Comet Elenin continues to inch its way through the asteroid belt en route to the inner planets. Seen from Earth, it recently moved from the constellation Sextans the Sextant into the more familiar Leo the Lion. Today it’s 242 million miles from the sun and 171 million miles from Earth. Based on its brightness in late March, the comet was estimated to be between 4 and 15 miles across. That figure may change. Over the past month, Elenin hasn’t brightened up as expected; it’s still stuck at around magnitude 16 – very faint! That’s according to photos taken this past week. A couple dedicated amateur astronomers have reported seeing the comet a magnitude brighter at 15, still very dim.
Why would I even bother you with an update on such a faint object? While the comet appears like an innocent hunk of dusty ice to me, if you search its name on the Internet, most of the links point to websites involving cover-ups, collisions with Earth, reversals of the Earth’s poles, earthquakes and a connection with Nibiru, an imaginary brown dwarf star on an imaginary collision course with our planet.
While it’s inevitable that sometime in the future, after you and I are long gone, an asteroid or comet will strike the Earth and cause untold devastation, Comet Elenin doesn’t fit the bill. Its orbit’s been nailed down, and Earth’s in the clear by millions of miles. How about a meteor shower from a side swipe of the tail? Extremely unlikely if not impossible. The comet and tail are simply too far away to touch us.
If anything, the latest news leans to the disappointing side. The comet may not live up to its original expectation of reaching naked eye visibility. Recent estimates suggest we’ll need to keep our binoculars handy. That’s OK. Even a binocular comet is worth staying up late to see.
I’ve been asked by several people when Comet Elenin will first show in our backyard telescopes. Assuming Elenin follows predictions based on its current brightness, it won’t be visible in large amateur telescopes until late June. That’s according to Seiichi Yoshida’s excellent Weekly Information about Bright Comets. Bad news as the comet will be low in the western sky at the end of twilight at that time. Observers in the southern U.S. (and especially the southern hemisphere) should spot it in small telescopes and binoculars later in July and early August before it’s lost in the twilight glow. The comet then passes between us and the sun in late September.
Once it reappears in the morning sky in October, sky watchers across much of the world should see a nice tail and bright coma through binoculars.
I forget exactly how many comets have drawn me out at night over the years, but it’s upwards of 250. One of reasons I love following them is that unlike many other objects in the sky, they change. Comets get brighter and fainter, grow and lose tails, and sometimes do unexpected things like break into pieces or suddenly fade out. The best surprise Elenin could give us would be to grow brighter than expected. Maybe it’ll even spall to pieces, giving ‘birth’ to several smaller comets. We’ll just have to wait and see.
We’ve sure had lots of nice space station passes this week, and more are coming the week next. I hope you’ve caught one or two of them. I was out earlier trying to photograph a pass into Earth’s shadow (above). Sometimes the station fades quickly – depending on its angle to the sun – and sometimes more slowly. This was a slow fade across the constellation of Leo the Lion. I’ve drawn in his ‘head’ which is shaped like a question mark written backwards. Tomorrow I’ll update the blog with times to watch in the coming evenings.
There’s another interesting thing happening this week – five of the eight planets are lined up to the west of the sun this week making it easy to visualize how flat the solar system is. Too bad you can’t go out and see them with your eyes. Only Venus is visible very low near the sun during morning twilight. The rest are too close to the sun or too faint to see. Late this month, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter will pull away from the solar glare and make for some nice pairings in binoculars.