Comet Elenin is deserving of our attention, because it may reach naked eye brightness when it passes relatively near the Earth this October. At the moment however, the comet is only visible south of about latitude 40 degrees north and requires a darn good map and at least an 8-inch telescope to see. Don’t bother looking tonight. You’ll need to wait until the moon’s past full and out of the sky. Moonlight’s a comet killer.
I get asked why professional astronomers aren’t spending time observing and photographing this comet. Frankly, it’s an ordinary comet like many of the several thousand discovered to date. While it may be the current Internet speculation sensation, most professional astronomers won’t bother with Elenin unless it does something out of the ordinary. That leaves the work of checking its nightly appearance to amateur comet observers and astrophotographers. Like me, they’re passionate about comets and get up at all hours to study and photograph them.
I love shooting photos of comets, but only when they’re bright enough to see in binoculars or with the naked eye. Then all I need to make a picture is a camera, tripod and telephoto lens. Faint comets like Elenin require good telescopes, expensive camera equipment and careful planning to photograph. The photos of the comet published in this blog come from amateurs who either use their own equipment or who sign up to use a telescope ‘remotely’ through the computer. I’m grateful they allow me to share their images.
If you would like to check out their web pages on comets, here are several:
* Michael Mattiazzo’s Southern Comets Homepage Scroll down and click on the latest C/2010 X1 Elenin photos. Michael will have the comet in view longer than most since he lives in Australia.
* The team of observers including Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero at Remanzacco Observatory in Italy.
While so much attention’s been focused on Comet Elenin, another very nice comet’s been sneaking around the back door. C/2009 P1 Garradd, discovered by Australian astronomer Gordon Garradd in August 2009, is currently visible in the constellation Pegasus the Winged Horse. Best viewed from around midnight until dawn, the comet shines at 9th magnitude and is easily visible in 6-inch and larger telescopes. It has a bright head or coma and star-like nucleus. In larger scopes, two separate tails are visible, one made of glowing ions and the other of dust. Photographs show them well. Several recent pictures have even revealed a third fainter tail.
While you may not see the comet at the moment in binoculars, you will soon. It’s predicted to reach about 6th magnitude (near the naked eye limit) later this fall and possibly top out around 5th magnitude next March when it sails above the Big Dipper. During the next few months, Garradd will be well-placed for observers in both hemispheres as it continues to brighten.
The comet is presently 183 million miles from Earth. At closest on March 5, 2012, it will still hover 117.7 million miles away. I’ll update the blog with additional photos and observations in the weeks ahead. To find Comet Garradd, you can either use my chart above, which shows stars to 8th magnitude, or create your own if you have a star charting program. Head over to the IAU Minor Planet Center, select your program and download the latest comet orbital elements directly into it.Â Couldn’t be easier.