Comet Elenin Update And An Invisible Planetary Alignment

Comet Elenin is the little blob between the tick marks in this negative image (black stars, white sky) taken on April 20 through a 10-inch telescope. Notice the bit of fuzz around it - that's part of the comet's gaseous envelope called the coma. The galaxy NGC 3376 is at right. Credit: Jean-François Soulier

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.

Comet McNaught R1, with its long skinny tail, was faintly visible with the naked eye but a beautiful sight in binoculars last June. Photo: Bob King

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.

The International Space Station slowly fades as it's eclipsed by Earth shadow during a pass through Leo the Lion earlier this week. Although difficult to see in the picture, the color of the ISS changed from pale yellow to orange as it experienced orbital sunset. Sunsets happen about every 90 minutes for the astronauts on board as they circle Earth at 17,500 mph. Photo: Bob King

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.

Too bad the atmosphere gets in the way, otherwise we'd see five planets lined up west of the sun this week. Created with Stellarium

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.

43 Responses

  1. Chris

    “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.”

    I always find it fascinating when someone makes blanket statements such as this one. How do you know a comet or asteroid won’t strike us during our lifetime?

    1. astrobob

      That’s my oversight. Yes, of course, an asteroid, etc. could hit in my lifetime. Maybe even before I get dinner going tonight. There’s always a chance. The point I was trying to make was that it’s inevitable Earth will suffer a hit sometime in the future, but since such devastating impacts are extremely rare, it probably won’t occur anytime soon. Further, Elenin’s “not your man” based upon orbital calculations and observational evidence to date. But of course, a completely unexpected impact from an asteroid might happen in the next two minutes and totally ruin my dinner plans.
      I think it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and lighten up a little about Elenin.

  2. ingrid dup

    I agree that there are too many conspiracy theories and the likes, on the internet about Elenin. However, please read this article and download Dr Mensur Omerbaschich’s paper and comment then. His theory is backed properly and you can trace his sources of info – just before you take that deep breath and lighten up a little….

    1. astrobob

      Hi Ingrid,
      You’re right. Even I need a breath. But first, let me say that Omerbaschich’s alignment idea is seriously flawed as described earlier in the comments section. And the electric universe idea is very much a fringe concept, if not complete pseudoscience. Take a look at the author of the website you sent me. Michael Salla, PhD has his PhD in government, not in the sciences, let alone astronomy or physics. He’s also a ufologist who claims that 16 different extraterrestrial civilizations are mingling with our citizens at the moment. You’ve got to be kidding. As for that breath, I’ll continue to report on the wonders of the sky, including Comet Elenin, with the best scientific information I can get my hands on. But starting today I’ll be cutting back on addressing junk science claims about Elenin, etc. There’s no end to it, and more importantly, it takes away from the real thing. Not only is life too short, but the universe is amazing enough just as it is.

      1. Tanner Sabo

        Why is Elenin 4 to 8 times larger than the earth? It will come within 0.24 AU of the earth. How do explain sinkholes, freak storms and flooding, earthquakes, and volcanoes in mass numbers all over the globe? Just in the last two months.

        1. astrobob

          Tanner, all those things have been happening on Earth for millenia and have terrestrial explanations. The confusion regarding Comet Elenin’s size is this: the comet nucleus itself — the thing at the center of the cloudlike appearance of the comet — is estimated to be just a few miles across. The cloud-like appearance is called the comet’s coma. It is large but composed primarily of rarefied gases and dust. You could pack sweep it up and it would probably fit in a suitcase there’s so little material there. It does reflect as well as fluoresce very nicely in sunlight however, which is why we can see it so well. Large comet comas are not unusual but par for the course. Just remember that a coma is a comet’s atmosphere and not a solid ball like a planet.

  3. brandon anthony

    ok they made a movie call deep impact is any of that true about the comet coming on a collision course

    1. Steve Osterman

      The comet in the movie Deep Impact is make believe – a plot device for a what-if film, but within that what-if scenario, the physics is pretty good. Part of the confusion may be that we sent a probe called ‘Deep Impact’ to a comet named Temple 1 in 2005. Another probe named Stardust (no relation to the 2007 movie of the same name or to the David Bowie album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, for that matter) visited Temple 1 in February of this year.

  4. JohnB

    I want to know if c/2010 x1 has been comming toward earth from the general direction of the orion constellation or if that is way off. I’m speaking in terms of ‘if it were capable’ to have seen it comming when it first entered our solar system in September of 1991. I’m not talking about from a perspective over the past 6 years. Thank you.

    1. astrobob

      Hi John, Comet Elenin spent all of 1991 in western Leo, a good distance from Orion. Prior to moving into Leo in 1978, it’s ‘home’ has been central Cancer for more than 4,000 years.

  5. Christopher Duffner

    I am concerned as we get closer to Elenin that something is going to happen. are we going to get hit by it Bob? Could you please allay my fears? I am so sick of being worried about it.
    Thanks Bob.

      1. Neil Archibald

        But Bob, I think THATs not the whole story, as I understand it, Elenin is going to come between Earth and the Sun so blocking daylight for more than a day, and although it’s not going to hit us, there IS a good chance we clip it’s debris tail, (not the gas tail), which would drop a bundle of rocks in our atmosphere. Can you confirm THESE ideas please Bob??
        Archie.

        1. astrobob

          Hi Neil,
          If you have a star charting or a planetarium style program, you can see for yourself that Comet Elenin will not pass in front of the sun, but about 2.2 degrees north of it. Again, even if it did, it would not be visible except perhaps in the very largest telescopes. In an earlier reply in the Comments section, I did the math and the comet would be vanishing small as seen from Earth during a solar passage (if one were to occur). There will be no blocking out of the sun, no day or even split second of darkness.
          Regarding tail passage, none is predicted on any science site I can find, however every fringe, junk science site predicts it with absolute certainty. Again, it’s important to remember that the tail will not point directly at Earth. Elenin is NORTH of the the Earth’s orbital plane on that date (Sept. 26) and will be over 37 million miles away. We’ve been through comet dust tails before with no ill effects. We passed through Comet Halley’s tail in 1910. Hucksters at the time sold comet pills and gas masks to the gullible despite most astronomers’ cautions that comet tails were extremely rarefied and we’d pass through without even noticing. Even if Elenin’s dust tail gave us a brush, the worst that would happen might be some additional meteors in the sky from vaporizing dust. Now it’s 2011 and it appears the bandwagon’s rolling again.

  6. Rick Cox

    Hey Bob,
    There’s some rumor about an asteriod passing by Earth around the same time the comet is around us – Asteroid 2005 YU55. I’ve been reading around and of course Nostradamus predicted this would happen(I mean, he gets everythng right, right 😉 ).
    Anyway, I don’t buy it but just wanted to confirm with you since you would have the correct calculations.

    BTW – thanks for an excellent website for point of reference.

    1. astrobob

      Rick, yes, asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass 0.85 lunar distances (204,000 miles) on November 8. It will be 11th magnitude at the time and visible to observers with telescopes. While that’s close, it’s not exceptional. We had earlier this summer that flew only 7,500 miles from Earth, close enough to have its orbit altered by our planet’s gravity. Glad you enjoy the blog, thanks!

      1. Rick Cox

        So just to make sure – this asteriod and comet elenin should not interfere with each other nor should either hit the earth by perturbing the other, etc, etc.
        Just a little creepy that NASA sent a message out for emergency preparedness to their employees(not sure the frequency or how often they do that) and FEMA is ordering bodybags and running a drill(FEMA/FCC DRILL ON 11-9-11) Asteriod 2005 is supposed to visit us on Nov 8th. This just seems too strange for my taste.

        Thanks

        1. astrobob

          Rick, both the comet and asteroid are too small to have effects here on Earth. Neither will they perturb one another since they’re millions of miles apart. I’ve heard of the FEMA hype (haven’t bothered to look into it much) and it sounds like more of the usual paranoia that’s alive and well on the Internet. For what it’s worth, agencies are always running drills, especially ones involved in emergency preparedness.

  7. caralex

    Bob, any further news on Elenin’s fading by one magnitude, or on its chances of surviving perihelion?

        1. caralex

          I see that ‘Southern Comets Homepage’ states today that “8h magnitude – in process of disintegrating. Will not survive perihelion.” However, the images still show it as intact. Is there anything you can add?

          1. astrobob

            Hi Carol,
            I just updated with a blog today. The elongation of the nucleus is a good sign of a disruption, but it takes some days to spread out and cause the comet to fade further. There may even be fresh material exposed that could possible cause the comet to brighten temporarily, but the long-term prospects, if it indeed a breakup, will lead to the comet becoming much dimmer. It may not survive perihelion either, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

  8. passive

    Astro Bob,
    I love the name btw, anyways I am a college student with a part-time job, I also volunteer my time to serve my community through salvation army, and I am a worship leader at my church. Where am I getting at? Ever since I heard about Elenin a week ago, Elenin has been bothering me enough to squeeze in some hours and do my research.

    I told myself that if all these predictions and religous prophecies are false, I will be one unhappy camper. Not to offend you or anything my good friend, in fact, after reading all the comments you responded too, I can tell you are very passionate in the field that you study in ever since the age of 11, but am I wasting my time treading in fear/excitment on Elenin? LOL, mainstream says prepare for the worse, bunkers being built underground, Elenin will block out the sun for 1 or 3 days, and its tail will leave its effects upon planet earth? blah.. To be honest I have better things to do than to tremble about these things..

    Thank you for your time Bob,
    -Tarsus

    1. astrobob

      Dear Tarsus — Thanks for writing. All the “prophesies” and scary predictions about Comet Elenin are a combination of hoax, rumor and wishful thinking. Not a single one is based in fact. And as far as I know, no mainstream media is reporting that Elenin will block out the sun (which will not happen by the way) or that it’s connected with bunker-building. What I most enjoyed about your e-mail was the last sentence: “To be honest I have better things to do than to tremble about these things.” No better words were ever written.
      Thanks for reading the blog, and I’ll have a Comet Elenin update later today on the blog at http://www.astrobob.areavoices.com

  9. passive

    I will check back in after a week from today to see if there is any changes on Eilnin. You will save me lots and lots of hours. I do not want to go through all those other mainstream sources that gives false predictions, alignments, and prophecies for their own enjoyment in order to play with other peoples feelings.

    I thank you for your resources, I encourage you to keep it up and when stating your predictions, please calculate everything and state it with an honest heart. On another note, this blog is not in vain, =) ~ it is much appreciated.

  10. passive

    Bob,

    Much respect to you and your passionate research on this universe. Thank you for your updates on Elenin in the webpage you gave me. After much bible prochecies; many critics are silenced. Although it is a very good thing to know where we stand in a biblical historical standpoint, truly, it is selfish for one to say that the Christ has return or doomsday is here because an overwhelming majority do not know who they are, or what they stand for, or know what they’ll die for at the moment.

    In conclusion, because of this event I have now become interested in astranomy and what celestial happenings I can see from my own backyard. If you have time could you pin point me to where I can find a good name brand telescoop for a cheap price? Thank you, Enjoy life my brother and I hope that one day you will be captivated by the hands of the creator.

  11. Patricia

    A friend of mine calls elenin a dead star, and says it will be in line with the earth and the sun sep. 29th, is this true and does that mean any thing for us. He said it may have something to do with causing earthquakes, is that true. I am not worried because my Trust is in the LORD, but I would appreciate your opinion Thankyou

    1. astrobob

      Patricia,
      Your friend is mistaken. Comet Elenin is a small comet that’s in the process of breaking apart and disintegrating due to the heat from the sun it experienced during perihelion. If anything is quaking, it’s the comet. Earthquakes on our planet are caused by the movements of crustal plates. Comets like Elenin are far too tiny to affect our planet.

  12. Moses

    Bob, I am certain that you have the facts right..and you possess good insight on everything that deals with space…I’m just wondering if comet elenin would be visible at night time in the US Midwest after It has passed our orbital zone..or is there a better chance to catch it in early October?? Please and Thank You.

    1. astrobob

      Dear Moses,
      Thanks for your confidence. We won’t be able to see or photograph Comet Elenin for more than a week (except for SOHO) because it’s too close to the sun and invisible in daylight. The first opportunity to see it in a dark sky is early October – about the 5th. Even then the comet will be very low in the east at the beginning of twilight. Elenin quickly moves up in the sky however and becomes much better placed as soon as the 9th or 10th. You can bet I’ll be out there. I hope there’s something left to see!

  13. Cesar

    ive heard that there is a brow dwart following elenin, ive also heard that elenin is the brown dwart. can you comment on this?

    1. astrobob

      Cesar,
      Neither is correct. Comet Elenin is clearly a comet and one that is breaking into smaller pieces due to heat from the sun. There is no observation or photographic evidence of anything “following” the comet. Certainly not a brown dwarf. It that were true, it would plainly be visible to the naked eye. None is.

  14. Brian C

    Bet you can’t wait for all this Elenin and Nibiru conspiracy stuff to be over with, eh Bob? Then again, maybe it’s creating a larger interest in astronomy which wouldn’t have otherwise occured.

    1. astrobob

      Brian,
      I already sense it’s dying down since the comet wasn’t seen at all in the SOHO images. And yes, its positive side has been more interest in astronomy in general — a good thing!

  15. Bill B

    Twice now this week I have photographed what appears to be a daylight-visible comet in the western sky, slightly north of the sun. On Monday, September 26th it appeared just after sunset. It showed brightly through the orange glow of the sun on the horizon. At first it had a short tail, but as it got lower in the sky it appeared as a bright star. The photo was at 7:25 pm CDT and shows it as a star shining through the haze. It faded from view shortly after. On Friday, September 30th it appeared in the same place in the sky, but about an hour and a half before sunset. The photo was taken at about 5:50 pm CDT and shows a definite tail visible in blue sky. Any idea what it is I was seeing?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bill,
      You were seeing a distant jet contrail. They look almost exactly like comets. I was fooled once by this a couple years ago until I realized what I was seeing. Now I photograph them for fun and have several of these “comets” in my collection.

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