Comet Finlay in Bright Outburst, Visible in Small Telescopes

Short-period comet 15P/Finlay, which had been plunking along at a dim magnitude +11, has suddenly brightened in the past couple days to +8.7, bright enough to see in 10×50 or larger binoculars. Czech comet observer Jakub Cerny and his team photographed the comet on December 16th and discovered the sudden surge. Wonderful news!

While comets generally brighten as they approach the Sun and fade as they depart, any one of them can undergo a sudden outburst in brightness. You can find Finlay right now low in the southwestern sky at nightfall near the planet Mars. While outbursts are common, astronomers still aren’t certain what causes them. It’s thought that sub-surface ices, warmed by the comet’s approach to the Sun, expand until the pressure becomes so great they shatter the ice above, sending large fragments flying and exposing fresh new ice. Sunlight gets to work vaporizing both the newly exposed vents and aerial shrapnel. Large quantities of dust trapped in the ice are released and glow brightly in the Sun’s light, causing the comet to quickly brighten.

Some comets flare up dramatically. Take 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann. Normally a dim bulb at 17th magnitude, once or twice a year it flares to magnitude 12 and occasionally 10!

Animated movie showing the expansion of the coma of Comet Holmes over 9 nights during its spectacular outburst in November. Credit: 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea / David Jewitt
Animated movie showing the expansion of the coma of Comet Holmes over 9 nights during its spectacular outburst in November 2007. Credit: 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea / David Jewitt

Whatever the reason, outbursts can last from days to weeks. It’s anybody’s guess how long 15P/Finlay will remain a relatively easy target for comet hungry skywatchers.  While not high in the sky, especially from the northern U.S., it can be seen during early evening hours if you plan well.

By pure good chance, Comet Finlay will track with Mars through December into early January. They'll make a remarkably close pair on the evening of December 23rd. This map shows the nightly position of the comet from Dec. 18th through Jan. 12th. Mars location is shown every 5 nights. Positions plotted for 6:15 p.m. (CST) 1 hour and 45 minutes after sunset. Stars shown to magnitude 8. Star magnitudes are underlined. Click to enlarge and print. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
By good luck, Comet Finlay will track with Mars through December into early January. On December 23rd, they’ll come together in a remarkably close conjunction. This map shows the nightly position of the comet from Dec. 18th through Jan. 12th. Mars’ location is shown every 5 nights. Positions plotted for 6:15 p.m. (CST) 1 hour and 45 minutes after sunset. Stars shown to magnitude 8. Star magnitudes are underlined. Click to enlarge and print for outside use. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Comet Finlay was discovered by William Henry Finlay from South Africa on September 26, 1886. It reaches perihelion or closest approach to the Sun on December 27th and was expected to brighten to magnitude +10 when nearest Earth in mid-January at 130 million miles (209 million km). Various encounters with Jupiter since discovery have increased its original period of 4.3 years to the current 6.5 years and shrunk its perihelion distance from 101 million to 90 million miles.

Comet Finlay appears considerably fainter in this pre-outburst photo taken on December 14th. Credit: Alfons Diepvens
Comet Finlay appears considerably fainter in this pre-outburst photo taken on December 14th. Credit: Alfons Diepvens

Looking at the map above it’s amazing how closely the comet’s path parallels that of Mars this month. Unlike Comet Siding Spring’s encounter with that planet last October, Finlay’s proximity is line of sight only. Still, it’s nice to have a fairly bright planet nearby to point the way to our target. Mars and Finlay’s paths intersect on December 23rd, when the duo will be in close conjunction only about 10? apart (1/3 the diameter of the Full Moon) for observers in the Americas. They’ll continue to remain almost as close on Christmas Eve. Along with Comet Q2 Lovejoy, this holiday season is turning out to be a joyous occasion for celestial fuzzballs!

To give you a little context to make finding Comet FInlay easier, use this wide-view map. A line from bright Vega in the western sky left through Altair will take you directly to Mars and the comet. This map shows the sky at nightfall tonight when the comet will be about 15 degrees high in the southwestern sky. Source: Stellarium
To give you a little context to make finding Comet FInlay easier, use this wide-view map. A line from bright Vega in the western sky left through Altair will take you directly to Mars and the comet. This map shows the sky at nightfall tonight when the comet will be about 15° high in the southwestern sky. Source: Stellarium

British TV Audience Discovers Potential New Planet

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A public “mass participation” push initiated on a UK television program to find planets beyond our Solar System has had an immediate result! On Monday, January 16, 2012 “BBC Stargazing LIVE” began its first of three nights of television programs live from Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK. The series was hosted by Professor Brian Cox, comedian Dara O’Briain along with a number of other well known TV personalities, astronomers and scientists. There was even a guest appearance via satellite link from Captain Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon.

As well as the main TV program, there were numerous local events across the UK and the viewers could “mass participate” in activities such as looking for extra solar planets with the citizen science project, Planethunters.org.

The website hosts data gathered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, and asks volunteers to sift the information for anything unusual that might have been missed in a computer search. People are especially adept at seeing things that computers do not and the BBC Stargazing Live event was a golden opportunity to get many people looking. During the event, over a million classifications were made and 34 candidate planets found on the website in 48 hours.

On the last show of the series on Wednesday 18th January it was announced, that in particular, one planet candidate looks extremely promising, as it has been identified multiple times by PlanetHunter participants.

The planet is circling the star SPH10066540 and is described as being similar in size to Neptune, circles its parent every 90 days and is about a similar distance from its parent star as Mercury is from our Sun. It could be described as a hot Neptune.

Chris Holmes from Peterborough UK and Lee Threapleton also from the UK found the planet by searching through time-lapsed images of stars looking for the periodic dips in brightness that result every time a planet passes in front of (transits) one of those stars.

Credit: planethunters.org

A transit has to be observed several times before a planet will be confirmed. For the orange dwarf star SPH10066540, five such events have now been seen in the Kepler data making it a strong candidate for an extra solar planet.

“There’s more work to be done to confirm whether these candidates are true planets,” wrote the PlanetHunters team on their blog, “in particular, we need to talk to our friends on the Kepler team – but we’re on our way.”

The NASA Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, has been searching a part of space thought to have many stars similar to our own Sun.

You can try and find a new planet too by visiting planethunters.org it is incredibly simple and easy to do and requires no previous knowledge of astronomy.

How many more planets will be discovered?