Man Vs. Machine: A Story Of Comet Discovery

A photo of Comet C/2010 V1 taken this morning. It shows a brighter nucleus inside a small round glow called the coma. Credit: Ernesto Guido & Giovanni Sostero

November has been gracious with its clear nights. One after another after another like few Novembers in recent memory. That’s just what we’ll need if we’re seeking the recently-discovered Comet C/2010 V1 (Ikeya-Murakami) in the dawn sky. One note of caution. I went out to see this on Friday, and while it’s theoretically visible in a small telescope of 4-inches and up, the comet’s low altitude and competition from the light of early dawn may require an 8-inch telescope to see well.

This most recent visitor to the inner solar system is about 8th magnitude and looks like a fuzzy glow about 3-4 times Jupiter’s apparent size in a telescope. We’re fortunate that despite its low elevation, Ikeya-Murakami is very near the planet Saturn the next few mornings. Find Saturn and you’re almost guaranteed to sport the comet. At low magnification, you’ll be able to include both the planet and comet in the same field of view. If for some reason you don’t see the comet, at least you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a look at the ringed planet.

This wide view map shows the sky around 5:30 near the start of dawn as you face east. Saturn is low in the southeast just south of Gamma Virginis and about four "fists" to the right of the bright star Arcturus. Created with Stellarium

What’s perhaps most amazing about this comet is that it was discovered the old-fashioned way – amateur astronomers spotted it visually in a telescope. Kaoru Ikeya picked up the new comet on November 2 using 39x on his 10-inch scope, while Shigeki Murakami found it independently the next night in his 18-inch at 78x. This was Ikeya’s seventh comet discovery; his most famous was Ikeya-Seki in 1965, which became the brightest comet of the 20th century. For Murakami, it was his second.

Most comets are now discovered by automated professional telescopes that have been sweeping the sky with an unblinking eye since the late ’90s. Programs like LINEAR (Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Survey) and SWAN (Solar Wind Anisotropies), which is carried out on the space-based Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), have found many hundreds of comets. Amateurs face tough competition from these surveys, which is why this discovery is especially sweet. A nice carrot dangles for any amateur who’s willing to put in the hours  methodically sweeping the sky for a new comet. The Edgar Wilson Award was established by a Kentucky businessman in 1998 and given to amateurs – or professional astronomers acting in an amateur capacity – who discover one or more comets in a given year, using their own equipment. Winners receive a plaque and a portion of the $20,000 cash award, which is usually divided up among several people or groups.

The track of Comet Ikeya-Murakami puts it very near Saturn the next couple mornings, a perfect opportunity for amateurs with moderate-sized telescopes. The positions are shown every two days around the start of morning twilight. Gamma and Theta Virginis as well as a few other relatively bright stars are labeled. Created using Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Upon discovery a comet receives an initial catalog designation. Shortly after, the names of the discoverer(s) are added.  Comet Ikeya-Murakami will be tracking east low in the morning sky in the coming weeks and slowly fading as it recedes from both Earth and the sun. It’s possible the comet’s experiencing an outburst in brightness perhaps because of intense jet activity on its surface like we saw in the pictures of Comet Hartley 2 earlier this week. If so, it may be unusually bright at the moment. Catch it if you can! While you’re out, don’t forget Comet Hartley 2. Click HERE for a finder chart.

3 Responses

  1. This is a very useful post. The sky charts are particularly clear and will be useful in helping to find the comet. I intend to try for it tomorrow morning with mu SWIFT Audubon 8.5 x 44 binoculars. I hope that it will be visible in this instrument.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Rex, thank you for your kind words. I’m happy you’d like to try to find the comet, but your binoculars will probably not be large or powerful enough to see it. The comet is now closer to 9th magnitude, so you’d need BIG binoculars to spot it. A telescope is the way to go — a minimum of a 4-6 inch scope if your sky is exceptionally clear. Larger is you suffer from city light pollution like many of us.

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