Comet Encke Reemerges in the Dawn Sky

Comet 2P Encke glides through Pisces on February 16th. Image credit and copyright: Hisayoshi Kato.

Miss out on Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Padadušáková last month? We’ll admit, it was fairly underwhelming in binoculars… but fear not, there are several other binocular comets in the pipeline for 2017.

Maybe you managed to catch sight of periodic Comet 2P Encke in late February after sunset before it disappeared into the Sun’s glare. Pronounced (En-Key), the comet actually passes through the field of view of the joint NASA/ESA Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from March 8th to March 14th before reemerging in the dawn sky.

Northern hemisphere observers have already got a sneak peek at Encke’s performance low in the dusk in February as it heads towards perihelion. Now the comet heads southward, as it vaults up into the dawn sky for folks south of latitude 30 degrees north in mid-March. From latitude 30 degrees north, Encke will clear 15 degrees elevation above the southeastern horizon around March 31st. Viewers south of the equator will have a much better viewing prospect, as Encke glides southward through Aquarius. When will you first spot it?

The dawn path of 2P Encke through the first week of April as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Credit: Starry Night.

Also: don’t forget to ‘spring forward’ to Daylight Saving Time this weekend for a majority of North America prior to beginning your dawn comet vigil… Europe and the United Kingdom gets a brief reprieve ’til March 26th.

Her are some upcoming key events for Comet 2P Encke:

Closest to Sun: March 10th, with a perihelion of 0.33 AU.

Closest to Earth: March 12th, at 0.65 AU distant.

Brightest: Around March 15. Encke is currently at magnitude +7, and should top out at magnitude +6, though it’ll only be 14 degrees from the Sun on this date.

The projected light curve for comet 2P Encke. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Information About Bright Comets.

Next good apparition: 0.4 AU from Earth in 2036.

This is Encke’s 63rd passage through the solar system since Pierre Méchain linked successive passages of the comet to the same in 1819. Like Edmond Halley, Encke didn’t discover the most famous of comets that now bears his name, but instead merely deduced its periodic nature. Halley was 1st, and Encke was second (hence the “2” in 2P…) The shortest short period comet, Encke was captured sometime thousands of years ago into its short period orbit, and is destined to burn out one day as it ventures from 4.1 to 0.33 AU from the Sun. Encke is also the source of the annual Taurid meteor shower in November, notable for producing a high rate of fireballs.

Comet 2P Encke on February 19th. Image credit and copyright: Cajun Astro.

Comets can be elusive beasties, as all of that precious quoted magnitude is smeared out over an extended surface area. Add on top this the fact that comets are also notorious for often under- and occasionally over-performing expectations. Just look at the ‘none more black’ albedo of comet 67P Churumov-Gerasimenko chronicled by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft: it’s a miracle we can see ’em at all. And finally, that low contrast dawn sky can easily hide a faint binocular comet, fading it to invisibility. Start your comet vigil early, sweeping the horizon with binocs. An early start and a clear view are key. The slim waning crescent Moon sits 12 degrees north of Comet Encke on the morning of March 26th, and the comet also passes less than 3 degrees from the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) on (no joke) April Fool’s Day April 1st.

The view on the morning of March 26th, 30 minutes before sunrise. Credit: Stellarium.

Flashback to one Encke orbit ago to 2013 and the comet provided a good dawn preshow to that biggest of cosmic let downs, Comet ISON. And although Encke makes its rounds every 3.3 years, orbital geometry assures that we won’t get another favorable viewing from Earth until 2036.

The orbit of 2P Encke. Credit NASA/JPL

Speaking of great comets that never were, we juuuust missed having a spectacular comet this past month, when recently discovered long-period Comet 2017 E1 Borisov passes just 0.045 AU (!) interior to our orbit. Unfortunately, this occurs five months too early, with the Earth almost exactly at the wrong place in its orbit. Now, if it was only August…

Comet Teaser for 2017

Yeah, the gambler’s fallacy would tell us that we’re due for the next great comet of the century, for sure. In the meantime, we’ve still got Comets 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (late March/April), C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS (May), and C/2015 V2 Johnson (June) on tap as good binocular comets in 2017.

Be sure to enjoy elusive comet Encke as it flits once more though the dawn skies.

-Read about comets, occultations, eclipses and more for the year, in our new free e-book 101 Astronomical Events for 2017 out from Universe Today.

The Solar Heliospheric Observatory at 20

Flashback to 1995: Clinton was in the White House, Star Trek Voyager premiered, we all carried pagers in the pre-mobile phone era, and Windows 95 and the Internet itself was shiny and new to most of us. It was also on this day in late 1995 when our premier eyes on the Sun—The SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)—was launched. A joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency, SOHO lit up the pre-dawn sky over the Florida Space Coast as it headed space-ward atop an Atlas IIAS rocket at 3:08 AM EST from launch complex 39B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Envisioning SOHO

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SOHO on Earth

There aren’t a whole lot of 20th century spacecraft still in operation; SOHO joins the ranks of Hubble and the twin Voyager spacecraft as platforms from another era that have long exceeded their operational lives. Seriously, think back to what YOU were doing in 1995, and what sort of technology graced your desktop. Heck, just thinking of how many iterations of mobile phones spanned the last 20 years is a bit mind-bending. A generation of solar astronomers have grown up with SOHO, and the space-based observatory has consistently came through for researchers and scientists, delivering more bang for the buck.

“SOHO has been truly extraordinary and revolutionary in countless ways,” says  astrophysicist Karl Battams at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. “SOHO has completely changed our way of thinking about the Sun, solar active regions, eruptive events, and so much more. I honestly can’t think of a more broadly influential space mission than SOHO.”

SOHO has monitored the Sun now for the complete solar cycle #23 and well into the ongoing solar cycle #24. SOHO is a veritable Swiss Army Knife for solar astrophysics, not only monitoring the Sun across optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, but also employing the Michelson Doppler Imager to record magnetogram data and the Large Angle Spectrometric Coronograph (LASCO) able to create an artificial solar eclipse and monitor the pearly white corona of the Sun.

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Peering into the solar interior.

SOHO observes the Sun from its perch one million miles sunward located at the L1 Sun-Earth point. It actually circles this point in space in what is known as a lissajous, or ‘halo’ orbit.

SOHO has revolutionized solar physics and the way we perceive our host star. We nearly lost SOHO early on in its career in 1998, when gyroscope failures caused the spacecraft to lose a lock on the Sun, sending it into a lazy one revolution per minute spin. Quick thinking by engineers led to SOHO using its reaction wheels as a virtual gyroscope, the first spacecraft to do so. SOHO has used this ad hoc method to point sunward ever since. SOHO was also on hand to document the 2003 Halloween flares, the demise of comet ISON on U.S. Thanksgiving Day 2013, and the deep and strangely profound solar minimum that marked the transition from solar cycle 23 to 24.

What was your favorite SOHO moment?

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A massive sunspot witnessed by SOHO in 2000, compared to the Earth.

SOHO is also a champion comet hunter, recently topping an amazing 3000 comets and counting. Though it wasn’t designed to hunt for sungrazers, SOHO routinely sees ’em via its LASCO C2 and C3 cameras, as well as planets and background stars near the Sun. The effort to hunt for sungrazing comets crossing the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 and C2 cameras represents one of the earliest crowd-sourced efforts to do volunteer science online. SOHO has discovered enough comets to characterize and classify the Kreutz family of sungrazers, and much of this effort is volunteer-based. SOHO grew up with the internet, and the images and data made publicly available are an invaluable resource that we now often take for granted.

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A ‘neat’ image…  Comet NEAT photobombs the view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

NASA/ESA has extended SOHO’s current mission out to the end of 2016. With any luck, SOHO will complete solar cycle 24, and take us into cycle 25 to boot.

“Right now, it (SOHO) is operating in a minimally funded mode, with the bulk of its telemetry dedicated solely to the LASCO coronagraph,” Battams told Universe Today. “Many of its instruments have now been superseded by instruments on other missions. As of today it remains healthy, and I think that’s a testament to the amazing collaboration between ESA and NASA. Together, they’ve kept a spacecraft designed for a two-year mission operating for twenty years.”

Today, missions such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory, Hinode, and Proba-2 have joined SOHO in watching the Sun around the clock. The solar occulting disk capabilities of SOHO’s LASCO C2 and C3 camera remains unique, though ESA’s Proba-3 mission launching in 2018 will feature a free-flying solar occulting disk.

Happy 20th SOHO… you’ve taught us lots about our often tempestuous host star.

-It’s also not too late to vote for your favorite SOHO image.