Comet Elenin Tired Of Doomsday Finger Pointing

Comet Elenin shows a fading, extended nuclear region instead of a dense, bright one in this photo taken Aug. 27 through an 11-inch telescope. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

Maybe it just couldn’t take all the publicity. It appears Comet Elenin might be breaking up and fading. Recent observations from Australian comet observers indicate the comet, which began dimming a week ago, is still fainter than expected. A likely explanation is that the comet nucleus might be in the process of breakup. I mean how much hype can a comet handle?

A week after witnessing the comet’s dramatic fading on August 20, amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazzo of Castlemaine in Victoria, Australia noted that by last night (Aug. 27) the comet’s nucleus (bright inner region of the coma) had spread into “a dim, elongated diffuse smudge.”  He estimates Elenin’s brightness at 9th magnitude. For current pictures, click on over to Michael’s Southern Comets Homepage.

A closeup photo of the breakup of Comet S4 LINEAR taken on August 6, 2000 by the European Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The disintegration is a great demonstration of just how fragile comets are. Click photo to enlarge. Credit: ESO

Back in July 2000, the nucleus of comet C/1999 S4 LINEAR broke up into a shower of mini-comets and then faded away. I remember watching the comet brighten up nicely earlier that month, but just when predicted to reach naked eye visibility, it began to disintegrate. Through the telescope, the nuclear region – the bright spot in the center of a comet’s coma – became elongated and rapidly grew dimmer. Several nights later, S4 LINEAR was a ghost of its former self.

While I’d hoped to see a bright comet that month,  the changes were so sudden and the realization of what was happening so captivating, I didn’t mind the loss. On the contrary. Like seeing an animal in the wild, I was witness to a rare moment of insight into the lives of comets.

The elongation of the Comet Elenin’s nuclear 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 Elenin becoming much dimmer. It may not survive perihelion either, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. One would hope a large telescope could be trained on Comet Elenin soon to confirm any breakup and provide more detailed photos.

Comet Garradd brushes the star cluster M71 in this beautiful portrait made this past Friday night. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Before we leave the subject, I have to share this stunning image made by astrophotographer Rolando Ligustri in Italy of Comet Garradd. He captured the comet Friday night when its tail crossed in front of the rich globular star cluster M71 in Sagitta the Arrow. It was clear at my house too, and I was totally blown away by the scene through my telescope. You don’t see many conjunctions of bright deep sky objects and comets. This close pairing allows us to better picture a comet in three dimensions as a dusty wraith hovering in the foreground against a background of distant suns. The event took place in a part of the sky jam-packed with stars further adding to the beauty of the scene.

August 27 photo taken in UV light of a large, dark swath called a coronal hole, a region in the sun's corona or atmosphere where a high-speed solar wind blows outward into the solar system. Credit: NASA/SDO

If you’re out this evening and next and live in the northern U.S., Canada or the Scandinavian countries, keep an eye out for the northern lights. A stream of high speed electrons and protons flying out of large hole in the sun’s corona – a coronal hole – may spark some minor auroras.  Even if the aurora doesn’t show, go outside anyway and listen to the katydids while you watch the International Space Station make its final round of passes during the current window of evening visibility. It will appear as a brilliant “star” moving from west to east across the sky. All the remaining flybys for the Duluth, Minn. region are shown below. For times for your town, click over to Spaceweather satellite flybys or log on to Heavens Above.

* Tonight Aug. 28 starting at 9:33 p.m. Brilliant pass from the west across the southern sky. Watch it fade as it enters Earth’s shadow just below the bright star Altair in Aquila.
* Monday Aug. 29 at 8:35 p.m. straight across the top of the sky. Very bright!
* Tuesday Aug. 30 at 9:13 p.m. Fades into Earth’s shadow low in the south in Sagittarius.
* Wednesday Aug. 31 at 8:15 p.m. Bright, high pass in the south.
* Thursday Sept. 1 at 8:53 p.m. Low pass in the southwest
* Friday Sept. 2 at 7:54 p.m. Good pass across the south but happens around sunset. Will you see it?
* Saturday Sept. 3 at 8:33 p.m. Very low across the southwestern sky. Cruises just below the crescent moon at 8:35 p.m.

And finally, just a quick update on supernova 2011fe in M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy. Last night, the sky cleared off in time for me to spot it at magnitude 12.3. It was very easy to see in a 10-inch telescope. Click HERE for a page created by David Bishop devoted to the exploding star. And here are two maps to help observers with telescopes find the supernova.

30 Responses

  1. Mike

    Please drop me an email about your suggestions for Milky Way photography. I think it is my lens….f4.5…not low enough and a telephoto….lots of glass to get through…..using bulb setting….ISO 1600….30 plus seconds…..disappointing results…frustrating results and ideal very dark conditions…..blogs seem to pint to a prime wide angle lens….would welcome your advice!

    1. astrobob

      Mike, you have the key ingredient — dark skies. You also need a relatively high-end camera (not a point and shoot variety) to get good pictures of the Milky Way. I use a wide angle zoom and my favorite “Milky Way lens” focal length is 16mm, however you can go up to 35mm with good results depending on what you want to frame. Being able to open up to f/2.8 gives you a huge advantage over 4.5. My typical exposure from a dark site is ISO 1600 or 3200 and 30-seconds at f/2.8. You’ll have to go to ISO 3200/6400 for the equivalent using f/4.5. Wide angle gives the best view I think, because then the Milky Way is framed by the darker, relatively starless sky. Also, star trailing is not noticeable. I hope this helps.

      1. caralex

        Bob, is there any confirmation of Elenin’s breakup, apart from that of Mattiazzo? Are any of the solar observatories still taking images of it? If so, are they confirming the disintegration?

        1. astrobob

          Carol, at least two other regular comet observers I’m in contact with have seen and photographed the fading, but I’ve not been able to find any pictures taken through large observatory or satellite-based telescopes. Outside of the ideal lineup of the STEREO probes, there was no particular reason to train big scopes on it since it was nothing out of the ordinary as comets go. However, now that Elenin’s possible breaking up, perhaps it will peak the interest of more astronomers.

          1. caralex

            Thanks, Bob. Now, another question!

            If (hypothetically) it survives perihelion, when will it fade into the sunlight for the Australian observers – I imagine it must be in the next day or two – and when will it appear again in the morning sky after perihelion?

          2. astrobob

            Carol, Australian observers should be able to see it right into the first half of September. After perihelion, it will appear in northern skies in Leo about Oct. 2 very low in the east in morning twilight. The northern hemisphere will briefly have a better view of the comet until about October 10 when everyone will see it.

  2. Jim Schaff

    Hi Bob,

    I was out viewing Friday night, snooping around at objects I had not seen in a while- M57, M13, M27, etc. I had read something that mentioned M71 so I thought I would give it a look. Immediately I wondered if I got the right object with the fuzz spot by it. Then I thought maybe I stumbled on a comet. Could I have discovered one? No way, this is too bright. So I checked it out on Starry Night and learned it was Garrard. So it was a cool ‘discovery’ for me anyway- finding it unexpectedly.


    1. astrobob

      Hi Jim, so the question is, if you do ever discover a comet, will it be named Comet Schaff or Comet Stumpy in memory of our friend :))

  3. TAMMY

    I was wondering what the bright object was around the little dipper,
    it was the bottom of little dipper, a little south-west of it. Not sure if
    it was just a bright star in ursa major?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Tammy — it’s so hard to say. If it was moving slowly across the sky and not flashing, it was almost for sure a satellite. If it flashed and disappeared, it was probably a meteor.

    2. astrobob

      Hi again Tammy, it occurred to me you might be referring to the small Dipper-shaped group star cluster called the Pleiades. It’s in the east. To the right of the Pleiades is a huge bright object — that’s the planet Jupiter. Maybe that is what you saw.

  4. Stephan Burkhardt

    Hi Bob!

    The Elenin fading/breakup reminds me of a similar thing that happened to me in my younger days: comet Kohoutek. That one was hyped terrificly (and caused yours truly to take all his savings to the opticians’ shop and buy his first telescope) in 1974, and turned out a huge disappointment. The fifteen-year-old (at the time) on this side of the keyboard was mightily disappointed (and cold), and almost lost interest in Astronomy. But, some things change, and others don’t, like my interest in celestial objects, and there are other comets that nobody gives much interest first, and which turn out very interesting objects later. Like Hale-Bopp in the nineties, or these days, lovely comet Garradd.

    Yes it is green! I thought so by the first faint glimpses of a colour lately, but when it crossed the cluster M71 last week, the colour of the comet could be really discerned from the yellowish-whitish colour of the majority of stars in M71. I like it when an object of the Solar System – only a few light hours away – gets into the field of view together with another object much farther away – like a globular cluster – 25.000 Light-years away. It lets your mind wander…and think that our hobby allows us time travels every night.

    Heading out to get another look at this fantastic supernova in M101 – which, in fact, happened twenty-five million years ago – at an age when mammoths haunted the places where I live now…what would they have looked like then?

    By the way: thanks for your hints and tips on astrophotography. I might get a mind to expand the hobby and start taking pictures of the sky at night. The good thing about those digital cameras is, you can take as much pictures as you like, and throw away most of them that are merely for learning. Let’s see what comes next 😉

    greetings from Stuttgart, Germany

    1. astrobob

      Hi Stephan, thanks for your story about Kohoutek. That was the comet that soured the media on comets, so much so that Comet West, a true spectacle, was under-reported in 1976. I enjoyed your description of Garradd and M71 — very nice perspective!

  5. doug

    Now that comet elenin is fading why is it that people are claiming that this is a cover up?? Will their be any new pics of elenin and can we really say goodbye to all the gloom and doom talk..

    1. astrobob

      Hi Doug, I didn’t realize that the comet’s fading has already been called a cover up. What people won’t do to save face and keep the rumors running, eh? Again, it’s important to realize that despite the hype, Elenin’s a very ordinary comet and not high on the list of professional astronomers’ observing targets. Perhaps now that its nucleus might be breaking up, someone will point a big scope at it. Haven’t seen anything yet except for recent STEREO photos, in which the comet appears very faint.

      1. doug

        Thank you I was just reading a couple of other blogs and it kinda frightened me again. I am pretty gullible.

  6. stephanie

    hi astro bob I just have a quick question? can a comet change its path? I mean they say we cant see it for a month because of the sun can it change path or move faster? or go off course? I really dont know too much about comets except all the scary stuff I been reading in which Im sort of relieved its breaking up or so they say?!! can you please help me with my questions!!

    1. astrobob

      Small non-gravitational effects like jetting from vaporizing water ice and carbon dioxide can change a comet’s path slightly as can a close encounter with a large planet like Jupiter. Elenin’s path will not change significantly in the months ahead.

      1. stephanie

        So it cant and wont have a drastic change? after it passes the sun? I read that it may not even make it past the sun is this true? or just more gossip? whats the chances it does make it past the sun? thanks astrobob ur the best!!

        1. astrobob

          The orbit isn’t expected to change, but the comet could break apart, which is possibly in the works right now. If that’s the case, it may fade out and be very faint after perihelion.

  7. Brent

    I work with a lady here and she is telling everyone in the office that this next month the Earths gravity will be messed up but the pull of what she said was a Brown dwarf, she said it isn’t a comet at all! and that Nasa has said it is a brown dwarf! My question is could it be possible that there is indeed a brown dwarf headed towards the planet and Comet Elenin, and i mean brown dwarfs are they not really hard to spot? Because she is freaking everyone out here! I want either verify or debunk it to put my mind as well as the rest of my fellow employees! Thanks for the information!

    1. astrobob

      Hey Brent — This is fact: there is no brown dwarf headed toward Earth. None has ever been detected headed in our direction – ever. This “star” is complete fantasy cooked up by a small group of people who are:
      * Simply ignorant of the facts and like passing along scary rumors
      * Wishful thinkers and instant “scientists”
      * A few who are deliberately spreading misinformation for some form of
      personal gain like notoriety or perhaps to sell books and do lecture tours.

      If there really was a brown dwarf headed for Earth, we’d see it very clearly by now and astronomers across the planet — never mind just NASA, they comprise only a small group of the world’s astronomers — would be studying, photographing and reporting on the phenomenon. Amateurs astronomers would be on it, too. They aren’t. and it isn’t in the regular press, because it’s all a bunch of baloney. Pardon my French.

      1. Brent

        Hey thank you for taking the time to respond. My co-workers and I thank you very much. The lady I was talking about still thinks the end is coming… but at least people know she is full of “baloney” as you so eloqently put it! So thanks a million and i really enjoy your website!

  8. Kent

    The biggest hoot about the end of the worlders who are now blaming everything on poor little Coment Elenin is that in the late 1970’s, obviously before the wide spread use of the Internet so a lot of the general public didn’t know about it, end of the worlders were saying that in 1982, because of the planets of our solar system were all going to be on the same side of the sun, that there were going to be huge earthquakes that year when in fact it turned out there were less quakes that year.

    Another thing some of them were saying was that Halley’s Comet was going to make a closer than usual pass by the earth and its tail was going to cause debris to rain down on earth and harm the ozone layer so that the sun would scorch the earth when in fact everyone who knew anything about astronomy knew that Halley’s was going to be further away than usual which proved to be the case and, or course, nothing happened.

    When Halley’s Comet did make a closer pass in 1910 there was hysteria that terrible things were going to happen to the earth because the earth was going to pass through Halley’s tail which, it turns out, when this happened it did no harm whatsoever.

    One would think that in the last 101 years we would have learned something about how comets can’t harm us unless one happens to hit the earth headon, which is extremely rare.

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