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

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!



How to See This Season’s “Other” Comet: 2P/Encke

2013 may well go down as “The Year of the Comet.” After over a decade punctuated by only sporadic bright comets such as 17P/Holmes, C/2011 W3 Lovejoy and C/2006 P1 McNaught, we’ve already had two naked eye comets visible this year by way of C/2012 F6 Lemmon and C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS. And of course, all eyes are on Comet C/2012 S1 ISON as it plunges towards perihelion on U.S. Thanksgiving Day, November 28th.

But there’s an “old faithful” of comets that’s currently in our solar neighborhood, and worth checking out as well. Comet 2P/Encke (pronounced EN-key) currently shines at magnitude +7.9 and is crossing from the constellation Leo Minor into Leo this week. In fact, Encke is currently 2 magnitudes— over 6 times brighter than Comet ISON —and is currently the brightest comet in our skies. Encke is expected to top out at magnitude +7 right around perihelion towards the end of November. Encke will be a fine binocular object over the next month, and once the Moon passes Last Quarter phase on October 26th we’ll once again have a good three week window for pre-dawn comet hunting. Comet Encke made its closest pass of the Earth for this orbit on October 17th at 0.48 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) distant. This month sees its closest passage to the Earth since 2003, and the comet won’t pass closer until July 11th, 2030.

The orbital path of Comet 2P/Encke. (Credit: The NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of Comet 2P/Encke. (Credit: The NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).

This will be Comet Encke’s 62nd observed perihelion passage since its discovery by Pierre Méchain in 1786. Encke has the shortest orbit of any known periodic comet, at just 3.3 years. About every 33 years we get a favorable close pass of the comet, as last occurred in 1997, and will next occur in 2030.

But this year’s apparition of Comet Encke is especially favorable for northern hemisphere observers. This is due to its relatively high orbital inclination angle of 11.8 degrees and its passage through the morning skies from north of both the ecliptic and the celestial equator. Encke is about half an A.U. ahead of us in our orbit this month, crossing roughly perpendicular to our line of sight.

Note that Encke is also running nearly parallel to Comet ISON from our vantage point as they both make the plunge through the constellation Virgo into next month. Mark your calendars: both ISON and Encke will fit into a telescopic wide field of view around November 24th in the early dawn. Photo-op!

Here are some key dates to help you in your morning quest for Comet Encke over the next month:

-October 22nd: Crosses into the constellation Leo.

-October 24th: Passes near the +5.3 magnitude star 92 Leonis.

-October 25th: Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 93 Leonis.

-October 27th: Passes briefly into the constellation Coma Berenices.

-October 29th: Passes near the +11th magnitude galaxy M98, and crosses into the constellation Virgo.

-October 30th: Passes near the +10th magnitude galaxy pair of M84 & M86.

2P Encke from 20 Oct to 20 Nov (Created using Starry Night Education Software).
The celestial path of Comet 2P/Encke from October 20th to 20 November 20th. Note that ISON is very near Encke on the final date. Click on the image to enlarge. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).

-November 2nd: Passes between the two +5th magnitude stars of 31 and 32 Virginis.

-November 3rd: A hybrid solar eclipse occurs across the Atlantic and central Africa. It may just be possible to spot comet Encke with binoculars during the brief moments of totality.

-November 4th: Passes near the +3.4 magnitude star Auva (Delta Virginis).

-November 7th: Crosses from north to south over the celestial equator.

-November 11th:  Passes near the +5.7th star 80 Virginis.

-November 17th: The Moon reaches Full, and enters into the morning sky.

-November 18th: Passes 0.02 A.U. (just under 3 million kilometers, or 7.8 Earth-Moon distances) from the planet Mercury. A good chance for NASA’s Messenger spacecraft to perhaps snap a pic of the comet?

-November 19th: Passes 1.5 degrees from Mercury and crosses into the constellation Libra.

-November 20th: Crosses to the south of the ecliptic plane.

-November 21st: Reaches perihelion, at 0.33 AU from the Sun.

-November 24th: Comet Encke passes just 1.25 degrees from Comet ISON. Both will have a western elongation of 15 degrees from the Sun.

-November 26th: Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star Iota Librae and the +6th magnitude star 25 Librae.

-December 1st: Crosses into the constellation Scorpius.

-December 5th: Enters into view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

Note: “Passes near” on the above list indicates a passage of Comet Encke less than one angular degree (about twice the size of a Full Moon) from an interesting object, except where noted otherwise.

Binoculars are your best bet for catching sight of Comet 2P/Encke. For middle northern latitude observers, Comet Encke reaches an elevation above 20 degrees from the horizon about two hours before local sunrise. Keep in mind, Europe and the U.K. “fall back” an hour to Standard Time this coming weekend on October 27th, and most of North America follows suit on November 3rd, pushing the morning comet vigil back an hour as well.

Two other comets are both currently brighter than ISON and also merit searching for: Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, at +8.7th magnitude in Canis Minor, and Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR, currently also in Coma Berenices and undergoing a minor outburst at magnitude +8.5.

Be sure to check these celestial wonders out as we prepare for the “Main Event” of Comet ISON in November 2013!

Comet PANSTARRS: How to See it in March 2013

Great ready. After much anticipation, we could have the first naked eye comet of 2013 for northern hemisphere observers in early March. As discussed earlier this week on Universe Today, 2013 may well be the Year of the Comet, with two bright comets currently putting on a show in the southern hemisphere and comet C/2012 S1 ISON set to perform the closing cometary act of 2013. But while comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon won’t be visible for northern hemisphere residents until April, Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS (which we’ll refer to simply as “Comet PanSTARRS” from here on out) may well become a fine early evening object in the first two weeks of March.

That is, if it performs. Comets are often like cats. Though we love posting pictures of them on the Internet, they often stubbornly refuse to perform up to our expectations. Some comets have been solid performers, like Hale-Bopp in 1997. Others are often promoted to great fanfare like Comet Kohoutek in 1973-74, only to fizzle and fade into notoriety.
Continue reading “Comet PANSTARRS: How to See it in March 2013”