A starry night with friends, “E” Day for Comet Elenin looms

The "Jellyfish" created with red flashlight and green lasers on an old grain silo. Photo: Bob King

I truly need to catch up on sleep. I’ve been up until 2 or later the past couple nights. For good reason. Last night I attended the Furtman Farm Star Party in northern Wisconsin, an annual gathering of starry-eyed men and women who will stop at nothing – neither frost, nor dew nor the sweet whispers of sleep – to track down comets, star clusters and the finest details of Jupiter’s cloud belts at all hours of night. We were fortunate to have clear skies and steady seeing as well one fellow who could bark like a coyote. Between hunting carbon stars and globular star clusters, he barked a lone coyote almost to within petting distance. OK, I exaggerate, but just a little.

After we’d had our fill of the celestial vault, we took a break to “laser paint” a big, old grain silo on the property in what’s becoming an annual tradition. After a half dozen free-form portraits based loosely on Christmas trees, fires, stars and joists of light, we were suddenly hungry. Under the dim red light our happy host Greg Furtman installed in his kitchen, our group enjoyed all kinds of snack food including so-called “Five Alarm” hot peanuts. After much sampling and debate we agreed they were closer to 2.5 alarms.

Our group returned to the dewy cold and peered at the fantastic spots and belts of Jupiter until 1:30 a.m. I drove home fortified by the pleasures of laughter, conversation and friendship shared with one of the finest groups of people on the planet … on any planet.

Comet Elenin is still not visible in images taken today through Sept. 30 (updated) by SOHO. The stars are Eta and Beta in the constellation Virgo. Credit: NASA/ESA

Tomorrow Comet Elenin will pass closest to the sun in the sky as seen from Earth. Don’t get too excited, because there will be nothing to see. First, let’s dispel the baloney about the comet blocking the sun. It’s not only much, much too small to accomplish this, but we’re not even sure there’s a comet there anymore. Elenin started falling to pieces in late August and by the time of last telescopic observation some 11 days ago, it had faded to below 10th magnitude – dim! More importantly, Comet Elenin will NOT pass in front of the sun, because its orbit takes it some 2.2 degrees or four full moon diameters above the sun. That’s a complete miss!

This is how the sky will look around 11 p.m. Monday night the 26th when Comet Elenin is in conjunction with the sun. At the time, the sun will be up in Asia. Please note I've "removed" the atmosphere, so you can see where the moon, planets and comet are in relation to the sun. None of these are otherwise visible because of daylight glare. Mercury appears close to the comet, but it's far in the background on the opposite side of the sun. See diagram below for a side view of Earth and Elenin. Maps created with Stellarium

When a planet or comet or other celestial object lines up closest to the sun on a north-south line, we say the two bodies are in conjunction. Conjunctions are very common, happening all the time during every year. Saturn was in conjunction with the sun this summer and Mercury will be on September 28. Not a big deal – just the mechanics of planets orbiting about the sun in roughly the same flat plane called the ecliptic. Some are closer to us like Mercury and Venus; others like Saturn are farther away, but they regularly bunch up and appear close to one another when they appear in the same line of sight.

Mercury, Comet Elenin, the sun and the moon all lie at very different distances but appear along the the same line of sight Monday.

On September 26 about 11 p.m. Central time, Comet Elenin will be in conjunction with the sun. Since comet and sun are continually moving, a conjunction lasts only a moment, though in terms of proximity, they’ll be near one another for a few days. After conjunction, the comet moves west of the sun and will appear in the morning sky. Keep your fingers crossed something’s left to see.

Many had hoped Comet Elenin would show up in images taken with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) C3 coronagraph, a device with blocks the glare of the sun to show the nearby solar environment. Nope, not there. See for yourself in the picture I grabbed today. That means the comet is certainly below the SOHO magnitude limit of 7 and undoubtedly MUCH fainter. Some amateur astronomers had hoped that backlighting of Comet Elenin’s dust would cause a re-brightening as it approached the sun the same way your breath lights up on a winter day. If that’s happening, it’s still too dim for SOHO to see.

Here's a sidelong view of Comet Elenin, Earth and the sun on September 26. Notice the comet's not in line with the sun but almost 2 million miles above Earth's orbit and some two-fifths the way from Earth to sun. Please note that the view is not to scale and intended to illustrate Elenin's conjunction from a different angle.

The comet is completely invisible down here on Earth because of glare from sunlight now through the end of the month. By about the 10th of October, it may be visible through large telescopes in a dark sky in Leo the Lion shortly before the start of morning twilight. I’ll put together a map soon on how to find it for those who like a challenge. Meanwhile, what’s left of the comet might still show – though I doubt it – in SOHO images through September 29.

29 thoughts on “A starry night with friends, “E” Day for Comet Elenin looms

    • why can i see it in the sky clear as day listening open your eyes and look bout 11:00 pm every night north east bright as hell you cant miss it ELENIN

        • Jupiter is in the North East? From where are you viewing this? From my view point Jupiter is due east just after sunset and around 11pm im still viewing it in an eastern sky slightly east southeast direction. Although higher in the sky. As for comet Elenin, I have been waiting on a chance to put this thing in my scope since Feb. Now that the moment has almost arrived they tell me its probably no longer there. I have tracked comets many times in the past. This one was strange from the get go.

          • Hey Jay,
            Jupiter rises in the northeastern sky and moves into the southeast around 11 p.m. local time. I usually see it shortly after rising because I’ve got an “opening” in that direction. Comet Elenin was faint all the way through June, the last time it was visible from my region. Throughout that time, it was very dim and diffuse as seen through my 15-inch reflector. It started brightening up in late July into August until the breakup in the latter half of August. Then it began to fade quickly. Other than the breakup, which occasionally happens but isn’t what you’d call common, Elenin seemed pretty normal for a small, faint comet. Had it not broken up, it might easily have reached 6th magnitude in October. Sadly, there won’t be much to see now. What size scope are you using?

  1. Does the image with the planets and sun and eilinen show the planets lined up at any point??? are the planets supposed to line up and if they do which ones and how long of a period? And if u can explain to me the importance of oct 15-16th? Thanks again

    • Les,
      The planets are moving as is the sun. The bunching of them changes — a little tighter, a little looser — but they won’t be lining up anytime soon. Even if they did, they will have no adverse or otherwise noticeable effect on Earth. Oct. 15-16 is the date of Comet Elenin’s closest approach to Earth — a healthy 22 million miles.

  2. A jellyfish?! Hey, we have those out here too. Glad you had a great FFSP. If pictures get posted some place, please send me a link.

    Take care,
    Jim

  3. Hi Bob,
    Greetings again from Texas. You guys are having entirely too much fun without me!
    The recent SN in Pinwheel set off a flurry of dusting, cleaning and setting up of my old (1984) Meade 2080LX3 Schmitt Cassegrain. It’s been wonderful having the old thing up and running again, but these original cheapie eyepieces…oh boy… do they need upgrading!
    Of course I’m lusting for some outrageously expensive Televue… but in an effort at sensible fiscal policy (ha!) I’m setting a $250ish budget for…something? But what?

    I’m yearning for crisper, clearer, wider view. A nice Nagler might fit the bill, but which one? Last night’s enjoyable view of nice, easy Andromeda was rather fuzzy. How to crisp it up? It would be a great joy to have a Winter of nightly Orion-viewing with a dose of awe thrown in there from a new eyepiece. Any suggestions for a single, multi-purpose, terrific new ocular?
    Thanks very much for your time and expertise.

  4. thanks so much for your updates on Elenin, Bob. I’ve only recently learned of all the end-of-days hoopla surrounding it and was actually a little bit concerned (conspiracy theories bring out my inner tabloid-reading housewife), but your extremely reasoned, researched and intelligent approach to things puts me at ease.

    I do have one question, though – allegedly some sort of White House document from October 2010 leaked recently detailing “emergency preparedness” plans or something of that nature, and the site I’d seen it on even posted a picture of what was purported to be it. it’s probably fake, right? I know people have done this with musicians’ tour setlists and album tracklistings, which is the only thing keeping me skeptical.

    • Matt,
      Emergency preparedness is really not my area, but in doing a bit of checking, disaster situation preparation is routine for certain government/public agencies. My city has routine disaster drills for police and fire that sound surprisingly like the real thing if you’re listening to a scanner. Of course, they’re only practicing to stay nimble in their skills. In any case, it has nothing to do with the comet.

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  6. Hey astrobob im a 15 year old kid from New york who is very gullible and believes anything he hears, there has been lot of doomsday talk because of this comet and it scares me. I believe it because im not very good with all this science stuff so anything sounds smart to me. I just wanna know the truth and know that i can continue living my life without constant fear.

    Thank you

  7. Bob,
    Trust me… you can ignore what eyepieces I already have… they’re the original orthoscopics that came with the scope. Not so great.
    I mostly use the Meade OR 20mm wide angle, but remember using the 7mm back when Jupiter got nailed by Shoemaker-Levy. Also have the 15.5mm, but it functions so much like the 20mm, rarely use it.
    I’d like to own the Panoptic 27mm (a lot!) but it’s costly. A less expensive option would be appreciated. I’m more of a deep sky person, but such a rank beginner… perhaps I’d be “over-buying” if I invest in a TeleVue. Opinion?

  8. Hi Bob,
    I just wanted to thank you for being a voice of reason through this elenin garbage. I must admit that the fear-mongers got to me a little, but found peace in your clear and concise explanations. I am a new fan of your site, and hope to learn more about the cosmos from you in the future.

  9. I also caught sight of the brightest object I have ever seen in the Eastern sky last night. I have looked through my binoculars at Jupiter and it never looked like that before. I saw it from Michigan at 11:27. Went to look at it again at 12:30 and it was GONE. Couldn’t find it anywhere. In my binoculars it looked like a stained glass ball with lots of shiny “lead” dividing the panes of “glass”. Most of the “glass” panes were red or blue in lots of different shapes. Oh, and there were NO moons. I can usually see at least one if not three. It was almost direct east, slightly south and truly larger than ever.

  10. I have asked every “ask an astronomer” site without an answer…Draw a horiz.. line on the Sun, call it :earth’s orbit…..Now locate this line to the suns equator ( or poles )
    I use “orbit” because the “tilt” of earth does not effect the location of the orbit

    If you say the line is on the equator fine…Its usually shown that way but I would like the degrees, minutes and seconds…

    • Jim,
      The sun’s equator is inclined 7.25 degrees to the Earth’s orbit. During a year’s time as we circle the sun, the position of the sun’s equator varies between 7.23 degrees north and 7.23 degrees south. Twice a year – in June and December – we face the sun’s equator squarely and it neatly bisects the sun’s disk. Here’s more info and a helpful diagram showing you the variations across a year: http://bit.ly/11WuYNf

      To answer your question, since the location of the solar equator appears to shift north and south of the line bisecting the sun during the year, we would need to know exactly what day you’re referring to give specific degrees, minutes and seconds for the equator’s position.

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