Comet Elenin Teaches Us To Sit Still And Pay Attention

Photos taken in an 11-inch telescope by Australian amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazzo clearly show how Comet Elenin has faded. The left image was taken on August 3, when the comet was steadily brightening; the right on September 14 after perihelion.

There’s sure been a lot of excited talk about the disintegration and disappearance of Comet Elenin this week, but we must be careful not to jump to conclusions based on only a small amount of evidence. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the small, several kilometer-wide comet body itself has broken into pieces, which are now vaporizing into a cloud of dust and gas. That began around the 19th of August when Comet Elenin started to fade and its coma became much more diffuse. The breakup was caused by heat and gravitational stresses from the sun in advance of its closest approach to the sun on September 10th. This behavior is not unusual and has been observed in other comets in the past. It demonstrates to us again that comets are not dense, rock-hard bodies like many of the asteroids. Being composed of ices and dust, they’re subject to break up and dissolution from the sun.

As a single, solid body, the comet has not survived, however the fragments have obviously continued to spew dust and gas, enough to still see a what’s left of the comet in the image taken on the 14th, four days past perihelion. Its brightness at that time was about magnitude 10.5.  Mattiazzo also has a photo he took with a telephoto lens on that date which doesn’t show the comet at all. This isn’t surprising since a 300mm telephoto doesn’t have the light gathering power of a telescope.

In this photo taken with a 300mm telephoto lens on Sept. 14, the comet is invisible, because the image doesn't record fuzzy objects like galaxies and comets below magnitude 10.1, the brightness of the galaxy NGC4697. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

His observing conditions also have to be taken under consideration. In both photos, Comet Elenin was only 7 degrees above the horizon, which is very, very low. At that altitude, light from stars and other celestial objects is absorbed by the thickness of our atmosphere like a sponge soaking up water, making them appear much fainter than when higher up. Since his photo shows a 10.1 magnitude galaxy, all we can say for certain is that the comet is fainter than the galaxy or roughly below about magnitude 10.5.

So is the comet there or gone? I’m sure that the dust cloud is still there but faint and difficult to photograph because of low altitude and evening twilight. A larger telescope and better conditions would undoubtedly show it. Indeed the comet may be 11th magnitude and just below the limit for Mattiazzo’s scope. Because it will get even closer to the sun from our perspective in the coming days, it may well be impossible to photograph again until it swings into the dark morning sky in mid-October.

As I’ve mentioned before, the comet may appear in the Solar and Heliospheric’s LASCO C3 coronagraph photos beginning a week from today on the 23rd, but I doubt it. The remnant dust cloud will likely be too dim and diffuse to show.

I want to make clear that whatever is left of Comet Elenin when it passes nearest the sun on September 26 will have no effects on Earth. This date shouldn’t be confused with perihelion, which is the time of closest solar approach. It will only appear close because Elenin will lie approximately between the Earth and sun. There will be no three days or even three seconds of darkness like some of you have been reading online. Not only will the comet completely miss the sun by 2 full degrees (equal to four full moon diameters), but the dusty cloud is so exceedingly rarefied it will be undetectable even in a telescope. Rest easy.

I’m eager to see what October will bring. It certainly looks like a large telescope and dark skies will be needed to make out what’s left of the comet. Pity. But there’s a lesson here. No matter what machinations and purposes humans may want to attribute to this little comet, it’s a piece of the natural world and will do what it does. If we turn down the noise, we can better see a comet or any celestial object for what it is rather than what we want it to be. Nature is the best teacher, but we need to sit still and pay attention if we’re to fathom her creatures.

74 Responses

  1. buffy

    Hi bob thanks for posting this! I just have one question if its a long period comet does that mean it has went past our galaxy before? And if so how come it never burned up in our sun before ? What Im saying is if it survived once how come not again? Please explain thanks

    1. astrobob

      Buffy,
      The comet belongs to our solar system. It’s just way out there beyond Neptune, but still under the gravitational influence of the sun.

      1. Sandra Cardoso

        how can it be beyond neptune and still burned by the sun, hummm

        and it became smaller, so how come we can see it on soho – LASCO C3

        Very funny

        1. astrobob

          Sandra,
          The comet is currently between Earth and the sun at a distance of 42 million miles from us. Neptune is about 2 billion miles away or 47 times farther away. We hope to see Elenin in the LASCO C3 because it passes in nearly the same line of sight as the sun beginning tomorrow through about the 29th.

  2. buffy

    Lol bob u been the best answering questions for me and my daughter and I thank u but…..
    What does that mean lol its never been through our solar system before or it has lol Im lost

    1. astrobob

      Buffy,
      That it’s never been through the inner solar system before in our neighborhood. I’m glad you asked because others might think the comet arrived from somewhere else when it’s been with us a long time.

  3. caralex

    Great commentary, Bob, and long overdue (not from you, but in general!) The amount of nonsense, web pages, Youtube videos, etc. devoted to this small comet and its evils, or indeed its wonders, has just been incredible.

    I think Leonid Elenin himself is having a hard time coming to terms with it all. He’s been called all sorts of names, his existence has been questioned, his less-than- fluent English has been used against him. I admire his tenacity in the face of all of this!

    As you say, October will settle, once and for all, if anything remains. Once it’s gone, of course, we’ll be onto the next scare/wonder/doomsday object! Any guesses what it might be??

  4. buffy

    Oohhhh ok thanks bob! If my lil lady wants to know anything else Ill post again u have helped her soo much even with school and everything!! Thanks bob

  5. JR

    Bob,
    It seems that you yourself are interjecting as well what you want this to be. What if something happens during the end of Sept., will you still then feel as though nature does as nature do?

    1. astrobob

      Hi JR,
      I don’t want it to be anything more than it is — at least physically. I may be emotionally impressed by the comet or see it symbolically, but that’s another layer and a personal one, not necessarily shared by anyone. Let’s say Comet Elenin comes back to life (which it’s not expected to do just to be clear), then it would be doing just what it does, and we’ll stand to learn in the process. And if the comet itself should exhibit additional unexpected behaviors, we’ll learn even more.

  6. James

    great read!!! i be so glad when this month ends and nothing happens i study Seismology and im tired of everybody saying this comet causes earthquakes no comet causes EQs

  7. Thomas

    With all due respect, where is any proof from the various international science programs to confirm or deny the existence of this break up? The elephant in the room is that there is no supporting evidence outside of amateur astronomers? With inferior equipment? Where is Europe? Where is Australia? Where is any US based telescope? Where is any proof outside of youtube? Be afraid is my motto, the party is on. BTW, watch how illuminaries handle the next week. They need time to get in their bunkers.

    1. astrobob

      Thomas,
      First, the comet has only been been visible from the southern hemisphere for the past month. From European and U.S. latitudes, it’s been hanging out in evening twilight too low to the horizon to be seen. If there were any chance of spotting it, I’d make the observations myself. The next opportunity is for northern observers to spot it is early next month. The amateurs you mentioned are using very good equipment but lately have been challenged by the comet being near the horizon even for them.
      Professional astronomers probably have more on their hands and are more focused on their own research to pay much attention to Comet Elenin, but I agree with you, it would be nice if a large southern hemisphere scope could be pointed at it to get a clearer view of the breakup. Still, NASA directed the STEREO probes to examine the comet as well as the Green Bank radio telescope.
      The comet breakup is following in the footsteps of other breakups, so there’s no doubt about it at this point. The editors at Sky and Telescope magazine, who have astronomy backgrounds, have also recognized it as such.

  8. antwanne

    Hi just a question or 2 maybe u can clear something up for me I just read on universe today that the comet was fading and just about everything u said… but one of the comments had me thinking this woman said that china states their was a cluster behind elenin what was that and that nasa suddenly stoped alot of their programs is their any truth in this? I mean I been following this whole thing for a while and been fine till I read her comments she really has me worried can u please answer my questions and let me know the truth is. Their anything your not telling us? Cause the 26,27,28 are coming up soon and im very nervous!! Thanks

    1. astrobob

      Antwanne,
      That whole UFO-behind-the-comet thing is either a misinterpreted observation or deliberately made up to sensationalize. Another group of people made up UFOs accompanying Comet Hale-Bopp back in 1996-97. In both cases, nothing has been seen or photographed “accompanying” Comet Elenin. Back in spring, several photographs taken by amateur astronomers showed it in the same field of view with two faint asteroids, which were clearly identified. Perhaps that was misinterpreted.

  9. buffy

    @ Thomas u really need to stop posting things like that for their are kids who read this blog like my daughter who is already upset about all the conspiracy that has been going around allready, I believe ppl should look for facts instead of reading godlike productions and going with them.

  10. ray

    The only ‘reality’ based conspiracy I see is the economy failing in front of us. So far as doomsday, comets, pole shift, x planets, aliens. Well. I will just say that I am not losing any sleep over these.
    Then there is the rapture preacher. May 21 2011. He was wrong. Again.
    I would hate to have people killing themselves (and others) over mis information I gave them.
    Big solar flare, bright lights all the way down to the equator would be nice to see. Without frying electronics, of course.
    I still wonder why officials have not come up with a ‘real’ answer to all of the bird/fish kills all over the world.

  11. Ally

    Hi astrobob,
    Have been following your blog among every other piece of info on elenin. Was wondering if u have seen the recent video footage of the naumeyer (have forgotten how to spell it) station in antarctica with the rising of supposed ‘suns’ etc.? If you have, would u be able to explain it for me? It seems very odd! Thanks a bunch

    1. astrobob

      Hi Ally,
      I haven’t seen that specific one but there are dozens of these “two sun” videos taken from different places on different dates. Let’s think about this for a moment. If there really were two suns — even for just a few minutes — it would be the most incredible astronomical discovery of all time. Professional and amateur astronomers, not to mention the mainstream media, would be abuzz … but they’re not. Of course, not a single one of these videos shows two stars. There is only one sun, and you can prove it to yourself any clear day. The videos show mostly lens flare (very common when pointing cameras at the sun) but also solar halos, sundogs or parhelia (brilliant patches of light to the left or right of the sun caused by refraction ice crystals in thin, high altitude clouds) and in several cases, a distant cloud in front of the sun “splitting” it in two. The splitting effect is especially striking because the sun is very overexposed in the videos.

  12. David

    Hey Bob. So the comet is basicly done for? If so why do people continue to try to scare one another. Its scientific proof even if it survives the trip pass the sun its orbit is beyond a safe distance from earth. Right?

    1. astrobob

      You’re right David. My guess is that there’s a lot of wishful thinking out there plus a passionate belief in coverups of all sorts, whether there’s any truth or not behind them. In the case of Comet Elenin, all manner of nonsense has been fabricated. It will be interesting to watch how it all evolves and what’s selected as the next celestial object to strike fear in our hearts.

  13. Jonesy

    Hi Bob, I have a question regarding the breakup of the comet – will its parts still keep the same trajectory as the whole comet and not be directed slightly different way than the whole comet body was? Or is some kind of gravitation keeping the parts still together and not letting them go astray (towards the Earth)? Sorry I am complete layman and also one of those easily scared people – my apologies for that.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Jonesy,
      Good questions. The fragments will continue to travel together in nearly the same direction the comet was traveling because of forward momentum at great speed (somewhere in the miles per second range). As the fragments further crumble and vaporize, they’ll eventually spread out into a broader stream within the comet’s orbit but remain far from Earth.

      1. Jonesy

        Hi Bob,
        Thank you very much for explaining – it is good to know that. And it is good to learn interesting facts about comets as well.
        Best regards 🙂

  14. Doug

    Bob,

    Great site and thoughts on it all.

    What are your thoughts on Elenin’s ability to cause seismic activity here on earth as hypothesized by: Professor Mensur Omerbashich in his Cornell University study on general physics.

    If his theory is true, should even a broken apart Elenin be able to cause increased seismic activity?

    At it’s lowest form, he is saying that the earths magnetic field is resounding
    back upon itself with planetary and comet alignment and that resounding affects our EQ’s here on Earth.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Doug. Dr. Omerbashich’s ideas are way out on the fringe with no scientist but himself to support them. He writes in dense, obfuscating language that sounds impressive but lacks rigorous proof. I read part of his paper as well as Australian amateur Ian Musgrave’s rebuttal/analysis. Sounds like baloney dressed up in fancy language to me. As Musgrave, I and many others have both pointed out, Comet Elenin is far too small to affect Earth. There are hundreds of thousands of comets and millions of asteroids, many much larger than Comet Elenin, and they go about their orbits with no affects on Earth. Nor has Jupiter any significant effect, which has millions of times more mass than Elenin, or Saturn, etc. Gravity is only a strong force when two objects are close to each other. If Elenin were to pass very, very close to Earth (it’s not, just to be clear), its orbit and not the Earth’s would be affected simply because our planet is so much more massive. You may not have read back in the Comments section, but I’ve addressed this topic many times in the recent past.

  15. Chantal

    Hi Bob – Have been pondering this all weekend (note to self, get a life), could you please answer the following question in laymens terms. If a comet’s coma occurs at approx 3-4 AU from the sun due to sublimation and is approx 90% water based (I could be wrong here so correct if needed), why then, when a comet breaks up does the coma size) decrease, or is just the magnitude that decreases. Doesn’t the breakup of the coma equate to a larger surface area and therefore an increase in materials that could sublimate, therefore resulting in a larger coma. Also is the magnitude determined by the particles ability to reflect light, if it is then as above shouldn’t increased surface area=increased magnitude not decreased – please help;) Thanks Bob
    NB Note to all – I am not suggesting that the coma will have any affect on the earth at all!

    1. astrobob

      Chantal,
      These are great questions and I’ll try my best to answer. A comet’s coma is generally more spherical when far from the sun. When near the sun it assumes a more streamlined teardrop shape due to pressure of sunlight and solar wind which move dust particles away from the comet’s head and down the tail. When the breakup happened, the fragments essentially turned into a bunch of mini-comets that began to dissipate as they moved down the comet’s tail. That’s why the coma went from having a bright central condensation to one that became increasing more elongated. As the fragments continue to vaporize, the coma will expand and then fade until the fragments are either no more. It seems logical to expect an initial brightness surge upon breakup, since you’ve got all those fresh surfaces exposed. Why there wasn’t I don’t know. Perhaps the comet was very, very small so a breakup wouldn’t make much difference in brightness. The same behavior was observed in Comet S4 LINEAR in 2000.

    1. astrobob

      Dear Aster,
      I haven’t seen any made with the Hubble Scope. Which pictures are you referring to? Along with recent stories about Comet Elenin, a number of sites have posted pictures of the breakup of Comet LINEAR S4 in 2000. Are you referring to these?

  16. miranda

    are we going to be swallowed by a black hole? or is a brown dwarf going to destroy us. there was a news headline on the yahoo news website about a brown dwarf. i have two children and i dont know much about this stuff. so mr.bob could you please help me out?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Miranda,
      Neither is true. There are no brown dwarfs headed our way and no black holes lurking nearby or on their way either. The closest black hole is about 1600 light years from Earth — far, far away.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Buffy,
      No, I don’t. I’m waiting until this Friday when whatever’s left of the comet will hopefully show up in SOHO’s coronagraph.

  17. buffy

    Hey bob sorry to bother u again but a friend of mine just told me obama and nasa will be in denver on the 27’th of sept cause of some under ground bunker the site she was reading stated the reason he will be in denver is because of the alignment with elenin ? I keep trying to think rational but Im still getting nervous I mean I thought the aligent starts on the 26th? And is it true it is gonna take 3 days? Please help bob

  18. antwanne

    Hi bob I was just curious when does the alignment start on the 26 ? And if it. Starts on the 26 why is everyone so freaked out about the 27th? Thanks alot

    1. astrobob

      Antwanne,
      There is no alignment. Comet Elenin — or what’s left of it — will be 2 degrees (four full moon diameters) north of the sun. Some people are calling that an “alignment”. It’s actually just solar conjunction, an event that happens every year with all the planets in the solar system and occurs every month at New Moon. No big deal.

    2. astrobob

      Buffy,
      I think people are getting biblical about this. There will be no three day alignment. Comet Elenin will be in conjunction with the sun on the 26th. This is when the comet moves from the evening to the morning sky. Please see my other reply to Antwanne for more information.

  19. buffy

    Im sorry bob what exactly does that mean? Just a shot in the dark u can view it in the morning is that what it means? And if thier is no alignment where do these ppl get their information from? So the sun moon and earth line up every month? If so I didnt know that !?! So then why r ppl freakin out.?

    1. astrobob

      Buffy,
      Exactly! Indeed, why ARE people freaking out? No need to. Conjunction just means the comet and sun (or planet and sun) briefly line up in the same north-south line. When a celestial object is east of that line as Comet Elenin still is today, it’s sets AFTER the sun and is officially in the evening sky. Once it moves west of that line it rises BEFORE the sun and is visible in the morning sky. “Visible” might be stretching the truth a bit, because it’s still too close to the sun to observe. That’s why we have to wait until October to see it. Only then will it have moved far enough west of the sun to be visible in a dark sky.

    2. caralex

      Buffy, how did you think full moon and new moon occur, if not due to an alignment of the sun, moon and earth? You can’t in all seriousness be saying you didn’t know that.

  20. antwanne

    So if its conjuction is on the 26th then what happends the 27th cause I been reading it takes 3 days? Are u gonna keep us updated on everything? And again thank you

    1. astrobob

      Hi Doug,
      You’re welcome! What you see in the SOHO’s C3 coronagraph is the planet Mercury. Watch for it to get even closer to the sun in the coming few days. The planet is in the distance behind or beyond the sun, but because we see them in nearly the same line of sight, they appear close together.

  21. Doug

    Bob,

    Thanks so much! Can you tell us where we can find such information for ourselves? Are there any charts that are easy for novices to read showing planetary movement within Soho’s cameras?

    Also, has anyone taken a recent picture of Elenin?

    And finally, when should we expect to see Elenin in Soho?

    1. astrobob

      Doug,
      Download a copy of the Stellarium star-charting software at http://www.stellarium.org
      With it you can see where all the planets and constellations are as well as the sun’s position. No one to my knowledge has taken a photo of the comet since the 14th. It’s too faint and too near the western horizon to photograph at the moment. The next chance we’ll have to see it or its remnants will be this Friday in the LASCO C3 coronagraph.

  22. Rick

    Hey Bob I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate all the updates you give. I have been a faithful follower of your for weeks now as i have been trying to find sanity in the midst of the thousands of Conspiracy videos, and doomsayer propaganda of the end of the world! I am a strong believer in the Bible but am not on the ban wagon of a lot of others who try to fit hypothetical events into Biblical prophecy. I posted to day on a site that I administer on how I believe this event is just like the Hale Bopp frenzy that took place in the 90’s with many freaking out then and the Y2K scare etc. I do have one question for you I have had many people try to get me to watch videos of people filming allegedly 2 suns or the sun and Nibiru or whatever beside it and I tried taking a picture of the sun one day and the spot showed up but I later debunked it discovering it was a glare from the sun on the cell phone camera. My question is is this what most of these videos are? glares, reflections, Sun Dogs? Thanks

    1. astrobob

      Hi Rick,
      I just was asked this a few days ago. After viewing a number of them, it’s clear the videos show mostly lens flare as you discovered (very common when pointing cameras at the sun) but also solar halos, sundogs or parhelia (brilliant patches of light to the left or right of the sun caused by refraction ice crystals in thin, high altitude clouds) and in several cases, a distant cloud in front of the sun “splitting” it in two. The splitting effect is especially striking because the sun is very overexposed in these particular videos. People want to believe the fantastic rather than seek a natural or more prosaic explanation.

  23. buffy

    @ caralex Im sorry but Im serious I know nothing about space and anything having to do with it science was my worst subject but so happends to be my daughters best!! I only ask about when the alignment will occur so once that time frame comes and passes I can show my daughter she has nothing to worry about !! She has been very scared because of all the hype and she asked me and I didnt know what to say!! What should I tell her?

    1. caralex

      Well, if it’s her best subject, she should be the one reassuring you!! Take her to your local library, and get her interested in the astronomy section. Borrow some books (both of you) and start reading! Borrow children’s astronomy books – don’t feel they’re beneath you, and get up to date on the basics. Learn about the earth and its position in the solar system, its movements, its axial tilt, the causes of the seasons, etc. Learn about the moon and the other planets and their motions. Learn what a comet is, and what it can and cannot do….there’s a huge amount to learn. You won’t get through it in a day or two – it’s an ongoing learning curve. But, I can assure you, it’s worth it. When you’re in a position of knowledge, you’ll learn to admire and love the heavens, not fear them.

  24. Stephanie

    I was just wondering how long will the conjunction last? what exactly is briefly? and I see her point on wanting to know what time of the day it will occur, its funny to me how some ppl have never even heard of anything thats going why is this? and I will deff be looking forward to fridays update thank again!!

  25. buffy

    I think I get it! They will be next too each other not exactly aligned? And that is why ppl r saying 26,27,28 are the so called days… I just have one last question for you has any other comet in all ur years ever align like elenin with sun moon earth before? Only reason I asked is because if its been done why is everyone making such a big deal?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Buffy,
      You’ve got the idea. Yes, they’re all sort of lined up but none lies in the same flat plane. The moon is well below the plane, the sun’s on the plane and Elenin’s above the plane. In any case, as I’ve pointed out before, these alignments happen all the time, especially the lunar-sun-planetary ones and they have no effect on Earth. As for your other question on whether other comets line up like this, the answer is yes, but honestly I don’t pay much attention to conjunctions of comets and the sun so I can’t cite a specific example at the moment. It’s also important to remember there are hundreds of thousands of comets spread across the solar system, so lineups are common even if we’re not always aware of them.

  26. Rick

    Hey Bob I have another question for you. If Elenin was a Dwarf Star of Nibiru or it is following Elenin wouldn’t there be obvious signs and disruptions taking place right now being that today is the 21st and we are about 6-8 days from ( Alignment )? Just wondering because I get questions like this asked to me and I not being an astronomer can only answer from my personal knowledge of this?

    1. astrobob

      Rick,
      If there were any other star in the solar system beside the sun, it would be spectacular news everywhere. Not only that, but everyone would see it. Amateur and professional astronomers would be madly taking pictures of such an object, not to mention every media outlet in the world. And depending on how close such an object would be, yes, there would be gravitational effects. Clearly however, there is no such star. It only exists in the imaginations of its inventors.

  27. Rbridges

    Which named planet is the one that meteors pull toward it acting like filter so they don’t reach earth. Isn’t it Jupitor? If it is then our creator in charge of the heavens made sure and continues to make sure events as this are non events.

  28. Mark

    Hi Astro Bob,

    I’ve just heard about this comet/planet x/ brown dwarf activity today. My sister sent me a picture of the sun with a blue planet shaped object beside it. Now she has me all worried about what is going to happen in the next few days. So what is the story? I heard the comet is going to come close to earth, but I then hear that planet x is going to come near. Then I heard there is a brown dwarf in the trail of the comet or of planet x. Help. Thank you.

    1. astrobob

      Mark,
      Please read through the comments for more detailed answers to your questions. To put it simply, there is no brown dwarf and no Planet X. They are completely invented without a shred of observational evidence from either amateur or professional astronomers. The blue object is either lens flare — a very common occurrence when pointing a camera directly at a brilliant object like the sun — or cloud-related phenomena like sundogs or halos.

  29. Gary

    Bob, can you please look at this short clip of the sun which was shot with negative image on September 20th 2011. Just curious if you think that this is just another case of lens flare.

    1. astrobob

      Gary,
      Yes, more lens flare. Toward the end you can see both the primary flare and a secondary dimmer disk indicating another internal reflection. It always amazes me that the people doing the videos don’t just put the camera down, hold their hand up to block the sun and see for themselves with their own eyes that there is no second sun. Who could possibly believe another sun would appear out of nowhere, not be obvious to millions of people and then suddenly disappear. And why was the negative image used? I suspect it’s yet another way to inspire more anxiety. There are dozens of these Gary. Some are deliberate attempts to either get extra hits/spread disinformation while others are just people not knowing what they’re shooting.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Brian,
      I’m don’t think anyone knows. It’s very close to the sun as seen from Earth and also quite faint, so no one’s seen it to my knowledge for the past week. Our next shot at seeing the comet is in the SOHO coronagraph Friday.

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