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 LINEAR Suddenly Brightens with Outburst: How to See It

It’s swiftly becoming an “all comets, all the time” sort of observing season. The cyber-ink was barely dry on our “How to Spot Comet 2P/Encke” post this past Monday when we were alerted to another comet that is currently in the midst of a bright outburst.

That comet is C/2012 X1 LINEAR. Discovered on December 8th, 2012 by the ongoing Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey based in Socorro, New Mexico, Comet X1 LINEAR was expected to peak out at about +12th magnitude in early 2014.

That all changed early this week, when amateur observers began to report a swift change in brightness for the otherwise nondescript comet. Japanese observer Hidetaka Sato reported the comet at magnitude +8.5 on October 20th, a full 5.5 magnitudes above its expected brightness of +14. Remember, the magnitude scale is logarithmic, and the lower the number, the brighter the object. Also, 5 magnitudes represent an increase in brightness of 100-fold.

Astronomers Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini and Ernesto Guido used the remote 0.5 metre iTelescope based in New Mexico on the morning of Monday, October 21st to confirm the outburst. Other amateurs and professional instruments are just now getting a look at the “new and improved” Comet X1 LINEAR low in the dawn sky. Romanian amateur observer Maximilian Teodorescu noted on yesterday’s Spaceweather that the comet was not visible through his 4.5 inch refractor, though it was easy enough to image.

Comet X1 LINEAR currently sits in the constellation Coma Berenices about mid-way between the stars Diadem, (Alpha Coma Berenices) and Beta Coma Berenices. Shining at +8.5 magnitude, the coma is about 85” across with a 10” bright central region. This gives X1 LINEAR the appearance of an unresolved +8th magnitude globular cluster. In fact, a classic globular and a star party fave known as M3 lies about 8 degrees away at the junction of the constellations Canes Venatici, Boötes and Coma Berenices. M3 shines at +7th magnitude and will make a great contrast on the hunt for the comet.

Unfortunately, the window of time to search for the comet is currently short. From latitude 30 degrees north, the comet sits only 15 degrees about the northeast horizon 30 minutes before local sunrise. The situation is a bit better for observers farther to the north, and mid-November sees the comet 20 degrees above the horizon in the dawn sky.

Comet X1 LINEAR is currently covering 40’ (2/3rds of a degree, or 1 1/3 the size of a Full Moon) a day, and will spend most of the month of November in the constellation Boötes. Keep in mind, X1 LINEAR is currently still on brightening trend “with a bullet.” Revised light curves now show it on track to reach magnitude +6 near perihelion early next year, but further brightening could still be in the cards for this one. Remember Comet 17P/Holmes a few years back? That one jumped from an uber-faint +17th magnitude to a naked eye brightness of +2.8 in less than 48 hours.

Comet X1 LINEAR will reach a perihelion of 1.6 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) from the Sun on February 21st, 2014, and pass 1.6 A.U.s from the Earth around June 28th, 2014. The comet has a high inclination of 44.4° degrees relative to the ecliptic, and is on a respectable 1872 year orbit.

Here are some notable dates for the comet through the end of 2013;

The path of Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR from October 23 to November 28th. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Created using Starry Night Education Software).
The path of Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR from October 23 to November 28th. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Created using Starry Night Education Software).

-November 2nd: Crosses into the constellation Boötes.

-November 6th: Passes near the +4.9th magnitude star 6 Boötis.

-November 16th: Passes near the bright star Arcturus.

-December 6th: Crosses into the constellation Serpens Caput.

-December 10th: Passes near the +5 magnitude star Tau1 Serpentis.

-December 14th: Comet X1 LINEAR sits only 8 degrees from Comet ISON.

-December 26th: Crosses into the constellation Hercules.

Note: “Passes near” on the above list denotes a pass closer than one degree, except as noted.

Now, we REALLY need the Moon to pass Last Quarter phase this coming Saturday so we can get a good look at all of these dawn comets! As of writing this, the current scorecard of binocular comets— comets with a brightness between magnitude +6 and +10 —sits at:

-2P Encke: +7.9 magnitude in Leo.

-C/2013 R1 Lovejoy: +8.7th magnitude in Canis Minor.

-C/2013 X1 LINEAR: +8.5th magnitude in Coma Berenices.

-C/2012 S1 ISON: +9.7th magnitude in Leo.

-C/2012 V2 LINEAR: +8.9th magnitude in Centaurus.

Comet X1 LINEAR on the morning of October 25th, as seen from latitude 30 degrees north 45 minutes prior to sunrise. (Created using Stellarium).
Comet X1 LINEAR on the morning of October 25th, as seen from latitude 30 degrees north 45 minutes prior to sunrise. (Created using Stellarium).

It’s also amusing to note how the method of notification for these sorts of outbursts has changed in recent years. I first heard of the outburst of X1 LINEAR on Monday evening via Twitter. Contrast this with Comet Holmes in 2007, which came to our attention via message board RSS feed. And way back in 1983, we all read about of the close passage of Comet IRAS-Araki-Alcock… weeks after it occurred!

Another curious phenomenon may also work its way through the news cycle. When Comet Holmes became a hit back in 2007, spurious reports of comets brightening became fashionable. If you were to believe everything you read on the web, it suddenly seemed like every comet was undergoing an outburst! This sort of psychological trend towards wish fulfillment may come to pass again as interest in comet outbursts mounts.

It’s also worth noting that, contrary to rumors flying around ye’ ole web, Comet X1 LINEAR is not following Comet ISON. The two are on vastly different orbits, and only roughly lie along the same line of sight as seen from our Earthly vantage point.

The orbital path of Comet X1 LINEAR. (Credit: The JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR. (Credit: The JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).

And that’s it for our weekly (daily?) segment of “As the Comets Turn…” don’t forget to “fall back” one hour and plan your morning comet-hunting vigil accordingly this coming Sunday if you live in Europe-UK. North America still has until November 3rd to follow suit.

Happy comet hunting!

-Got a recent pic of Comet X1 LINEAR? be sure to post it in the Universe Today Flickr forum!