Comet Finlay Surprise Outburst, Visible in Binoculars … again!

Lost sleep at night, fingers tapping on the keyboard by day. Darn comets are keeping me busy! But of course that’s a good problem. Comet 15P/Finlay, which had been languishing in the western sky at dusk at magnitude +10, has suddenly come to life … for a second time.

Two nights ago, Australian comet observer Michael Mattiazzo took a routine picture of Finlay and discovered it at magnitude +8. Today it’s a magnitude brighter and now joins Comet Lovejoy as the second binocular comet of 2015. Comet-wise, we’ve gone from zero to 60 and the new year’s fewer than 3 weeks old!

Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius.
Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Mars and Neptune’s position are for Jan. 17th. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Comet Finlay’s threw its first tantrum last December when it reached binocular visibility (faintly) shortly before Christmas.  Discovered by William Henry Finlay from South Africa on September 26, 1886, the comet circles the Sun every 6.5 years. This time around it reached perihelion on December 27th and spent many nights near the planet Mars low in the western sky. Until the new outburst, the comet had returned to its predicted brightness (~10 magnitude) and departed company with the Red Planet.

Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Alfons Diepvens' image of Comet Finlay's coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens
Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Belgian amateur astronomer Alfons Diepvens’ image of Comet Finlay’s coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens

It’s still low in the west, though not quite so much as in December, in the constellation Aquarius. With an orbit inclined only 6.8° to the ecliptic or plane of the Solar System, you’ll find it chugging eastward across the zodiac at the rate of 1° per night. The best time to view the comet is at the end of evening twilight at nightfall when it’s highest —  20° to 25° above the southwestern horizon.

Comet Lovejoy southwest of the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy seen in tandem with the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Click for a finder chart. Credit: Bob King

Right now it’s not far from Lambda Aquarii and will soon glide just south of the well-known asterism called the “Circlet” in Pisces. Currently between 7th and 8th magnitude and showing a bright, condensed center, Comet Finlay is easily visible in 10×50 binoculars. Catch it while you can. These outbursts often fade fairly quickly. While we don’t know its exact cause, what likely happened is that a new fissure opened up on the comet’s surface, exposing fresh ice to sunlight. Rapid vaporization of the new material may be behind the eruption.

While Comet Q2 Lovejoy’s been getting all the attention, Finlay’s back in the game and making mid-January nights all that more enjoyable for sky gazing. Lovejoy is presently passing near the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. This coming week will be the last dark one before the Moon starts to spoil the view. I hope you’re able to spot both at the next opportunity.

5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They'll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They’ll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

While we’re on the topic, take another look at the finder chart and you’ll see that Mars lies very near Neptune. The two are presently about 2° apart but on Monday Jan. 19th at dusk they’ll be separated by just 12 arc minutes or 1/5 of a degree and easily fit into the same medium-power view of a telescope. Pretty cool – and well worth seeing along with those comets!

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

Comet ISON Suddenly Brightens as it Dives Toward the Sun

After a sleepy week, Comet ISON is suddenly coming alive. Several amateur astronomers and at least one professional astronomers are reporting today that the comet has brightened at least a full magnitude overnight.  Two days ago it glowed at around magnitude 7.5 and was visible weakly in 10×50 binoculars from a dark sky. Now it’s surged to around magnitude 5.5 – just above the naked eye limit – and continues to brighten. Several amateur astronomers have even seen it without optical aid.

Comet ISON on Nov. 10 before the recent outburst with well-developed dust (upper) and gas tails. Click ot enlarge. Credit: Damian Peach
Comet ISON on Nov. 10 before the recent outburst with well-developed dust (upper) and gas tails. Click ot enlarge. Credit: Damian Peach

ISON’s appearance has radically changed too. A week ago the comet developed a second gas or ion tail streaming alongside the wider, brighter dust tail. That new appendage has since grown like Pinocchio’s nose to nearly equal the length of the dust tail. I spotted it with averted vision Tuesday morning Nov. 12 through a 15-inch (37 cm) telescope. More exciting, the ISON’s head has been much brighter and more compact. Astronomers rate a comet’s degree of condensation or “DC” on a scale of 0 to 9 from extremely diffuse with no brightening in the center to disk-like or stellar. In recent days, Comet ISON has been packing it in at DC=6 or moderately compact and bright. Now amateurs are reporting that the comet’s head has brightened and become much more compact with a DC of 8.

Comet ISON in outburst with a completely changed tail appearance and bright, very compact coma shot this morning. Credit: Juanjo Gonzalez
Comet ISON in outburst with a completely changed tail appearance and bright, very compact coma shot this morning. Gonzalez reports the comet at magnitude 6.4. Click to enlarge. Credit: Juanjo Gonzalez
You can watch Comet ISON evolve right before your eyes in this panel of photos taken by Juanjo Gonzalez. Top  row left-right: Nov. 3 and Nov. 9. Bottom row left right: Nov. 12 and Nov. 14. The tail structure changes are dramatic. Click to enlarge. Credit: Juanjo Gonzalez
You can watch Comet ISON evolve right before your eyes in this panel of photos taken by Juanjo Gonzalez. Top row left-right: Nov. 3 and Nov. 9. Bottom row left right: Nov. 12 and Nov. 14. The tail structure changes are dramatic. Click to enlarge. Credit: Juanjo Gonzalez

Backing up reports of the outburst, astronomer Emmanuel Jehin of the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) team, noted a tenfold increase in dust production around the comet’s nucleus on Nov. 11 and 12  plus additional jets of material blasting into the coma.   Jehin reports that the inner coma near the nucleus is still very sharp and shows no sign of disruption – so far, ISON’s hanging in there.

If you haven't seen the comet yet, you can use this map to track it through the weekend as it zips quickly through Virgo. The map shows the sky facing southeast just before the start of morning twilight or about 100 minutes before sunrise. ISON should be plainly visible in binoculars in a dark sky. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap program
If you haven’t seen the comet yet, you can use this map to track it through the weekend as it zips quickly through Virgo. The map shows the sky facing southeast just before the start of morning twilight or about 100 minutes before sunrise. ISON should be plainly visible in binoculars in a dark sky. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

This is all great news for comet observers. The intense heat of the sun is beginning to boil away the comet’s ice with greater fury. The heat may also be exposing new cracks or breaks in ISON’s crust. Fresh ice means even more material becomes available for the sun to vaporize and likely additional jumps in brightness in the next day or two.

Trouble finding  Virgo? Use this wide-view map to get oriented. Slide from Mars toward Spica near the southeastern horizon. ISON is about halfway between Spica and Gamma Virginis. The map shows the sky around 5-5:30 a.m. CST. Stellarium
Trouble finding Virgo? Use this wide-view map to get oriented. Slide from Mars toward Spica near the southeastern horizon. ISON is about halfway between Spica and Gamma Virginis. The map shows the sky around 5-5:30 a.m. CST. Stellarium