Comet Elenin a no-show; Doomed satellite may fall tonight

A red maple stands illuminates the scene yesterday on the Superior Hiking Trail near Beaver Bay. Photo: Bob King

Happy equinox! Fall began in the northern hemisphere at 4:05 a.m. today when most of us were asleep. At the same moment, the first kiss of spring greeted those living in the southern hemisphere. Yesterday I hiked up north near the Beaver River and stopped often to admire the many fine red and sugar maples aglow with shades of red, scarlet and purple. With yellows provided by the turning birches, the forest was a canvas of color on an otherwise drab, gray day.

Like the descending leaves, today’s the day the 6.3 ton UARS research satellite drops to Earth by way of fiery atmospheric journey. As of 9:30 a.m., its orbit brings it to within 100 miles of the ground with re-entry expected between about 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. tonight Central time (updated as of 6:30 p.m. CDT). It now appears that there’s at least a small possibility it will burn up where people might see it. UARS passes over Europe and North America several times during this period but most of its time will be spent over ocean and sparsely populated lands. The atmospheric heating and breakup of the satellite will begin when it drops to about 60 miles high and finish off at about 30 miles. For a list of overflight re-entry possibilities, please see the list of cities at the end of this blog. All times are courtesy of Robert Matson, Senior Scientist with the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). Get more updates HERE or HERE.


Satellite re-entry can be a spectacular sight. This is what the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft looked like when it burned up in the atmosphere in June 2010 while (safely) delivering a small capsule containing a sample from an asteroid. The video was taken from a DC-8 airborne observatory.

On the first day of fall and spring, the Earth's axis is "sideways" to the sun allowing both hemispheres to receive equal illumination. As we move toward winter, the northern hemisphere tips away from the sun, causing it to drop in the sky which makes for short days and long nights. In summer, the opposite happens. Between those extremes are fall and spring. Notice that the axis tip doesn't change - only our planet's orientation to the sun during its yearly orbit. Credit: Tao'olunga with my own additions

On the first day of autumn, the sun rises due east and sets due west everywhere on Earth. If you’d like to learn the directions around your home, now’s the time. Face the sunset direction and east is directly behind you. Stick out your left arm and it points due south; stick out your right arm and it points due north.While knowing directions sounds like a simple thing, it’s important when it comes to using a star map to find constellations, planets and comets in the night sky. Once you know your home “grid”, you’re good to go.

One of the reasons I enjoy the change of seasons so much is because we really get to feel how the tip of our planet’s axis makes such a difference in our lives. Think of all the fun, gloom, poetry, sweat and diversity of life that arise from this simple fact of nature.

The sun is the little white circle behind an occulting disk that blocks its light so astromers can photograph its outer atmosphere called the corona (streaming rays in picture). Stars Beta and Eta in Virgo are labeled. Comet Elenin is so far a no-show in this 8:30 a.m. photo. Credit: NASA/ESA

Today is also an important day for Comet Elenin. Will it appear in the SOHO coronagraph images? I’m afraid the latest images don’t offer much hope. Using SkyMap software, I plotted the position of the comet on a SOHO photo taken at 8:30 a.m. Central time this morning. Key stars and the planet Mercury are shown along with the empty circle where Comet Elenin should be. I can’t see anything, can you? I’ll post an updated photo later today just in case, but it sure looks like the comet is too faint and diffuse to show. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely gone, only that the breakup has caused it to fade so much that SOHO can’t see it. ** Update: still no comet visible as late as the 2:30 p.m. CDT coronagraph photo.

UARS re-entry times and locations: Times shows are UT or Universal time. To convert to Central time, subtract 5 hours; 4 hours for Eastern, 6 for Mountain and 7 for Pacific. Satellite elevation is shown for each area.

September 24, 2011 (UT) — evening/early morning of September 23-24

00:05-00:06 Scotland  157 km
00:08 Denmark  157 km
00:08-00:10 Poland  157 km
00:10-00:12 Ukraine  156 km
00:14-00:15 NE Turkey  154 km
00:15-00:18 Iran  154-152 km
00:19-00:20 East Oman  152 km
01:16-01:18 Mexico  148 km
01:18-01:20 Texas  148 km
01:20-01:21 Arkansas  149 km
01:21 SE Missouri  149 km
01:22 Illinois  150 km
01:22:30  NW Indiana  150 km
01:23  Michigan  151 km
01:24  Ontario, Canada  152 km
01:25-01:28  Quebec  152-154 km
01:36 Ireland  155 km
01:37 England  155 km
01:37:30-01:38:30 NE France  154 km
01:39 S. Germany/W. Austria  154 km
01:39:30 NE Italy  154 km
01:40-01:41 Slovenia/Croatia/Bosnia/Herzegovina  153 km
01:42 Greece
01:43 Off east-coast of Crete  152 km
01:45-01:46 NE Egypt  151 km
01:46-01:49 Red Sea  149 km
01:49-01:50 Yemen  149 km
01:50-01:53 Somalia  149 km
02:32 Tahiti  148 km
02:47-02:48 Southern California  144 km
02:48 Southernmost tip of Nevada  144 km
02:48-02:50 Utah  145 km
02:50-02:51 Wyoming  146 km
02:51:30 NW South Dakota  147 km
02:52 North Dakota  147 km
02:53 NW Minnesota  147 km
02:53-02:55 Ontario, Canada
02:56-02:58 Quebic  150 km
03:08-03:09 Spain  149 km
03:10-03:12 NE Algeria  148 km
03:12-03:14:30 Western Libya  147 km
03:15-03:18 Chad  146 km
03:18-03:20 Border of Sudan/Central African Republic  147 km
03:20-03:21 Democratic Republic of the Congo  147 km
03:22 Rwanda/Burundi  148 km
03:22-03:24:30 Tanzania  149 km
03:24:30-03:26 Somalia  151 km
03:28 Southern tip of Madagascar  154 km
04:00 Just south of Somoa  146 km
04:18:30-04:20 Washington state  140 km
04:20-04:24:30 Western Canada  141-143 km
04:26-04:28 Quebec  143 km
04:40 Southern Morocco/N. Western Sahara  138 km
04:40:30-04:42 Mauritania  138 km
04:42-04:44 Mali  137 km
04:44-04:45 Burkino Faso  137 km
04:45-04:46 Benin  137 km
04:51-04:53 Angola  140 km
04:53-04:54 NE Namibia  141-142 km
04:54-04:55:30 Botswana  143 km
04:55:30-04:57:30 South Africa  143-145 km
05:19 NW corner of Tasmania  146 km
05:20 SE-most Australian coast  144 km
05:26 NW edge of New Caledonia  137 km
05:27 Vanuatu  136 km
05:49-05:54 British Columbia/Alberta/Saskatchewan/Manitoba  139-141 km
05:56-05:59 Quebec  140 km
06:00 Newfoundland  139 km

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

87 thoughts on “Comet Elenin a no-show; Doomed satellite may fall tonight

  1. Bob I thank you for the update. I posted this on my site and I know I am going to get a flood or responses telling me that NASA is doctoring the photos to keep us in the dark. How can one disprove this assumption?

    • Hi Rick,
      You’re welcome. I should have guessed some might use that as an excuse. It probably won’t matter what you say, but can you imagine all the trouble NASA would have to go to to doctor up photos taken every half hour or so for the next six days? And what exactly would people at NASA be keeping us in the dark about? We all know the comet began to disintegrate in August. The last observations made on Sept. 14 indicate it was very faint and diffuse, typical for a comet on its way to dissolution. The only news here is the SOHO photos confirm the observations and pictures taken by Australian amateur astronomers. Nothing to hide here.
      In any case, NASA doesn’t particularly care one way or another about Comet Elenin. It’s one of many comets to swing by this year. Hey, I’m still hoping someone will point the Hubble scope at it once it leaves the vicinity of the sun (too close for photography right now).

  2. So It did exactly what everyone has been saying? will it keep fading till its completley gone? and this may seem like a dumb question but is it possible that it may have slowed down and didnt get into view yet? ( just asking?) and again thanks for the update!!

    • Hey Stephanie,
      My hunch, based on other comets like Elenin, is that yes, it will fade until it’s gone. Pieces too small to resolve in most telescopes might remain. Not likely to have slowed down – not much friction out there in space.

  3. Thanks for the post Bob. Links very Useful to pass around. Even yesterday i was still being flooded (or more accurately spammed) by people telling me I was part of the conspiracy. I found a way to quiet them down a little by writing to them that if they are so sure of impeding doom, they sure wouldn’t mind signing over their earthly possessions to the Red Cross.
    They haven’t answered back…yet
    Have a nice week-end, tipping my hard hat to you ;)

    • Hi Paul,
      One good hard-hat tip deserves another. The hard-line conspiracy folks can overwhelm a website, which is why I moderate comments. Most go through — certainly every variety — but once a person starts a daily “sky is falling” rant (in spite of the time I take to provide a rational explanation) I kindly tell them it’s time to move on.

  4. hi bob, nothing to do with comet conspiracy theories (hope we are finished with those). just wanted to mention that I read recently that the CERN folks think that they may (emphasis on may, it’s sounds like it’s very iffy) have isolated a particle(s) that travels faster than the speed of light. if true think of the implications for physics. have you heard of anything of the sort?

    • Hi Thomas,
      Yes, I’ve heard they’ve measured neutrinos supposedly moving faster than the speed of light. What I especially like about the scientific team is how cautious they’ve been about presenting their results. They want other scientists to give their work a hard look to see if it can be duplicated. Until then, theirs is a tentative conclusion. This is what I really like about science — even the real scientists are skeptical. Given the implications of such a discovery, it’s a beautiful example of how science works.

  5. Hey Bob. I have two questions. i live in kansas city missouri and i was woundering is there any way i can see UARS? And im a big wurry ward and i was woundering if you if its going to land i the us?

  6. Honestly Bob can i sleep easy tonight? I get wurried about things i dont understand. In my head i have this big image of UARS hitting my house. Yeah i know it sounds silly but its only because i dont understand the science of tracking the path of it.

    • David,
      Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere. About two dozen smaller pieces are expected to survive re-entry and will be scattered along a 500-mile long track. Chances are tiny you’ll be hit. There’s a lot more land and water out there than you and I.

  7. I read on spaceob blog that someone seen elenin on nasa webpage and was huge today and it did not disappear like you are saying , is their any truth in that what could he have possibly be looking at?

  8. Hi Bob. I went onto the nasa site and it showed a picture of elenin taken 23/11/2011 it says it is a total mag of 6 and a nuclear mag of 18…Is this big should be be worried?

    • Hi Bobbi,
      The date doesn’t look correct — Nov. 23, 2011? A bit ahead of my time. In any case, the higher the magnitude number (18) the fainter the object. 6th is relatively bright for a comet (that’s the overall magnitude of the coma and tail) while 18th would be the pinpoint false nucleus buried deeply in the coma. 18th magnitude is VERY faint.

  9. sorry there is a box which had all the details of elenin and it says it is a m1 10.4 .. But then as you scroll down it say m-T= 6.69 and then m-N=15.69 can you tell mw what this means i found this on nasa home page i typed elenin into the search bar

  10. Hey Bob,

    Looking through the SOHO images there’s an object that enters the left side of the C2 frame at 13:25. Any idea if this is Elenin or Eta Vir or what it may be?

    • Chris,
      I checked the pix and looks like cosmic ray hits and stars. The field of view of the C2 coronagraph is too narrow to include the comet at present. None of the C3 frames through the evening show it.

        • Hi Chris,
          Thanks for the photo. That’s one of many stars in the field and unfortunately not the comet. If it were visible, it would appear as an extended object rather than the ‘pinpoint’ the arrow points to. You would also be able to see it shift to the right or west as you flipped from one C3 frame to the next. I checked them all yesterday and got excited – at first – when looking at one of the evening images, because of a fuzzy east-west extended haze. Checking back, I could see it was just part of a CME rather than the comet.

  11. Does that mean the comet is gone and wont be seen in October? And what’s all the talk about it isn’t really gone ppl have seen it on nasa webpage and its still there big as ever? I can only ask because I don’t even own a telescope lol so I have to come to you bob… can u fill me in on what exactly it being not their means? Thanks

    • Antwanne,
      Something might be left of the comet, but whatever it is, it’s very faint and diffuse. I don’t know what photo you’re referring to, but if it shows the comet big and bright, it’s an older image. We’ll just have to wait till October to see. Nothing is visible presently in any of the SOHO pictures.

  12. I just didn’t understand how it could just dissapear but again space isn’t my thing! ! Do u know what time on monday the conjuntions starts and does the tail of the comet dissapear too?

    • Antwanne,
      The conjunction is late in the evening Central time and nothing to get excited about since the comet will not be visible. I’ll have some information that explains this better tomorrow or latest Sunday.

  13. just curious are you still gonna follow elenin just too see if you see something? and why cant you see the tail? I read this happend with another comet years ago is this true? I been going through this all day with my daughter she wants too know will she be able to still see it in Oct with her telescope? she is in New york Ny!!!

    • Stephanie,
      Unless she has a large telescope, I doubt she’ll be able to see it. I’ll be looking for it at the earliest opportunity and report back on the blog. No one on Earth can see Comet Elenin right now because it’s too near the sun in the sky, and you can’t see faint comets like that in daylight. Only at night.

  14. I think I found a new star, but I am not 100% sure. Friends from JPL couldn’t tell me what it is. I have confirmed and photographed this same mysterious star couple nights in the row. Could you help me identify this star?

    Thanks

    Robin

  15. Just a quick question ppl are saying that comet elenin wasn’t really a comet? What exactly are they saying it is or could be? And that’s why their is so much hype? Do u know anything about it?

    • Antwanne,
      I’ve been writing about all the hype around Comet Elenin for many weeks. If you’d like to see my responses to your questions, please browse back through the Comments section. Elenin’s a comet and only a comet. The rest is nonsense.

      • When did they say the planets will line up and we will have 3 days of darkness?? I unfortunatly have been a nervous wreck over all this and just want it all to pass. I keep trying to find proof of why its not going to happen and then im fine until i see a video from someone saying that this comet is going to flip our planet around in some nirbui tail… Please help me ease my worries with actual facts. Thank you

        • Hi Les,
          Three days of darkness would be great — I’d finally be able to see all the comets that have been hidden by clouds of late. No, there will be no ’3 days of darkness’. Don’t let the fearmongers get the better of you. All that stuff’s completely made up, including the “Niburu” tail baloney. Not gonna happen and you’ll see this for a fact as the next several days tick by on the calendar. Tiny Comet Elenin has broken to bits and no one’s sure (because it’s in the daytime sky and invisible) there’s anything left of it anymore.

          • Thank u for clearing up the 3 day thing. Im sure they said something was to happen on the 11th or so of sept and it didnt but they also say something big on the 16th of oct. What is that they are referring to?? I honestly wake up and read ur comments to try to ease my thoughts for the day so i appreciate ur knowledge since im so unaware to the planets and what not. Im 29 but it all seems so scarey to me. Last question. Is there any difference in the look of this comet from others??

            Id also like to add on to the statements made where they said the president will be hinding in bunkers… If we are dealing with a huge ginormous “planet nirbui” a bunker couldnt save him right??

          • Les,
            “THEY” sure do say a lot of things, don’t they? On Oct. 16 Earth will be closest to the comet. Distance 22 million miles — very safe and no threat whatsoever.

  16. hi bob can you answer the following please, does the fact that elenin can’t be seen at present by soho mean that it can’t be picked up by soho at a later date, say when it ls further away from the sun or does soho only take images from near the sun. Thanks again

  17. Hi my name is alex. and I came on this on my dads phone im only 12 but im really scared about monday and tuesday my dad said I shouldn’t worry but iam. What does it mean when all the planets line up does that happen all the time? Like every year? My friends keep saying things are gonna happen are you sure im gonna be ok? Are you scared? Or this is something you see alot! I can’t wait to tell my teacher about you thank you alex….

    • Hi Alex,
      Not to worry. Lineups of this planet or that (or several at the same time) are common. For instance, the sun, Mercury, Mars and Neptune were all near one another back in February. Then in mid-May this year, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter were all very close together in the morning sky. These things have been happening since there were dinosaurs — and well before. Nothing bad comes of them. I encourage you to go out, look and enjoy as many of these close pairings as you can. They’re often very pretty as well as instructive as they show us right before our eyes how the planets move in their orbits around the sun.

  18. hello bob i have been checking the SOHO images and i have yet to see anything im guessing C/2010 X1 (Elenin) is beyond Mag.11 im guessing around 14

  19. Thanks Mr Bob your awsome!!! I just got scared I just wanna ask you one more thing if you don’t mind? Planets lineing up can’t cause typhoons and earthquakes can it? And im super glad I will be ok tomorrow night my mom been worried too so I can help her now thanks

  20. Hi bob, im very concerned about a video that some guy claims that in a recent picture of stereo B HI2 there is an object, “larger than earth, and that is Elenin”. Im concerned because my nephew (13) it’s terrified, he saw that video, im no astronomer, but i want to help him explaining why this video is wrong. Can you help me please?

    (zorry about my english)

  21. ok here is the website to go too. If you have a look at the table with the title RESULTS. This is what i am confused about it says M1 10.4 and then there is a table attached to it that showing dates from 24/sep to 24/Oct on that table it says t/mag= 5.56 and N/mag =15.73.. This is what i am wanting a explination about is it a 10.4 mag or a 5.56 mag or a 15.73 mag.. Sorry hope i am not being a pain. http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/horizons.cgi#results if this page takes you to current settings click on the box labelled GENERATE EPHEMERIS it will show what i am talking about…

    • Bobbi,
      The magnitudes shown are based on earlier predictions that couldn’t have anticipated the comet breakup. Elenin has now faded well below expectations. Astronomers use mathematical formulas to estimate brightness based on comet distance and trajectory. They’re only approximations to give you and idea of what to expect. Nothing ironclad.

  22. THANK YOU SOOO MUCH FOR CLARIFYING THAT ELENIN IS NOT A THREAT TO EARTH! I have been worried until I read your blog!

    Keep on doing what you are doing! It’s greatly appreciated!

    Melissa

  23. Altho, I do greatly appreciate your knowledge of Astrolomy. I am a beggining student and only seeking answers as always. Peace

    • Hi Rick,
      Yes, we had hoped to see the comet, but it’s clearly faded so much SOHO can’t see it We’ll know better once the comet appears in a dark sky before dawn early next month.

  24. Any updates?? Im not seeing anything on yahoo or anything…is it being pulled off to not cause any panic or is it just not that important?

  25. bob just curious but if bobbi is correct in the comets magnitude of 6.something doesn’t this make it a very bright comet or are these predictions of what it should have been before disintegration started thanks again

  26. Hi Bob,
    Just wondering about Solar Flares, should we be worried about them due to this comet, I heard that as it’s leaving our solar system, it will cause major solar flares, that can pose a huge threat to earth.
    Thanks Bob

  27. What time will comet eilein pass between the sun and earth ? And does it remain between there for a while?? Considering what is being dragged along with it…example dust or what not how long will it take to pass and when it comes back around what will it do or what date does that fall on?

    • Hi Les,
      It will NOT pass between the sun and Earth but about 2.2 degrees (four full moon diameters) north or above the sun. The tail or dust is too far away to affect us. The comet won’t return to the inner solar system for about one million years. That’s its approximate orbital period.

      • okay. But wasnt it supposed to pass by today sometime? wasnt sure considering time zones. Also you said it will be in the sky in oct the 16th? right? so it turns around or can you help me calrify this. thanks

        • Hi Les,
          It’s will pass nearest the sun from Earth’s perspective tomorrow. The comet never stops moving, so it continues to the west of the sun and will soon appear in the morning sky. No change of direction on the comet’s part. It’s following along its predicted orbit. Just a matter of perspective.

    • Antwanne,
      I’ve kind of been over the solar flare thing. Yes, large, Earth-directed solar flares can pose a potential threat to sensitive electronics in satellites, radio communications and power grids.

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