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!

 

 

Tracking Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy through November

Tired of comets yet? Right now, northern hemisphere observers have four (!) comets within range of binoculars in the dawn sky. Comet C/2012 S1 ISON, is, of course, expected to dazzle towards month’s end. Comet 2P/Encke is an “old standby,” with the shortest orbital period of any comet known at 3.3 years, and is making a favorable appearance this Fall. And comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR added to the morning display recently, reaching about +8th magnitude in an unexpected outburst…

But the brightest and best placed comet for morning viewing is currently Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy. Shining at +6th magnitude, R1 Lovejoy just passed into the constellation Leo after a photogenic pass near the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer last week. We caught sight of R1 Lovejoy a few mornings ago, and it’s an easy binocular object, looking like a fuzzy unresolved globular cluster with barely the hint of a tail.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because the comet was discovered by Australian observer Terry Lovejoy, the prolific discoverer of four comets, including the brilliant sungrazing Comet C/2011 W3 Lovejoy that survived its 140,000 kilometre perihelion passage above the surface of the Sun on December 16th and went on to dazzle southern hemisphere observers in late 2011 and early 2012.

Comet R1 Lovejoy as imaged by Rob Sparks (@HalfAstro) from Tucson, Arizona near the Beehive cluster. (Credit: Rob Sparks).
Comet R1 Lovejoy as imaged by Rob Sparks (@HalfAstro) from Tucson, Arizona passing near the Beehive cluster. (Credit: Rob Sparks).

Terry discovered R1 Lovejoy on September 7th, 2013 while it was still at magnitude +14.4. The comet is expected to top out at +4th magnitude in late November as it passes 61.4 million kilometres from Earth on November 19th and heads for perihelion at 0.877 AUs from the Sun on December 25nd, 2013. Comet R1 Lovejoy is on a 64 degree orbit highly inclined to the ecliptic, and has a period roughly 7,000 years long. The last time R1 Lovejoy graced Earthly skies, our early ancestors still thought copper smelting was a pretty hip idea!

The orbital path of Comet R1 Lovejoy through the inner solar system.
The orbital path of Comet R1 Lovejoy through the inner solar system. (Credit: NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics explorer).

And unlike comets Encke and ISON that are plunging near the Sun, Comet R1 Lovejoy never gets closer than 19 degrees elongation from our nearest star in late December. It also reaches a maximum northern declination of 43 degrees on November 28th, the same day that ISON reaches perihelion. For mid-latitude northern hemisphere observers, R1 Lovejoy will remain well placed at 35 to 45 degrees above the northeastern horizon about an hour before sunrise through late November.

Here are some key dates to aid you in your quest to spy Comet R1 Lovejoy in late November:

November 11th: Passes near +4.5 Kappa Leonis.

November 14th: Passes from Leo into the constellation Leo Minor & passes near the +5.3 star 20 Leonis Minoris.

November 16th: Passes near the +5th magnitude stars 28, 30, and 34 Leonis Minoris.

November 18th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Major.

November 19th: Passes near the +4.8 magnitude star 55 Ursae Majoris & +5.3 magnitude star 57 Ursae Majoris.

November 19th: Closest to Earth, at 0.4 AUs distant.

The celestial path of Comet R1 Lovejoy spanning November 11th to the 30th. (Created using Starry Night Education software).
The celestial path of Comet R1 Lovejoy spanning November 11th to the 30th. (Created using Starry Night Education software).

November 21st: Passes into the constellation Canes Venatici.

November 22nd: Passes near the +6th magnitude star 4 Canum Venaticorum & the +4.2 magnitude star Chara (Beta Canum Venaticorum).

November 24th: Passes near the Sunflower Galaxy (M63).

November 27th: Passes into the constellation Boötes.

December 1st: Passes near +3.5 magnitude star Nekkar (Beta Boötis).

December 4th: crosses into Corona Borealis.

Note that passes on the list above denote passages closer than one degree of Comet R1 Lovejoy near bright objects.

Perihelion for the comet is December 25th at 0.877 AU, and its closest approach to Earth is November 19th. On this date, it will also be moving at its maximum apparent speed as seen from Earth, covering about 3 degrees of the sky every 24 hours, or the angular span of the Full Moon every 4 hours.

United Kingdom observer Pete Lawrence imaged Comet R1 Lovejoy this past weekend from his backyard garden using a 4-inch apochromatic refractor and a Canon 40D DSLR:

Comet R1 Lovejoy as imaged by Pete Lawrence on November 9th. (Credit: Pete Lawrence).
Comet R1 Lovejoy as imaged by Pete Lawrence on November 9th. (Credit: Pete Lawrence).

He also made his first confirmed binocular sighting of Comet ISON using a pair of 15×70 binocs, noting to Universe Today that “ISON’s head appears to be small and stellar compared to Lovejoy’s extended coma, which is obvious in binoculars, and also brighter!”

It’s worth noting that all four of these morning comets are on separate orbital paths, and only seem to be in the same general region of the sky as seen from our Earthly vantage point… and none of them are passing near the Earth!

This week is also a good time to hunt for comets in the pre-dawn sky for another reason: the Moon reaches Full this coming weekend on Sunday, November 17th. After this week, it will start to creep into the morning sky and interfere with deep sky observations for the next two weeks.

Comet R1 Lovejoy imaged on November 10th by astrophtographer Justin Ng. (Credit: Justin Ng).
Comet R1 Lovejoy imaged on November 10th by astrophtographer Justin Ng. (Credit: Justin Ng).

It’s also interesting to note that amateur observers discovered two more faint comets this past weekend. Though comets C/2013 V3 Nevski and C/2013 V2 Borisov aren’t slated to be anything spectacular, that brings the number of amateur discoveries to 13 for 2013. Are amateur comet hunters mounting a comeback?

In this age of automated surveys, the question is often raised as to whether amateurs can still discover comets. Keep in mind, Terry Lovejoy found Comet R1 Lovejoy with a medium-sized 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain reflecting telescope… the age of amateur comet hunters seemes far from over in 2013!

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!