Comet Encke Reemerges in the Dawn Sky

Comet 2P Encke glides through Pisces on February 16th. Image credit and copyright: Hisayoshi Kato.

Miss out on Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Padadušáková last month? We’ll admit, it was fairly underwhelming in binoculars… but fear not, there are several other binocular comets in the pipeline for 2017.

Maybe you managed to catch sight of periodic Comet 2P Encke in late February after sunset before it disappeared into the Sun’s glare. Pronounced (En-Key), the comet actually passes through the field of view of the joint NASA/ESA Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from March 8th to March 14th before reemerging in the dawn sky.

Northern hemisphere observers have already got a sneak peek at Encke’s performance low in the dusk in February as it heads towards perihelion. Now the comet heads southward, as it vaults up into the dawn sky for folks south of latitude 30 degrees north in mid-March. From latitude 30 degrees north, Encke will clear 15 degrees elevation above the southeastern horizon around March 31st. Viewers south of the equator will have a much better viewing prospect, as Encke glides southward through Aquarius. When will you first spot it?

The dawn path of 2P Encke through the first week of April as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night.

Also: don’t forget to ‘spring forward’ to Daylight Saving Time this weekend for a majority of North America prior to beginning your dawn comet vigil… Europe and the United Kingdom gets a brief reprieve ’til March 26th.

Her are some upcoming key events for Comet 2P Encke:

Closest to Sun: March 10th, with a perihelion of 0.33 AU.

Closest to Earth: March 12th, at 0.65 AU distant.

Brightest: Around March 15. Encke is currently at magnitude +7, and should top out at magnitude +6, though it’ll only be 14 degrees from the Sun on this date.

The projected light curve for comet 2P Encke. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets.

Next good apparition: 0.4 AU from Earth in 2036.

This is Encke’s 63rd passage through the solar system since Pierre Méchain linked successive passages of the comet to the same in 1819. Like Edmond Halley, Encke didn’t discover the most famous of comets that now bears his name, but instead merely deduced its periodic nature. Halley was 1st, and Encke was second (hence the “2” in 2P…) The shortest short period comet, Encke was captured sometime thousands of years ago into its short period orbit, and is destined to burn out one day as it ventures from 4.1 to 0.33 AU from the Sun. Encke is also the source of the annual Taurid meteor shower in November, notable for producing a high rate of fireballs.

Comet 2P Encke on February 19th. Image credit and copyright: Cajun Astro.

Comets can be elusive beasties, as all of that precious quoted magnitude is smeared out over an extended surface area. Add on top this the fact that comets are also notorious for often under- and occasionally over-performing expectations. Just look at the ‘none more black’ albedo of comet 67P Churumov-Gerasimenko chronicled by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft: it’s a miracle we can see ’em at all. And finally, that low contrast dawn sky can easily hide a faint binocular comet, fading it to invisibility. Start your comet vigil early, sweeping the horizon with binocs. An early start and a clear view are key. The slim waning crescent Moon sits 12 degrees north of Comet Encke on the morning of March 26th, and the comet also passes less than 3 degrees from the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) on (no joke) April Fool’s Day April 1st.

The view on the morning of March 26th, 30 minutes before sunrise. Credit: Stellarium.

Flashback to one Encke orbit ago to 2013 and the comet provided a good dawn preshow to that biggest of cosmic let downs, Comet ISON. And although Encke makes its rounds every 3.3 years, orbital geometry assures that we won’t get another favorable viewing from Earth until 2036.

The orbit of 2P Encke. Credit NASA/JPL

Speaking of great comets that never were, we juuuust missed having a spectacular comet this past month, when recently discovered long-period Comet 2017 E1 Borisov passes just 0.045 AU (!) interior to our orbit. Unfortunately, this occurs five months too early, with the Earth almost exactly at the wrong place in its orbit. Now, if it was only August…

Comet Teaser for 2017

Yeah, the gambler’s fallacy would tell us that we’re due for the next great comet of the century, for sure. In the meantime, we’ve still got Comets 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (late March/April), C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS (May), and C/2015 V2 Johnson (June) on tap as good binocular comets in 2017.

Be sure to enjoy elusive comet Encke as it flits once more though the dawn skies.

-Read about comets, occultations, eclipses and more for the year, in our new free e-book 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 out from Universe Today.

NASA’s STEREO Spacecraft Spots Comets ISON and Encke

As comets ISON and Encke continue toward their respective rendezvous with the Sun, they have now both been captured on camera by NASA’s solar-observing STEREO spacecraft. The image above, taken on Nov. 21 (UT) with STEREO-A’s high-resolution HI-1 camera, shows ISON as it enters the field of view from the left. Encke is at center, while the planets Mercury and Earth (labeled) are bright enough to cause vertical disruptions in the imaging sensors. (The Sun is off frame to the right.)

As cool as this image is, it gets even better: there’s a video version. Check it out below:

Animation of STEREO-A images acquired on Nov. 20-21 (Karl Battams/NASA/STEREO/CIOC)
Animation of STEREO-A images acquired on Nov. 20-21 (Karl Battams/NASA/STEREO/CIOC)

The dark “clouds” coming from the right are density enhancements in the solar wind, causing all the ripples in comet Encke’s tail. (Source)

The position of NASA's STEREO spacecraft relative to Earth and the Sun on Nov. 22
The position of NASA’s STEREO spacecraft relative to Earth and the Sun on Nov. 22

It’s fascinating to watch how the solar wind shapes and affects the tail of comet Encke… as ISON moves further into view, I’m sure we’ll see similar disruptions in its tail as well. (And look what STEREO-A saw happen to Encke’s tail back in 2007!)

Encke reached the perihelion of its 3.3-year-long orbit on Nov. 21; newcomer ISON will arrive at its on Nov. 28. While it seems to be holding together quite well in these STEREO images, what happens when it comes within 730,000 miles of the Sun next week is still anybody’s guess.

Read more: Whoa, Take a Look at Comet ISON Now!

Comets Encke and ISON Spotted from Mercury

Two comets currently on their way toward the Sun have been captured on camera from the innermost planet. The MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury has spotted the well-known short-period comet Encke as well as the much-anticipated comet ISON, imaging the progress of each over the course of three days. Both comets will reach perihelion later this month within a week of each other.

While Encke will most likely survive its close encounter to continue along its 3.3-year-long lap around the inner Solar System, the fate of ISON isn’t nearly as certain… but both are making for great photo opportunities!

The figure above shows, on the left, images of comet 2P/Encke on three successive days from Nov. 6 to Nov. 8; on the right, images of C/2012 S1 (ISON) are shown for three successive days from Nov. 9 to Nov. 11. Both appear to brighten a little bit more each day.

MESSENGER image of ISON from Nov. 10 (enlarged detail)
MESSENGER image of ISON from Nov. 10 (enlarged detail)

MESSENGER is viewing these comets from a vantage point that is very different from that of observers on Earth. Comet Encke was approximately 0.5 AU from the Sun and 0.2 AU from MESSENGER when these images were taken; the same distances were approximately 0.75 AU and 0.5 AU, respectively, for ISON. More images will be obtained starting on November 16 when the comets should be both brighter and closer to Mercury. (Source: MESSENGER featured image article.)

Encke will reach its perihelion on Nov. 21; ISON on Nov. 28.

Read more: Will Comet ISON Survive Perihelion?

“We are thrilled to see that we’ve detected ISON,” said Ron Vervack, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is leading MESSENGER’s role in the ISON observation campaign. “The comet hasn’t brightened as quickly as originally predicted, so we wondered how well we would do. Seeing it this early bodes well for our later observations.”

Comet 2P/Encke on October 30, 2013. The coma is partially obscuring the small barred spiral galaxy NGC 4371. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
Comet 2P/Encke photographed on October 30 by  Damian Peach.

Unlike ISON, Encke has been known for quite a while. It was discovered in 1786 and recognized as a periodic comet in 1819. Its orbital period is 3.3 years — the shortest period of any known comet — and November 21 will mark its 62nd recorded perihelion. (Source)

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

“Encke has been on our radar for a long time because we’ve realized that it would be crossing MESSENGER’s path in mid-November of this year,” Vervack explained. “And not only crossing it, but coming very close to Mercury.”

These early images of both comets are little more than a few pixels across, Vervack said, but he expects improved images next week when the comets make their closest approaches to MESSENGER and Mercury.

“By next week, we expect Encke to brighten by approximately a factor of 200 as seen from Mercury, and ISON by a factor of 15 or more,” Vervack said. “So we have high hopes for better images and data.”

– Ron Vervack, JHUAPL

Read more about the MESSENGER cometary observation campaign in the full news release here.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Southwest Research Institute

The Year of the Comets: Three Reasons Why 2013 Could be the Best Ever

2013 could turn out to be a comet bonanza. No fewer than three of these long-tailed beauties are expected to brighten to naked eye visibility. Already Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS has cracked that barrier. Sky watchers in Australia have watched it grow from a telescopic smudge to a beautiful binocular sight low above the horizon at both dusk and dawn. A few have even spotted it without optical aid in the past week. Excited reports of a bright, fan-shaped dust tail two full moon diameters long whet our appetite for what’s to come.

Recent brightness estimates indicate that the comet could be experiencing a surge or “second wind” after plateauing in brightness the past few weeks. If the current trend continues, PanSTARRS might reach 1st or 2nd magnitude or a little brighter than the stars of the Big Dipper when it first becomes visible to northern hemisphere sky watchers around March 7. That’s little more than two weeks away!

Comet Panstarrs will make its first appearance for northern hemisphere sky watchers around March 7 low in the western sky after sundown. Notice that the comet gets no higher than 10 degrees - about one fist held at arm's length - through much of the month. Illustration created using Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet Panstarrs will make its first appearance for northern hemisphere sky watchers around March 7 low in the western sky after sundown. Notice that the comet gets no higher than 10 degrees – about one fist held at arm’s length – through much of the month. Illustration created using Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Every day between now and March 10, when PanSTARRS’ orbit takes it closest to the sun, the comet is expected to slowly increase in brightness. Later this month it disappears in the solar glare, but when it re-emerges into evening twilight around Thursday, March 7, northern and southern hemisphere observers alike will get great views. Binoculars should easily show a bright head and swept-back tail pointing away from the sun. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for March 12. On that date the thin lunar crescent will join the comet for a rare photogenic pairing. To locate and keep track of PanSTARRS, you’ll need the following materials and circumstances:

* An unobstructed view of the western horizon
* Clear, haze-free skies at dusk
* Pair of binoculars
* A map

I can’t help you with all of the above, but this map will help point you in the right direction. Once you find a location with a great western view, watch just above the horizon for a fuzzy, star-like object in your binoculars. While it’s possible the comet will be bright enough to see with the naked eye, binoculars will make finding it much easier. They’ll also reveal details of tail structure too subtle to be visible otherwise.

Incredible detail is seen in the gas tail of F6 Lemmon in this photo made with a 19.6-inch telescope Feb. 17, 2013. Credit: Martin Mobberley
Incredible detail is seen in the gas tail of F6 Lemmon in this photo made with a 19.6-inch telescope Feb. 17, 2013. Credit: Martin Mobberley

Comet PanSTARRS has some cometary company.  C/2012 F6 Lemmon is currently plying its way through the constellation Tucana the Toucan, shining right around the naked eye limit at magnitude 5.5. To the unaided eye, Lemmon looks like a dim fuzzy spot. Binoculars show a thin gas tail and big, bright head or coma. Comas develop around the comet’s icy nucleus as sunlight vaporizes dusty ice to create a short-lived atmosphere that in the shape of a luminous teardrop. Long-exposures like the one above reveal richly-detailed streamers of carbon monoxide and other gases fluorescing in sunlight in the comet’s fashionably skinny tail.

Lemmon is slowly receding from Earth this month, but should remain just above the naked eye limit for some time as it continues to approach the sun. Northern hemisphere observers will need to be patient to see this one. After looping around the sun on March 24, the comet will pop back into the morning sky near the familiar Square of Pegasus asterism in early May. If we’re lucky, Lemmon may still be near the naked eye limit and visible in ordinary binoculars.

Cmet C/2012 F6 (Lemmon), imaged on  Feb. 19. 2013 remotely from Q62 (iTelescope Observatory, Siding Spring). Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes, Remanzacco Observatory.
Cmet C/2012 F6 (Lemmon), imaged on
Feb. 19. 2013 remotely from Q62 (iTelescope Observatory, Siding Spring). Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes, Remanzacco Observatory.

Before we move on to the comet with the greatest expectations, I want to mention Comet 2P/Encke. Encke was the only the second comet to have its orbit computed – way back in 1819 by German astronomer Johann Encke. This year it’s making its 62nd observed return to Earth’s vicinity. That’s a lot of visits, but when your orbital period is only 3.3 years – the shortest known of any comet – you can’t help but be a regular visitor. While not expected to brighten to naked eye level, the comet will be a fine sight in modest-sized telescopes glowing around 8th magnitude when it tracks between the Big Dipper and Leo the Lion this October.

Comet ISON in the western sky shortly after sunset in late November this year. Illustration created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet ISON in the western sky shortly after sunset in late November this year. Illustration created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Our final comet, Comet C/2012 S1 ISON, was discovered last September by Russian amateurs Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok while making observations for the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). At the time, it was farther than Jupiter and impossibly faint, but once ISON’s orbit was determined, astronomers realized the comet would pass only 1.1 million miles from center of the sun (680,000 miles above its surface) on November 28, 2013.

Comet ISON belongs to a special category of comets called sungrazers. As the comet performs a hairpin turn around the sun on that date, its ices will vaporize furiously in the intense solar heat. Assuming it defies death by evaporation, ISON is expected to become a brilliant object perhaps 10 times brighter than Venus. Or brighter. Some predict it could put the full moon to shame. If so, that would occur for a brief time around at perihelion (closest approach to the sun) when the comet would only be visible in the daytime sky very close to the sun. When safely viewed, ISON might look like a brilliant, fuzzy star in a blue sky.

A color image of comet Ison taken on February 5, 2013 from northern Arizona. Credit: Chris Schur.
A color image of comet Ison taken on February 5, 2013 from northern Arizona. Credit: Chris Schur.

Most of us won’t risk burning our retinas staring so close to sun. Instead we’ll watch with anticipation as the comet sprouts a long tail while ascending from the western horizon just after sunset in late November and early December. Whatever it does, sky watchers in both southern and northern hemispheres will ringside seats when ISON’s at its best.

Right now the comet’s whiling away its time in the constellation Gemini the Twin and still very faint. Come September, it should be easily visible in small telescopes in the morning sky. The first naked eye sightings could happen in late October. Many of us hope the comet will be one for the record books, a worthy successor to C/2006 P1 McNaught, the last “great comet” to dazzle human eyes. It reached peak magnificence for southern hemisphere sky watchers in January 2007.

C/2006 P1 McNaught became a memorable sight for observers living in southern latitudes in January 2007.  Will Comet ISON do the same? Credit: Wikipedia
C/2006 P1 McNaught became a memorable sight for observers living in southern latitudes in January 2007. Will Comet ISON do the same? Credit: Wikipedia

Three bright comets – and one modestly bright – might be enough for a year, but there could be surprises. Dozens of new comets are discovered each year by professional sky surveys and amateur astronomers. Most are faint and move along their appointed paths unnoticed by 99.9% of the world’s population, but every so often a new one comes along that blossoms into a spectacle. How many of  those are out there tonight waiting to be discovered?