Move Over Elenin, Comet Honda’s Back In Town

A series of images of the UARS satellite made with a 14-inch telescope by French astrophotographer Thierry Legault. The satellite is tumbling possibly from being hit by satellite debris in the past. Credit: Thierry Legault

First, an update on the UARS (YOU-ours). Its orbit now takes it to within 120 miles of the Earth’s surface as the satellite continues to drop hour by hour. For reference, the space station orbits about 225 miles high. NASA still doesn’t know exactly where it land, but the bus-sized bird is predicted to enter the atmosphere sometime on Friday. I’ve seen forecasts by long-time satellite watchers placing UARS’ decay possibly near New Zealand and/or Japan but to be honest, everything’s still up in the air.

Log in to Heavens Above or click HERE and enter your zip code to see if UARS will make any final  appearances over your home before its demise. Observers have reported that it’s now as bright as the brightest stars with occasional flashes as bright as Venus!

While Comet Elenin may have broken up and faded, we still wait with great anticipation to see if its remnants will show in the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s C3 coronagraph, a device that blocks the brilliant solar disk so astronomers can see and study the sun’s outer atmosphere. Its field of view is large enough to include background stars, the passing planets and the occasional comet that happens to swing by. Elenin will arrive at the far left edge of the view sometime on Friday and exit to the upper right around September 28-29.

Comet Honda strikes a beautiful form with a bright coma and crisp, westward-pointing tail in this photo taken this morning (Sept. 21) through a 10-inch telescope from Rome, Italy. Credit: Danilo Pivato

While Comet Elenin may be a goner, another comet that’s aroused interest this year has quietly returned to the early dawn sky. 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, which we’ll abbreviate to Comet Honda, is shining at around 7th magnitude low in the east not far from the bright star Regulus. Moonlight will interfere with the view until this weekend. Find a location with a wide open view of the eastern horizon and start looking about 1 1/2 – 2 hours before sunrise. Your best bet is to locate bright Regulus and “star hop” from it to the comet.

The view facing east 1 1/2 hours before sunrise. Comet Honda will only be about 10 degrees high in a dark sky before dawn's first light. Stars are shown to about mag. 5.5. Brighter ones like Regulus, Omicron and Rho are labeled. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Since it’s been cloudy here, I haven’t been out to see Honda yet, but the forecast looks great for the weekend, so I plan to set the alarm clock soon. While it should be visible as a small, fuzzy glow in 50mm and larger binoculars, until the moon has dwindled to a very thin crescent, you may need at least a small telescope to see the comet. Once the moon’s gone, it’ll be fair game for binoculars. The tail stands out boldly in the photo, but will appear much fainter in a telescope. Use the map above to help you locate it.

One last thing. There’s no need to be concerned over Comet Honda. It makes  regular returns to the Earth’s vicinity approximately every five years. On August 15 it passed closest to Earth at a distance of 5.6 million miles. Since then Honda’s been moving away from our planet with a current distance of 61.4 million miles. Astronomers have determined that the comet itself – the solid but friable body inside the bright coma –  measures about 1/2 mile across.

Good luck in your Honda search, and let us know what you see.

6 Responses

    1. astrobob

      James,
      That’s bright! I’m a little envious. UARS passes ended here a day or two ago AND it’s been cloudy. Thanks for the report.

  1. jessie leigh

    So the bus sized satellite wont hurt anyone right haha. When it hits earth, it wont land and hurt anyone. Has there been other satellites that fell in the past?

    Thanks, Im excited about Honda!

    1. astrobob

      Jessie,
      Satellites like rocket stages and various parts and pieces fall all the time and burn up. Occasionally pieces of one or another make it to the ground and are found. It’s rare though. There are four more large objects coming down within the next month: the 2-ton-plus ROSAT satellite, Atlas Centaur, and SL-3 R/B and the Ariane Spelda.

  2. Paula

    Are these four large object supposed to pose a potential threat also?
    Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that all of this is happening at once or have we just not heard as much as we have lately due to comet elenin, threat of sun flares and 2012 hype?
    Enjoy reading your post!!

    1. astrobob

      Paula,
      None of these objects will pose a threat. It’s also not unusual to have multiple comets in the sky at the same time (there are currently about eight visible in telescopes), planetary conjunctions and solar activity. These things really do happen all the time and often simultaneously. The doomsayers are selectively picking this and that from a myriad of possibilities to make forecasts that have more to do with astrology than astronomy.

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