Comet Watching Bonanza


Hello everyone. Sorry I haven’t been posting lately. I live a rather strange life right now…insomnia has kicked into full gear, and my DSPS (delayed sleep phase syndrome) is wreaking havoc on my circadian rhythm. I mostly live at night right now, when there isn’t any light to do any photography (well, normal photography anyway). I’ve been working on starting a business of my own as well, which is taking up the time I am “awake.”

Anyway, what with living at night and all, I’ve spent some time the last several weeks observing the sky. Lot of cool things going on right now. For one, Jupiter is high in the sky and very bright right now. Looking through even a relatively low end telescope (something you could pick up for around $100-$200), you get a clear view of four to five moons. Mars is in the sky after around 3am, and right before sunset Mercury is also visible.

More interesting than the planets, however, are the comets. This has been the month of comets. I’ve mentioned Comet ISON before. Comet ISON, designated C/2012 S1 as it was found late in 2012, was hyped as “The Comet of the Century” by much of the media. Sadly, this comet, while quite an exciting one for those with the powerful telescopes needed to view it, has been a bit if a flub as far as naked eye visibility goes. The latest news, as of Tuesday 26th, was that the comet was exhibiting several of the tell-tale signs of breaking up as it neared its closest approach to the sun (a mere 730,000 miles, about a million kilometers…in contrast, the earth is 93 million miles from the sun). Just a few hours ago, ISON once again sprung to life…seems to be a regular Lazarus of comets…it’s dead, no it’s alive…it’s dead again. No one knows for sure what this comet will do, which is part of it’s excitement I guess. Either way, survive or die during its transit, astronomers are saying when it emerges on the other side on Dec. 1st-2nd, we should still get a bit of a show. If it survives, it should be much brighter than it’s been. It’s small (about 1km in diameter, very small compared to the comet of last century, Hale-Bopp, which was around 26km in diameter), and will be about 90 million miles from us, but it should be visible to the naked eye as a bright green ball with a whispy gray-blue tail. If it dies, the fragments left behind by it’s breakup should leave an interesting faint green swath across the morning sky…something a prior comet of a few years past did on it’s close approach to the sun.

Luckily for those who were expecting great naked-eye things from Comet ISON, there is another comet in the sky that is showing real promise. It won’t be going anywhere near as close to the sun as ISON, but it is already visible to the naked eye in good dark skies, and has a nice light off-white tail. Comet Lovejoy, or C/2013 R1. Lovejoy was discovered only early September this year, and has given a bit of a second chance for comet aficionados who want a good show. Lovejoy is also in a much better position to be viewed than ISON was. Where as ISON brightened very late (was originally expected to brighten to naked eye visibility late October, and instead did not reach (barely) naked eye visibility until the middle of this month, November), and was largely lost in the early morning twilight glow…Lovejoy is decently high in the sky, near the constellation Ursa Major (Great Bear, or as most of you are familiar with: The Big Dipper). Lovejoy cannot be seen with the naked eye unless you have particularly dark skies…you will need to be 50-100 miles from the nearest urban center, and in most of the eastern part of the United States and south eastern Canada, there is so much light pollution you shouldn’t expect to see much without at least a pair of decent, bright binoculars. If you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you should be able to pick out the fuzzy green and tailed “star” even in a city. The comet is currently transiting past, and just below, the handle of the big dipper. Tonight it was off the last star in the handle by a few degrees. Tomorrow it will have moved past the end of the handle towards the horizon a bit more, and the next night it will have moved a little ways beyond the handle of the Big Dipper.

Tonight, I managed to finally find and photograph Comet Lovejoy. First time I’ve ever photographed a comet. I had hoped to have a nice high end telescope with a good equatorial tracking mount, which I was originally planning to purchase for photographing Comet ISON. Alas, money has had to be redirected to other endeavors, like starting a business so I have an income again, so no telescope this year. My 600mm lens is doing a decent job, although due to the lack of any kind of tracking, I can’t get any of that fine detail you may find in professional photographs.

In addition to Lovejoy and ISON, there have been a number of other comets passing through the skies the last few months, including several new ones discovered just in November alone, and which may prove interesting objects as they get nearer to the sun (and who knows, maybe one of THEM will become the comet of the century.) Comet Encke, which was previously ahead of Comet ISON, will too soon be transiting past the sun on it’s closest approach. Encke was discovered years ago, and is designated 2P/Encke. Given it’s designation, I believe Encke is actually what they call a “main belt” comet, one that has a short orbital period as it never moves out past the asteroid belt. It’s a recurring comet that seems to move through around once a year or so. At least four new comets were discovered this month: C/2013 V1 (BOATTINI), C/2013 V2 (BORISOV), C/2013 V3 (NEVSKI), and C/2013 V5 (OUKAIMEDEN) were all discovered in the first couple weeks of November. Nevski and Oukaimeden both seem to be showing some early signs of potentially being more interesting comets once they reach the inner solar system. Oukaimeden is currently in very close proximity to Jupiter in the sky, however I believe it is still beyond Jupiter’s orbit, so it won’t be visible to the naked eye, binoculars, or anything less than a very good, light-guzzling telescope. Nevski is currently passing through the constellation Leo, at the moment it is just under Leo’s head. Again, Nevski is still quite far away, so probably won’t be visible with anything less than a good telescope. A fifth comet, P/2013 P5, that seems to be making some waves is another main belt, apparently discovered a while ago, but recently it started exhibiting some unusual multi-tailed behavior…it was sporting no less than six distinct tails about a week ago. As a main belt comet, it is a short period object that orbits on a slightly elongated orbit around the sun, so it is visible at least once a year, if not more. i don’t think this comet is visible without a telescope either, but it is an interesting object nevertheless.

Well, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve had my camera taking photos of Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1). I hope to stack them and produce something at least moderately decent, which I’ll post soon.