Comet Elenin May Be Hot, But Look Who’s Sneaking Up From Behind

Comet Elenin photographed on June 28 from Australia. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

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.

In February 2009, Comet Lulin reached a brightness similar to what's predicted for Elenin this fall. That made it relatively easy to photograph. Bright comets typically display nice tails. In this case, two were visible. Photo: Bob King

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:

* Erik Byssinck’s BRIIXIS Astronomical Observatory

* 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.

* Jean-François Soulier and Alain Maury’s large list of comet photographs including pictures of Comet Elenin from January through early June this year.

* The team of observers including Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero at Remanzacco Observatory in Italy.

Comet Garradd in Pegasus shows a bright coma and two tails in this photo taken July 7. The ion tail is straight tail to the left with a dust tail at right. Credit: Michael Jaeger

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.

Comet Garradd in western Pegasus at 11:45 p.m. local time every 5 days from July 7 through early August. It's currently best visible after 11 p.m., but its motion to the west will soon make the comet easier to see earlier in the evening. Around August 2-3, Garradd will make a striking pair with the globular cluster M15. Map created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

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.  Couldn’t be easier.

13 Responses

  1. Pepper

    Dear Astro Bob, I believe most of the hull-a-baloo on the internet about the Elenin is the complete lack of information from NASA, Hubble, or any .gov source. When Hale-Bop and Shoemaker-Levy made their dramatic tours, we heard about them constantly. Whether we could see them or not.

    Are there actually 3 comets on a converging course with very close proximity this August. Each, according the the JPL rotations, are less than 2.0 AU at the same time. That’s an acceptable distance, to not cause any problems?

    Really, Astro Bob, that seems a little close for comets, especially when there isn’t much information on this.

  2. doug

    Hey astrobob.. I keep reading that NASA and the government are hiding the probability that either Honda elenin or levy will hit us. Is this true?

  3. Eric

    I really hope these go naked eye. Both of my daughters were too young to appreciate it when Hale Bopp and the others were hanging in the sky every night. I was praying they would get a second chance.

  4. Realist

    Hi astrobob. Thanks for all the info. You’re doing NASA’s job btw (seeing as they seem to be asleep in the fear allaying dept of late). I hasten to add that I must concur with the first poster in that there seems to be a ridiculous amount of ‘relative’ inaction by NASA which borders on irresponsible considering it is will within it’s capability to wash away all fear with a few simple strokes from a html editor. I personally have lost much faith in NASA’s ability to inform the public with equitability (a hale bopp info overload without online human panic vs a c/2010 x1 info dearth WITH online human fear becoming almost palpable). It’s tax money that pays for NASA and it’s YOUR money that pays for what you have posted. Thank you… What is your opinion on my suggestion that NASA may actually be adding to the panic by such an info disparity?

    1. astrobob

      Realist, that’s a good question. Would it help if NASA addressed concerns about Comet Elenin? Several NASA folks already have: Don Yeomans of the NEO office and astrobiologist David Morrison come to mind (see Morrison’s Youtube video on 2012 at Sadly, the die-hard conspiracy theory folks deride everything they say, calling their explanations a cover-up.

      I’m reminded of the bogus claims some years ago about the Face on Mars, which is actually an eroded mesa. Tons of articles and even a book or two were written about how it was an alien artifact. NASA provided an explanation for its face-like appearance (lighting conditions, low-resolution images) but of course, that too was all a “cover up”. They finally threw a bigger bone out there and targeted the feature with a new high-res camera on Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. The finely detailed photos made it clear – once again – that it was a natural feature. Some people still don’t believe it. And then there’s a whole other group of moon-landing deniers. Don’t get me started on that one!

      So what do you think? Would it really make a difference if NASA spent more time and money taking additional photos and repeating explanations about Elenin? I have my doubts. My own experience has taught me that I don’t have enough time or energy to deal with the nonstop flood of speculation and guesswork about this comet. Who does? That’s why I moderate the Comments section to a sane level. My guess is that many of the folks at NASA will wait until Elenin finally passes by without effects, at which point the truth will be obvious.

  5. Gork

    Thankyou Bob fantastic image of elenin there.
    Would be nice to see more of a pronounced Comet tail but its showing the begginings of one.
    What AU from the sun does a Comet begin to show a pronounced tail? Shoemaker even in pieces had a tail for each piece way out by jupiter.
    If its not ice then when would the suns gravitation make it break up?If it doesnt show a pronounced tail soon the ice part is out the window and now is onto a solid mass. We shall see soon enough. And no I Am not a nut. people seem to forget Jesus as well as Thomas Jefferson said test everything and prove it to be true. Everyone wants to see a nice pretty tail.
    Thankyou for all your efforts.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Gork. Comets usually start showing tails around the orbit of Mars, but some show them sooner. Elenin’s had a tail for some time now — at least since early spring. I’m not qualified to say how long it really is, but I do know that since the comet’s still a good distance from the sun, it’s not surprising its tail is relatively short. Some comet tails are long, but due to perspective, ie. the tail might be hidden behind the comet’s head, they appear short. Some may not be all that long, but if we view them from the side, they can appear longer than others. A comet like 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1, which lies at Jupiter’s distance, is very active and shows a tail occasionally. When Jupiter’s gravity broke up Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, fresh ice was exposed and the pieces developed short tails. Comet Elenin will have to brighten up considerably before we can expect to see a tail with the naked eye or in binoculars. My bet’s on October.

  6. Realist

    Thank you for your detailed considered reply. What you say does make sense come to think of it. I suppose subjectivity is a human problem we must just learn to deal with. Keep up your excellent work and thanks once again.

  7. Brent

    Thanks for putting my mind at ease!!! there has been alot of misinformation out there about this comet or Brown Dwarf as everyone has been calling it! I was so freaked out, that is when i refreshed my search and found your website!! Unlike others explainations, yours is very logical! But i am still a little freaked out, but space in general freaks me out!! thanks again, and i’ll keep checking out the website for updates 🙂

  8. Robert

    Astrobob I have a question. I was reading about how earth will be right behind the comets tail. Could that cause fire in the sky?

    1. astrobob

      Robert, we’re not expected to pass through the tail. Even if we did, it would be a brief brush and the worst that could happen would be an increase in the number of meteors. Of course, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

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