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.
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.
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.
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.