes the +3.7 magnitude star Chi Ursae Majoris and the +12 magnitude galaxy NGC 3877.

May 25th: Passes the 3rd magnitude star Psi Ursae Majoris.

May 28th: The Moon reaches New phase.

May 28th: Passes the 4.7 magnitude star Omega Ursae Majoris.

June 7th Passes into the constellation Leo Minor.

June 15th: Passes the +4.5 magnitude star 21 Leo Minoris.

June 22nd: Passes into the constellation Leo.

July 1- Passes to within 40 degrees elongation from the Sun.

And from there, Comet K1 PanSTARRS reaches perihelion just outside of the Earth’s orbit at 1.05 A.U. on August 27, and plunges south across the celestial equator on September 15.

Video animation of comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS over the span of an evening. Credit: Dan Crowson of Dardenne Prairie Missouri, used with permission. 

It’s also worth noting that K1 PanSTARRS will make its first of two approaches at a minimum distance of 1.471 A.U.s from Earth May 4th and will be moving at about a degree a day – twice the diameter of the Full Moon – before receding from us once more for a closer 1.056 A.U.  approach to Earth on August 25th.

Discovered on May 19th, 2012 by the PanSTARRS telescope based on the island of Maui, Comet K1 PanSTARRS was first spotted at 8.7 A.U.s distant, well past the orbit of Jupiter.  The PanSTARRS survey has been a prolific discoverer of asteroids and comets, including the brilliant comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS that graced dusk skies in March of last year.

Comet K1 PanSTARRS will join the ranks of comets reaching binocular observability later this year which includes C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden, Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, and the recently discovered C/2014 E2 Jacques, which may reach +7th magnitude as it nears perihelion this coming July.

And those are just the binocular comets that are scheduled to perform… remember, the next “big one” could come barreling in towards the inner solar system at any time to put on a memorable performance worthy of another comet Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp… just not TOO close!

–      Be sure to send those comet pics in to Universe Today.

Get Out Your Comet Scorecards: Comet Nevski Now Visible With Binoculars

Capture of Comet Nevski shortly after discovery using the ITelescope Observatory in New Mexico. (Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes & Martino Nicolini).

Is 2013 truly the “Year of the Comet?” Perhaps “Comets” might be a better term, as no less than five comets brighter than +10th magnitude grace the pre-dawn sky for northern hemisphere observers.

Comet C/2013 V3 Nevski has just brightened up 6 magnitudes — just over a 250-fold increase in brightness — and now sits at around magnitude +8.8. Comet Nevski was just recently discovered by Vitali Nevski using a 0.4 metre reflecting telescope 12 days ago on November 8th. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Nevski discovered the comet from the Kislovodsk observatory located near Kislovodsk, Russia which is part of the International Scientific Optical Network survey which located comet ISON last year. In fact, there was some brief controversy early on in its discovery that Comet C/2012 S1 ISON should have had the moniker Comet Nevski-Novichonok.

At the time of discovery, Comet Nevski appeared to be nothing special: shining at magnitude +15.1, it was well below our +10 magnitude limit for consideration as “interesting,” and was projected to linger there for the duration of its passage through the inner solar system. About a dozen odd such comet discoveries crop up per year, most of which give astronomers a brief pause as the orbit and size of the comet become better known, only to discern that they’re most likely to be nothing extraordinary.

The orbit of comet Nevski, as seen during the closest approach to the Earth on December 21st. (Credit:  The Solar System Dynamics JPL Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbit of comet Nevski, as seen during the closest approach to the Earth on December 21st. (Credit: The Solar System Dynamics JPL Small-Body Database Browser).

Such was to be the case with Comet Nevski, until it suddenly flared up this past weekend.

Observer Gianluca Masi caught Comet Nevski in outburst, using a Celestron C14 remotely as part of the Virtual Telescope 2.0 project:

Comet Nevski captured on November 14th by
Comet Nevski captured on November 14th by Gianluca Masi. (Credit: The Virtual Telescope 2.0 Project).

You’ll note that Comet Nevski shows a small, spiky tail on the brief exposure. As of this writing, it currently sits at between magnitudes +8 and +9 and should remain there for the coming week if this current outburst holds.

Comet Nevski is well placed for northern hemisphere observers high in the morning sky, and will spend the remainder of November and early December crossing the astronomical constellation of Leo.

The celestial path of Comet Nevski from mid-November to the end of December. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education simulation software).
The celestial path of Comet Nevski from mid-November to the end of December. (Created by the author using Starry Night Education simulation software).

Here’s a blow-by-blow rundown on noteworthy events for this comet for the remainder of 2013:

November 23rd: Passes the +5.3 magnitude star Psi Leonis and crosses north of the ecliptic plane.

December 1st: Passes +3.4 magnitude star Eta Leonis.

December 6th: Passes +4.8 magnitude 40 Leonis and the bright +2nd magnitude star Algieba.

December 15th: Crosses into the constellation Leo Minor.

December 17th: Passes near the +5.5th magnitude star 40 Leonis Minoris.

December 21st: Passes closest to Earth, at 0.847 Astronomical Units (A.U.s), or 126 million kilometres distant.

December 30th: Passes into the constellation Ursae Majoris.

Note that a “close pass” denotes a passage of the comet within a degree of a bright or interesting object.

The orbit of Comet Nevski is inclined 31.5 degrees relative to the ecliptic, and it will be headed for circumpolar for observers based in high northern latitudes as it dips back down below our “interesting” threshold of magnitude +10 in early 2014.

This comet passed perihelion on October 27th, 2013 just over a week prior to discovery. Comet Nevski is Halley-type comet, with a 27.5 year orbit.

So, looking at the “Comet Scorecard,” we currently have:

Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR: Still undergoing a moderate outburst at magnitude +8.2, very low to the north east for northern hemisphere observers at dawn in the constellation Boötes.

Comet 2P/Encke: Reaches perihelion tomorrow at 0.33 AU’s from the Sun, shining at magnitude +7.7 near Mercury in the dawn sky but is now mostly lost in the Sun’s glare.

Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy: is currently well placed in the constellation Ursa Major crossing into Canes Venatici in the hours before dawn. Currently shining at magnitude +5.4, Comet R1 Lovejoy is visible to the unaided eye from a dark sky site. We caught sight of the comet last week with binoculars, looking like an unresolved globular cluster as it passed through the constellations of Leo and Leo Minor.

And of course, Comet C/2012 S1 ISON: As of this writing, ISON is performing up to expectations as it approaches Mercury low in the dawn shining at just above +4th magnitude. We’ve seen some stunning pictures as of late as ISON unfurls its tail, and now the eyes of the astronomical community will turn towards the main act: perihelion on November 28th. Will it fizzle or dazzle? More to come next week!

The recent outbursts of Comets X1 LINEAR and V3 Nevski are reminiscent of the major outburst of Comet Holmes back in 2007. Of course, the inevitable attempts to link these outbursts to the current sputtering solar max will ensue, but to our knowledge, no conclusive correlations exist. Remember, the outburst from Comet Holmes occurred as we were approaching what was to become a profound solar minimum.

Also, it might be tempting to imagine that all of these comets are somehow related, but they are in fact each on unique and very different orbits, and only appear in the rough general direction in the sky as seen from our Earthly vantage point… a boon for dawn patrol sky watchers!

Got pics? Send ‘em in to Universe Today!



Will Comet ISON Dazzle our Skies? An Expert Weighs In

ISON as seen by Hubble earlier this spring. (Credit: NASA/ESA/Z. Levay/STScl).

Comets are the big “question marks” of observational astronomy. Some, such as Comet Hyakutake and the Great Daylight Comet of 1910 present themselves seemingly without warning and put on memorable displays. Others, such as the infamous Comet Kohoutek or Comet Elenin, fizzle and fail to perform up to expectations after a much anticipated round of media hype.

And then there’s the case of Comet C/2012 S1 ISON. Discovered on September 21st, 2012 by Artyom Novichonok and Vitali Nevski while conducting the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) survey, Comet ISON has captivated public interest. The media loves a good comet, or at least the promise of one.

But will Comet ISON perform up to expectations? Recently, veteran comet hunter and observer John Bortle weighed in on a Sky & Telescope post and an email interview with Universe Today on what we might expect to see this fall.

Dozens of comets are discovered every year. Most amount to nothing – a handful, like this year’s comet 2011 L4 PanSTARRS or 2012 F6 Lemmon, may become interesting binocular objects.

Part of what alerted astronomers that Comet ISON may become something special was its extreme discovery distance of 6.7 astronomical units (A.U.s) meaning it should be an intrinsically bright object, coupled with its close approach of 0.012 A.U.s (1.1 million kilometres, accounting for the solar radius) from the surface of the Sun at perihelion.

Universe Today recently caught up with Mr. Bortle, who had the following to say above tentative prospects for Comet ISON in late 2013:

“Comets coming into the near-solar neighborhood from the Oort Cloud for the very first time tend to behave rather differently from most of their other icy brethren. They often will show considerable early activity while still far from the Sun, giving a false sense of their significance. Only when they have ventured to within about 1.5-2.0 astronomical units of the Sun do they begin to reveal their true intrinsic nature in the way of brightness and development. When discovered far from the Sun, this situation has misled astronomers time and again into announcing that a grandiose display is in the offing, only to have the comet ultimately turn out to be a general disappointment. There have been exception to this, but they are rare indeed.”

Comet ISON bears similar characteristics to many of the great sungrazing comets of the past. In the last few months, word has made rounds that Comet ISON may be underperforming, stagnating around magnitude +16 (10,000 times fainter than naked eye visibility) as it crosses the expanse of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.

Bortle, however, cautioned against writing off ISON just yet in a recent message board post. “With this comet’s exceedingly small perihelion distance, the ultimate situation is less clear.” He also continues to note that the prospects for ISON are “really difficult to predict at the moment,” but estimates that Comet ISON “will not actually attain naked eye brightness until just a week or two before perihelion passage.”

Regarding naked eye visibility of Comet ISON, Mr. Bortle also told Universe Today:

“In all probability this will not occur until around early to mid-November. It will not become any sort of impressive sight before disappearing into the morning twilight only a couple of weeks thereafter.”

And that’s the big question that may make the difference between a fine binocular comet and the touted “Comet of the Century…” Will this comet survive its perihelion passage on November 28th?

Concerning the comet’s perihelion passage, Mr. Bortle told Universe Today:

“This is currently a matter of some concern to me. Basing my answer on ISON’s apparent brightness when it was last seen before disappearing into the evening twilight recently suggests that it might be close in intrinsic brightness to the survival/non-survival level for such an extremely close encounter with the Sun. We will know much better once we can view ISON again in September.”

Comet Ikeya-Seki was another sungrazing comet that went on to become a splendid naked eye comet in 1965. The late 1880’s hosted a slew of memorable comets, including two long-tailed sungrazers, one each in 1880 and 1887.

In more recent times, Comet C/2011 W3 Lovejoy survived its December 16th, 2011 perihelion passage 140,000 kilometres from the surface of the  Sun to become the surprise hit for southern hemisphere observers.

“IF” comet ISON breaks a negative magnitude, it’ll join the ranks on the top brightest comets since 1935. If it tops -10th magnitude, it’ll best Comet Ikeya-Seki at its maximum in 1965. The magic “brighter than a Full Moon” threshold sits right about at magnitude -12.5, but Bortle cautions that this peak brightness will only persist during the hours surrounding perihelion, when the comet will be very close to the Sun and difficult to see.

Mr. Bortle also voiced a concern to Universe Today that “the initial announcements by professional astronomers concerning ISON’s potential future brightness (“Brighter than the Full Moon”, etc.) were wildly excessive, as was the idea that the comet would be obvious to the general public in the daytime sky as it rounded the Sun in late November. This claim was totally unjustified from the word go.” Mr Bortle also warns that this may be  “headed us down the exact same road as the Kohoutek fisaco of 1973/74.”

We’re currently losing Comet ISON behind the Sun as it crosses through the constellation Gemini, not return to morning skies until late August. The comet will cross the orbit of Mars in early October and should also cross the +10th magnitude threshold and become visible in binoculars and small telescopes around this date.

The track of Comet ISON through the constellations Gemini, Cancer and Leo prior to perihelion. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Axel Mellinger).
The track of Comet ISON through the constellations Gemini, Cancer and Leo prior to perihelion. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Axel Mellinger).

From October on in, things should get really interesting. Mr. Bortle predicts that the comet will “develop more slowly in the autumn sky than initially thought,” and won’t become a naked eye object until around November 10th or so. What this sort of lag might do to the internet pundits and prognosticators might be equally interesting to watch.

ISON will also track near some interesting morning objects as seen from Earth, including Mars (October 18th), Spica (November 18th), and Mercury & Saturn low in the dawn on November 26th. It will also have another famous comet nearby on November 25th (photo op!) short period Comet 2P Encke.

If Comet ISON survives perihelion, the true show could begin in early December. Comet ISON will re-emerge in the dawn skies, passing a pairing of Mercury and the very old crescent Moon on December 1st. Comet tails are even less predictable than comet magnitudes, but if Comet ISON is to unfurl a long photogenic tail, the weeks leading up to Christmas may be when it does it.

The projected view of Comet ISON from 30 degrees north latitude 30 minutes prior to local sunrise on December 1st. The orbital path of the comet and the ecliptic are also depicted. (Created by the author in Starry Night).
The projected view of Comet ISON from 30 degrees north latitude 30 minutes prior to local sunrise on December 1st. The orbital path of the comet and the ecliptic are also depicted. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

Mr. Bortle predicts a 10 to 15 degree long tail for a post-perihelion ISON as it passes through the constellation Ophiuchus into morning skies. It may become a “headless wonder” similar to the fan-shaped display put on by Comet 2011 L4 PanSTARRS earlier this spring. We’ve even seen models projecting a great fan-shaped dust tail seeming to “loop” around the Sun as seen from our Earthly vantage point!

All interesting conjecture to watch unfold as Comet ISON approaches perihelion this November. Hopefully, the hysteria that follows great cometary apparitions won’t reach a fevered pitch, though we’ve already had to put some early conspiracies to bed surrounding comet ISON.

Will ISON be the “Comet of the Century?” Watch this space… we’ll have more on the play-by-play action as it approaches!

-Read John Bortle’s predictions for Comet ISON in his recent Sky & Telescope post.