Tales (Tails?) of Two Comets: Prospects for Q1 PanSTARRS & G2 MASTER

Did you catch the performance of Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy earlier this year? Every year provides a few sure bets and surprises when it comes to binocular comets, and while we may still be long overdue for the next truly ‘Great Comet,’ 2015 has been no exception.

This week, we’d like to turn your attention to two icy visitors to the inner solar system which may present the best bets comet-wise over the next few weeks: Comets C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS and C/2015 G2 MASTER.

First up is Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS. Discovered on August 16, 2014 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) based atop Mount Haleakala in Hawaii, we’ve known of the potential for Q1 PanSTARRS to put on a decent show this summer for a while. In fact, it made our roundup of comets to watch for in our 101 Astronomical Events for 2015. Q1 PanSTARRS currently sits at +11th magnitude as a morning sky object in the constellation Pisces. On a 39,000 year long parabolic orbit inclined 45 degrees relative to the Earth’s orbit, Q1 PanSTARRS will leap up across the ecliptic on May 17th and perhaps reach +3rd magnitude as it nears perihelion in early July and transitions to the evening sky.

An image of Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS shortly after discovery. Credit and copyright: Efrain Morales Rivera.
An image of Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS shortly after discovery. Credit and copyright: Efrain Morales Rivera.

Though it may put on its best show in July and August, a few caveats are in order. First, we’ll be looking at Q1 PanSTARRS beyond the summer Sun, and like C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS a few years back, it’ll never leave the dusk twilight, and will always appear against a low contrast backdrop.

May June (AM) Starry Night Education software.
The May-June path of Comet Q1 PanSTARRS through the dawn sky as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Here are some notable upcoming events for Comet C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS:

(Unless otherwise noted, a ‘close pass’ is here considered to be less than one degree of arc, about twice the diameter of a Full Moon.)

May 16: Passes into the constellation Aries.

May 16: The waning crescent Moon passes 2 degrees distant.

May 17: Crosses northward through the ecliptic.

May 20: May break +10th magnitude.

June 11: Passes in to the constellation Taurus.

June 12: Passes 2 degrees from M45 (The Pleiades).

June 15: May break 6th magnitude.

June 20: Passes into Perseus.

June 21: Passes into Auriga.

June 23: Passes +2.7 magnitude star Hassaleh (Iota Aurigae).

June 25: Passes the +7.5 magnitude open cluster IC 410.

June 26: Passes +6 magnitude Pinwheel Open Cluster (M36).

Evening path. Starry Night Education software.
The July-August evening path of Q1 PanSTARRS as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

July 2: Crosses into Gemini.

July 3: Passes the +3.6 magnitude star Theta Geminorum.

July 5: Passes 10 degrees north of the Sun and into the evening sky.

July 6: Passes midway between Castor and Pollux.

July 6: Reaches perihelion at 0.315 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun.

July 7: May top out at +3rd magnitude.

July 8: Crosses into Cancer.

July 12: Photo Op: passes M44, the Beehive Cluster.

July 13: Sits 30 degrees from Comet C/2015 G2 MASTER (see below).

July 15: May drop below +6th magnitude.

July 15: Crosses the ecliptic southward.

July 17: The waxing crescent Moon passes 1.5 degrees south.

July 19: Crosses into Leo.

July 20: Closest to Earth, at 1.18 AU distant.

July 21: Less than 10 degrees from Jupiter and Venus.

July 22: Crosses into Sextans.

July 26: Crosses the celestial equator southward.

August 4: Crosses into Hydra.

August 5: Crosses into Crater.

August 18: Crosses back into Hydra.

August 30: Crosses into Centaurus.

September 1: Drops below +10th magnitude.

Light curve.
The projected light curve of Q1 PanSTARRS over time. The black dots represent observations. Credit: Weekly Information about Bright Comets.

The next comet on deck is the recently discovered C/2015 G2 MASTER. If you live in the southern hemisphere, G2 MASTER is the comet that perhaps you haven’t heard of, but should be watching in the dawn sky. Discovered last month on April 7 as by MASTER-SAAO (The Russian built Mobile Astronomical System of Telescope-Robots at the South African Astronomical Observatory), this is not only the first comet bagged by MASTER, but the first comet discovery from South Africa since 1978. G2 MASTER has already reached magnitude +7 and is currently crossing the constellation Sculptor. It is also currently only visible in the dawn sky south of 15 degrees north latitude, but images already show a short spiky tail jutting out from G2 MASTER, and the comet may rival Q2 Lovejoy’s performance from earlier this year. Expect G2 MASTER to top out at magnitude +6 as it nears perihelion in mid-May. Observers around 30 degrees north latitude in the southern U.S. should get their first good looks at G2 MASTER in late May, as it vaults up past Sirius and breaks 10 degrees elevation in the evening sky after sunset.  Again, as with Q1 PanSTARRS, cometary performance versus twilight will be key!

Credit: Ernesto Guido & Nick Howes/Remanzacco Observatory
An April 10th image of Comet C/2015 G2 MASTER, plus an initial projected light curve versus solar elongation over time.  Credit: Ernesto Guido & Nick Howes/Remanzacco Observatory

Here are some key dates with astronomical destiny for Comet G2 MASTER over the coming weeks:

May 9: Crosses into Fornax.

May 15: May top out at +6th magnitude.

May 13: Closest to Earth at 0.47 AU.

May 14: Crosses into Eridanus.

May 16: Crosses into Caelum.

May 17: Crosses into Lepus.

May 20: Passes the +3.8 magnitude star Delta Leporis.

May 23: Crosses into Canis Major.

May 23: Reaches perihelion at 0.8 AU from the Sun.

May 27: Crosses into Monoceros.

May 28: Passes the +5.9 magnitude Open Cluster M50.

Credit and copyright: Adriano Valvasori
Comet G2 MASTER imaged on May 7th. Credit and copyright: Adriano Valvasori

June 8: Crosses northward over the celestial equator and into the constellation Canis Minor.

July 1: May drop below 10th magnitude.

G2 MASTER also crosses SOHO’s field of view on July 24th through August 4th, though it may be too faint to see at this point.

Here are the Moon phases for the coming weeks to aid you in your comet quest:

Full Moons: June 2nd, July 2nd, July 31st, August 29th.

New Moons: May 18th, June 16th, July 16th, August 14th.

Binoculars are our favorite ‘weapon of choice’ for comet hunting. Online, Heavens-Above is a great resource for quickly and simply generating a given comet’s sky position in right ascension and declination; we always check out the Comet Observers Database and Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information about Bright Comets to see what these denizens of the outer solar system are currently up to.

Good luck, and be sure to regale us with your comet-hunting tales of tragedy and triumph!

Jan. 16 May Be Last Best Chance to Search for Comet ISON’s Remains

Is there any hope of detecting what’s left of Comet ISON after the sun proved too much for its delicate constitution? German amateur astronomer Uwe Pilz suggest there remains a possibility that a photographic search might turn up a vestige of the comet when Earth crosses its orbital plane on January 16, 2014.

Update: See an image below taken by Hisayoshi Kato of the comet’s location in Draco on December 29!

Comet ISON is located high in the northern sky near the familiar "W" or "M" or Cassiopeia during the time of orbital crossing. Stellarium
Comet ISON is located high in the northern sky near the familiar “W” or “M” or Cassiopeia during the time of orbital crossing. Stellarium

On and around that date, we’ll be staring straight across the sheet of debris left in the comet’s path. Whatever bits of dust and grit it left behind will be “visually compressed” and perhaps detectable in time exposure photos using wide-field telescopes. To understand why ISON would appear brighter, consider the bright band of the Milky Way. It stands apart from the helter-skelter scatter of stars for the same reason; when we look in its direction, we peer into the galaxy’s flattened disk where the stars are most concentrated. They stack up to create a brighter band slicing across the sky. Similarly, dust shed by Comet ISON will be “stacked up” from Earth’s perspective on the 16th.

Comet L4 PanSTARRS bizarre beam-like appearance on May 28 near the time of orbital plane crossing. Credit: Michael Jaeger
Comet L4 PanSTARRS beam-like appearance on May 28 near the time of orbital plane crossing. Credit: Michael Jaeger

This isn’t the first time a comet has leapt in brightness at an orbital plane crossing. You might recall that Comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS temporarily brightened and assumed a striking linear shape when Earth passed through its orbital plane on May 27.

Comet ISON debris simulations for Jan. 12 and 14, 2014. Credit: Uwe Pilz
Comet ISON debris simulations for Jan. 12 and 14, 2014. The aqua line points toward the sun; the black line is 1 degree long. Credit: Uwe Pilz

Pilz, a longtime contributor to the online Comets Mailing List for dedicated comet observers, has made a series of simulations of Comet ISON for mid-January using his own comet tail program. He bases his calculations on presumed larger particle sizes 1 mm – 10 mm – not the more common 0.3-10 micrometer fragments normally shed by comets. The assumption here is that ISON has remained virtually invisible since perihelion because it broke up into a smaller number of larger-than-usual pieces that don’t reflect light nearly as efficiently as larger amounts of smaller dust particles.

A slivery ISON on Jan. 16 widens a bit two days later in Pilz's simulations. Credit: Uwe Pilz
A slivery ISON on Jan. 16 widens a bit two days later in Pilz’s simulations. Click to see additional simulations. Credit: Uwe Pilz

The images look bizarre at first glance but totally make sense given the unique perspective. Notice that the debris stream becomes thinner as we approach orbital crossing; any potential dust blobs appear exactly edge-on similar to the way Saturn’s rings narrow to a “line” when Earth passes through the ring plane.

Besides the fact that not a single Earth-bound telescope has succeeded to date in photographing any of ISON’s debris, amateurs who attempt to fire one last volley the comet’s way will face one additional barrier – the moon. A full moon the same day as orbital crossing will make a difficult task that much more challenging. Digital photography can get around moonlight in many circumstances, but when it comes to the faintest of the faint, the last thing you want in your sky is the high-riding January moon. One night past full, a narrow window of darkness opens up and widens with each passing night.

Will anyone take up the challenge?

UPDATE Dec. 30 10 a.m. (CST):  We may have our very first photo of Comet ISON from the ground! Astrophotographer Hisayoshi Kato made a deep image of the comet’s location in Draco on December 29 using a 180mm f/2.8 telephoto lens near the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii at 11,000 feet. He stacked 5 exposures totaling 110 minutes to record what could be the ISON’s debris cloud. It’s incredibly diffuse and faint and about the same brightness as the Integrated Flux Nebula, dust clouds threading the galaxy that glow not by the light of a nearby star(s) but instead from the integrated flux of all the stars in the Milky Way. We’re talking as dim as it gets. What the photo recorded is only a tentative identification –  followup observations are planned to confirm whether the object is real or an artifact from image processing.  Stay tuned.

The sausage-like glow running from upper left to lower right in this negative image may the dusty remains of Comet ISON as photographed on Dec. 29 from Hawaii. Click to enlarge. Credit: Hisayoshi Kato
The sausage-like glow running from upper left to lower right in this negative image may the dusty remains of Comet ISON as photographed on Dec. 29 from Hawaii. The blue dot shows the predicted position of the comet; the green type gives the names of stars. Click to enlarge. Credit: Hisayoshi Kato