Earth To Elenin – Are You Still Out There?

Comet Elenin on August 3 (left) when near maximum brightness and after breakup when last seen on September 14 (right). Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

This is the week many have looked forward to since shortly after the discovery of C/2010 X1 Elenin last December. Original predictions made last winter based on a relatively close approach to Earth on October 16 indicated the comet might have been as bright as 4th magnitude and visible with the naked eye from outer ring suburbs and rural areas.

Much has changed since then. Comet Elenin was slow to brighten during spring and early summer. Even through my 15-inch reflecting telescope it never amounted to more than a faint 13th magnitude patch of hazy light. By mid-August things looked better when the comet became visible to southern hemisphere sky watchers in binoculars at around magnitude 8. Revised predictions then downgraded its brightness at closest approach to Earth from 4th to 6th magnitude. While very faint to the naked eye, that still easily placed Elenin within binocular range.

So far so good. Then around August 20th the comet busted apart under the intense solar heat experienced en route to perihelion or closest approach to the sun. Comet Elenin’s lost its intense inner glow and suddenly began to fade. It was last seen about September 14 as a diffuse glow fainter than 10th magnitude. Sad news for comet observers.

Use the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper's bucket to point you to the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion. Using the detailed chart below, you can navigate to Comet Elenin's location. This map shows the sky around 90 minutes before sunrise facing east. Created with Stellarium

Still we hoped the comet might keep its act together long enough to show up in the SOHO coronagraph images late last month. Maybe a brightly glowing cloud of dust? Nothing was seen. Now we’re finally down to the last straw. Will the comet be visible through telescopes when it returns this week in a dark sky before dawn?

I’ve drawn up a couple charts to help you search for it. The wider one includes the Big Dipper to point you to Leo and its bright star Regulus. From there you can use binoculars and telescopes to navigate to Comet Elenin. And don’t forget our consolation prize –  Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova! It’s still around 7th magnitude and faintly visible in binoculars, while a telescope will show its skinny tail and bright, pale blue-green coma.

In this detailed map, the star Regulus is at top right. The comets' positions are shown for each day beginning October 4. Stars are plotted to 8th magnitude. Comet Elenin quickly moves up day by day from the eastern horizon, while Comet Honda slowly drops toward the horizon. The time shown is 90 minutes before sunrise. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software.

Both comets are very low in the eastern sky at the start of dawn or about 1 1/2 hours before sunrise for northern latitudes. Elenin starts off tomorrow morning at just 4 degrees high while Comet Honda does better at 11 degrees or about one fist above the eastern horizon. Notice though how quickly Comet Elenin shoots up from the horizon. By the 9th and 10th, it will lie straight across from Regulus and 25 degrees high – perfect conditions for seeking from places where trees block the horizon. The higher up objects are, the less air their light must travel through and therefore the less light absorbed. That means that as the comet vaults higher in the sky, its faint remains will be easier to see. That’s assuming there’s anything left that amateur-sized telescopes can pick up. Comet Elenin was last seen at around 10th magnitude – visible in 6-inch and larger telescopes – but may be much fainter now.

After the 10th, a bright moon (full on the 11th) will make it impossible to see any faint comets in the morning sky for a period of about 10 days. You’ll need to get cracking in the next week if you have a telescope, clear skies and any hope of seeing the comet. I’m one of those guys with a lot of hope when it comes to astronomy, so I’ll be out later this week squinting through the eyepiece and report back on what if anything is out there.

14 Responses

  1. Paul Contant

    Good Monday (ugh) morning
    Guess like I’ll have to rely on your updates to find out the fate of comet Elnothin as the jet stream did its seasonal shift and blanketed my locale with clouds and even some wet stuff falling down on the desert. forecast for the next week doesn’t look good either.
    Got lucky to spot comet Honda twice last week. What’s the period of Honda’s?
    any chance of a closer pass next time around ?
    thanks ahead for your time
    p.s. are we frying yet ? I’ve got bacon, eggs and maple syrup ready 😉

    1. astrobob

      Hey Paul,
      Pleasure to hear from you. Please leave a seat at the table for me – I like your menu. Good to hear you observed Honda. Its period is about 5 years; next time it will be close again but a tad farther than this it was this year.

  2. bobbi

    Hi Bob, What is the latest on elenin? There is a page on Facebook a person on there claims that it is increasing in Mass!? There are so many stories out there first it is disintergrating and then it is not? Its starting to get a bit scarey now.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bobbi,
      Such crazy claims, and here I thought the Elenin nonsense was dying down. No, the comet can’t increase in mass. It’s in the process of falling apart and fading away – at least the last time anyone could see it back in mid-September. Since then, there has been no data on the comet because it’s been too close to the sun at least for ground-based telescopes. We’ll hopefully learn more when it returns to the morning sky this week.

  3. Leslie

    planetary alignments with comet elenin supposedly coincided with large earthquakes on earth… like the 9.1 mag. in fukishima japan on march 11, 2011. a biggy was supposed to happen between september 26th – 29th but nothing! this makes me feel less inclined to believe in all the hocus pocus about teotwawki, december 21, 2012 end of the mayan calendar and the return of the annunaki sumerian gods along with nibiru and the hypothetical brown dwarf companion star of our sun. i guess i’ll have to start making plans for 2013 and not pull out all of my retirement funds and quit my job come new years day 2012.

    1. astrobob

      Leslie,
      As you’ve already guessed, Comet Elenin was not responsible for any earthquakes. All the 2012 stuff, NIburu, etc. is likewise more hocus-pocus.

    1. astrobob

      David,
      Good question. I’ve been personally hearing about doomdays stuff related to the sky since a multiple planet conjunction in the early 80s. Historically there have been others, the most famous of which was the 1910 passage of Halley’s Comet.

  4. David

    Wow thats sad… Its funny how people try to scare others with space comet astroids meteors the list only gets longer because most people dont know or understand it. I was one of those who were scared but with your help ive come to understand alot and i find it ineresting. SO THANKS!

        1. astrobob

          Hi Carol,
          Thanks for the update. Sure looks dim! I was hoping to spot it this weekend when it reached its highest point in the east after moonset.

  5. RASSE Daniel

    En effet on pense au points d’être sur que cette comète NIBIRU ou ELENIN de désintégré a cause du SOLEIL ! Il est démontré que même les satellites ne savent RIEN et n’on plus retrouvé ! Voilà la vérité et cela est très inquiétant de plus elle se déplace très très lentement en nous quittant ?… Il y aura des traces et qu’on n serai pas les voir ni avec des télescopes !. L’avenir nous le dira d’avantage quand la terre fera son tour ! Les effets peuvent se reproduire sur des effets: La duré est de trois mois a un ans parfois plus ? Peut être même imprévisible à cause des gaz inconnu et qui sont très puissant ! Il est d’écrit que personne le sera ? Quand elle viendra ou passera vers la terre, le monde entier sera surpris a la dernière minute sans s’y attendre et de même sans le savoir ?. Un énorme champ magnétique va sans doute être un bouleversement pour le monde entier ?. Au point que ces circuits électroniques seront touchés et défectueux dans le monde entier de même que certains atomes n’existeront plus ou seront éteints comme s’il n’existe pas ? Cela va terriblement choquer les scientifiques de tel changement !.

    1. astrobob

      Daniel,
      Elenin has approached and passed our planet with no measurable effects. The sun broke it to bits and it’s now little more than small fragments in a cloud of fine dust. Comets pass through the inner solar system every year.

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