Comet Elenin Sighted In The Morning Sky

This photo was taken around 5:45 a.m. on Oct. 7 through a 5-inch refracting telescope. The bit of fuzz marked by the line may be Comet Elenin or electronic noise picked up during the exposure. The faintest stars shown are dimmer than 15th magnitude. Credit: Mike Holloway

Amateur astronomers have been busy the past few mornings with telescopes and cameras searching for what’s left of Comet Elenin. I’m aware of at least a half-dozen attempts to see the comet, all but one of which resulted in a negative or uncertain result. Leonid Elenin’s photograph posted in my Oct. 6 blog may possibly show a fragment of the comet.

This morning was the best opportunity to look because the comet was moderately high in the eastern sky (about 23 degrees or “two fists”) during a narrow window of darkness between moonset and twilight. Observing from a mountain location over one mile high near Leon in northern Spain, dedicated comet observer Juan Jose Gonzalez saw Elenin as a faint, diffuse haze of magnitude 10.7 with a short tail pointing northwest. The comet had no central brightening and measured 6 arc minutes across or half the distance between Mizar and its companion star Alcor in the Big Dipper. Gonzalez was using an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, and seeing conditions were very good at the time.

His is the only positive observation so far. The news gave me a jolt of hope that I and others might still see it. Photographs and other attempts have either shown a tiny 18th magnitude object or a suspected faint patch of light. These earlier observations were made when the comet was lower in the sky and its light more readily absorbed by the thicker, hazier air near the horizon. Gonzalez is an expert observer working under very dark skies. He routinely sees faint comets that escape the attempts of other less experienced amateur astronomers, myself included.

Still, why the disparity between his and Leonid Elenin’s 18th magnitude estimate of the comet’s brightness? Two factors may be at play. Elenin’s was based not only on a photograph, but also when the comet was much lower in the sky. I don’t know the field of view of his photo, but if it’s small – and especially with the comet much lower – it might not show the distended, faint coma but rather a fragment inside. That fragment, if that’s what it is, is obviously very faint. Elenin is still not sure if what he photographed is the comet or just noise.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez observed the comet much higher up with a wider field of view. Although unable to see any fragments – they’re too faint to spot visually – his wider field of view, darker sky (due to higher elevation) and very perceptive eye allowed him to see the entire coma and even a short tail. Based on the details of his observation, the coma would have looked like the faintest puff of light just a little brighter than the sky background. Although 10.7 magnitude is not faint per se, that brightness is spread across 6 arc minutes of diffuse haze, making the comet appear quite dim. Having compared my observations with Gonzalez’s for a number of years now, I’m guessing it would have been very faint from my dark sky site even in my 15″ reflector. No one to my knowledge photographed the comet this morning with a wide-field telescope. Had they, we’d have a better basis for comparison.

Detailed finder map showing Comet Elenin with bright Regulus at lower right, 6th magnitude stars 34,37 and 42 Leonis and fainter stars to 12th magnitude. North is up. 'E' is the comet's position at 5:45 local time for the UK, while 'P' shows the comet's position at 5:45 a.m. for the Pacific time zone. Created with Chris Mariott's SkyMap software

Tomorrow morning (Oct. 10) offers one last opportunity to see the comet before moonlight cuts it to the quick. Since the nearly full moon will set about 15 minutes after the start of twilight, there will be no true darkness, but it may prove just dark enough for the comet to make a very brief appearance before dawn grows too bright. Take heed! Comet Elenin is dim and diffuse and will prove a challenge even for amateurs with larger telescopes and good maps. Use the map above to help you find it. The comet will be about 4 degrees northeast of Regulus.

After tomorrow, a bright moon will make it virtually impossible to see the comet until October 21, when Elenin will once again be sufficiently high in the east to tackle before moonrise. After the 21st, conditions rapidly improve – by the 24th the comet will be high in the southern sky before the start of morning twilight.

Sparks swirl from a bonfire in the backyard. Photo: Bob King

I realize that all this talk about such a dim comet may be overmuch for some of you reading this, but had Elenin not broken to pieces in August, it’s possible we’d be seeing it in binoculars by now. What’s visible now is the dim, expanding dust cloud from the vaporization of icy-dusty cometary fragments. Speaking of which, it sounds like the eastern hemisphere had a fine Draconid meteor shower last night. We were cloudy here in Duluth, Minn. For fun I built a bonfire in the backyard and watched a homemade meteor shower of orange sparks fly to the heavens.

50 Responses

  1. caralex

    Bob, can you explain the difference in magnitude cited in this article (mag 10) and Elenin’s own estimation from yesterday of mag 18 or so. It seems like a huge difference. Is this estimation of magnitude independent of the brightness of the morning sky, or is it affected by the brightness?

    1. astrobob

      Carol,
      Leonid Elenin’s estimate of the comet’s brightness was based not only on a photograph, but also when the comet was much lower in the sky. I don’t know the field of view of the photo, but if it’s small (and especially with the comet much lower), it might not show the distended, faint coma but rather a fragment inside. That fragment – if that’s what it is – is 18th magnitude. Elenin is still not sure if what he photographed is the comet or just noise. I’ve seen another photo taken today that may also show a tiny, faint fragment. Meanwhile, Gonzalez observed the comet much higher up with a wider field of view. Although unable to see any fragments – they’re too faint to spot visually – his wider field of view, darker sky (due to higher elevation) and very perceptive eye allowed him to see the entire faint (mag. 10.7) coma and even a short tail. Based on the details of his observation, the coma would have looked like the faintest puff of light just a little brighter than the sky background. Although 10.7 magnitude is not faint per se, that brightness is spread across 6′ of diffuse haze making the comet appear quite dim. Having compared my observations with Gonzalez for a number of years now, I’d say that from my dark sky site, it would have been very faint even in my 15″ reflector. So the difference is two-fold: timing as well as method of observation. Too bad no one to my knowledge photographed the comet this morning with a wide-field telescope. Then we’d have a better basis for comparison.

    1. astrobob

      Hi David,
      The faintness is because the comet broke up and largely vaporized away into a cloud of faint dust. The comet no longer has its original core which at one time measured a couple kilometers across.

  2. David

    Ow WoW. So its coma is gone? Is it even a solid body if not how is it still considered a comet? Im sorry if i have to many questions…

    1. astrobob

      David,
      No, those are good questions. A comet’s dust cloud and faint fragments within it can still linger for a long time as they orbit the sun. For instance, the only way J.J. Gonzalez saw the comet was by using its orbital elements in a software program to plot a finder chart. That’s what all Comet Elenin observers and photographers have been doing since its orbit was determined many months ago. I use the same information and plan to point my scope at it tomorrow morning. Will it be visible? Who knows?

    1. astrobob

      Darren,
      Yes, it has and is now very faint. I just tried to see it in a 15-inch reflecting telescope this morning and it was not visible with certainty.

      1. Rich

        In the above nasa.gov link the story immediately mentions “an exceptionally bright comet” headed straight for the sun but doesn’t refer to it by name,why is that?Is it possible that a comet could travel that close to the sun from far out in the solar system and not be discovered and named by anyone?

        1. astrobob

          Hi Rich,
          The comet will get a name with the acronym SOHO in it eventually if it hasn’t already. It was one of the many Kreutz sungrazing comet fragments that get fried nearly every day as they closely approach the sun. To date, SOHO, with the help of human eyes back here on Earth, has discovered 2,110 comets! The reason it wasn’t seen earlier is because, despite appearances, the comet was intrinsically faint and small though somewhat larger than more typical Kreutz fragments. It lit up dramatically because it came so close to the sun. Even small comets that near the sun will light up brightly as they rapidly vaporize and shed tons of dust. A small percentage do survive and can appear either before or after perihelion like the fantastically beautiful Comet Ikeya-Seki did in 1965. Google it as well as ‘Kreutz sungrazers’ to see pix and learn more.

          1. Rich

            Thanks for your reply Bob.I googled Comet Ikeya-Seki and found a photo,I couldn’t believe my eyes!Back in 97 I remember being very impressed by Hale Bopp,it was the first naked eye comet that I could clearly see.From the photo I just saw,Ikeya-Seki seems to put Hale-Bopp completely to shame,the tail appears to extend practically a quarter of the way through the sky.I certainly hope I’ll get to see one like that in my lifetime.

          2. astrobob

            Rich,
            1965 was just when I was getting started in astronomy as a boy and I remember standing at the window in my old house waiting for the sky to clear so I might get one good look at Ikeya-Seki. I never did.

  3. Kevin Heider

    Great posts Bob. As Bob said, even under dark skies, a magnitude 10 (surface area magnitude) comet is quite faint even with a big telescope. A magnitude 10 star would be much easier to see.

    1. caralex

      And after the 24th, with the moon out of the way, and the comet higher in the sky, will it be easier, or more difficult to see, given that you also have to take into account that it’ll have moved away from perigee by then? What would be a likely magnitude?

      1. astrobob

        Great question, Carol. Yes, it will have faded by about one magnitude, according to the JPL ephemeris, based on increasing distance from the sun and Earth. Despite that, the comet’s much higher elevation may compensate to some degree for the fading. My hunch is that it will be slightly easier to see. Maybe I should say that’s my hope 🙂 We’ll also have much more viewing time before twilight, which will make it possible to confirm any observations by watching the comet move over those several hours of time. When viewing very faint comets, I like to be sure I’m not not tricking myself into seeing something by returning later that night to check on movement.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Yvonne,
      Comet Elenin is very faint and has only been seen by a couple observers. Others have not been able to see or photograph it. The comet has broken up and is in the process of fading away. It was never a threat to Earth. By the way, your King and Queen will be visiting my city next week.

      1. Yvonne

        When u say that the comet has broken up, do u mean that the comet is destroyed ?
        I hope my king and queen will have a good time in your city:-)

        1. astrobob

          Yvonne,
          The comet broke into pieces due to heating and gravitational stress shortly before perihelion or closest point to the sun. A faint dust cloud remains and possibly fragments.

  4. darren

    I was reading on the net that elenin stood for Extinction Level Event Noted In November.
    Was looking forward to not having to pay my mortgage next month 🙂
    Glad it was noted at least.

      1. caralex

        Not to mention the certainty in some quarters that it’s a spacecraft sent by our distant ancestors 13,000 years ago, surrounded by a tetrahedral shield! 😀

        1. Chantal

          what makes me laugh is the certainty that it is a tetrahdral shield – I mean to be certain surely there must be at least one comparison available, apart from on star trek etc – “LIve long and Prosper Bob” as they say on Vucan

    1. astrobob

      Debra,
      A couple other amateur and one professional attempt (with a 2-meter telescope and narrow field of view) were made the past few days but nothing showed up in the images. However, the comet may show up in STEREO HI2A images on October 9. Until the 21st, it’s going to be extremely difficult or impossible to see because of moonlight.

  5. Marly

    Will there be any significant meteor showers from Elenin or other comets we could observe from the sea near Nova Scotia this next weekend?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Marly,
      No meteor showers are expected this weekend, but you’ll always see about 7 per hour random or sporadic meteors.

  6. Sean

    Have you heard about this blue matter/planet following roughly 103 days behind Elenin and looks to be the size of Earth but the field around it is huge.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Sean,
      Pardon my bluntness, but Terral03’s youtube videos are complete nonsense. And he makes it up nonstop. He calls pictures of ring galaxies event horizons. Aaaaaargh! There is no object following Comet Elenin. Just imagine – if it were planetary in size, it would be a big, bright object in the sky that everyone would see. Amateur and professional astronomers would be studying and photographing it, and the news media would go bananas. Nothing of the sort is happening, a sure sign that it’s yet another hunk o’ junk science.

      1. Sean

        Than you for your bluntness, I don’t understand these people they must have a boring life to go so much out of their way to do this, he even has a research chat room. Thanks Astro.

        1. astrobob

          You’re welcome Sean. It’s unfortunate someone has to go to such lengths to spread misinformation. It’s so easy these days to check online sites as well as books to get good information and answers to questions. Speculating without first looking for a less spectacular explanation is becoming more the norm of late.

          1. caralex

            Bob, have you read Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World? Although written in 1996, its message is more and more relevant to today. I wonder what he’d say if he had to counter the exponential growth of ignornace and gullibility that has appeared since the internet became widely accessible.

          2. astrobob

            Hi Carol,
            Yes, I have. It’s my favorite Sagan book. Too bad he’s not around now as an island of light in the storm-tossed Internet Sea.

  7. Milayla

    Hi bob its been a while but i do have a question that comet that crashed into the sun did it do any damage? I heard it did. It cause somd type of flares and ripples has this ever happend before? And will the sun recover? Thanks again

    1. astrobob

      Milayla,
      A small comet fragment (maybe a couple hundred feet across) vaporized very close to the sun earlier this month, but there is nothing linking it to the coronal mass ejection (CME) observed at about the same time. CMEs are observed at least a half-dozen times a day, so it’s coincidental as far as scientists who study these things know. Nothing that might harm the Earth occurred.

  8. David

    Hey Bob. If elenin did have any effect on the earth wouldnt we be feeling it hard right now? If so why are people still acting crazy? Also ive noticed poeple are now talking about all kinds of different things following it why do you think they are saying that?

    1. astrobob

      David,
      Comet Elenin was much too small and too far away to ever affect Earth. Since the bogus comet danger has passed, I’m not surprised at all that we’ll move on to the next thing. Hopefully some people will learn something from the Elenin nonsense and ignore the “cry wolf” crowd.

  9. David

    Do you think elenins inner coma has vaporized and now its just broken up little coma peaces continuing it orbit?

    1. astrobob

      Hi David,
      Yes, I think so. They must be extremely small however since a recent photo by a 2-meter telescope showed nothing at Comet Elenin’s position.

  10. Sean

    Hi Bob. I have been trying to get info. on a good time to see Asteroid TM8 on Sunday/Monday night. I live in Jersey, Channel Islands. Can you help please?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Sean,
      Yes, we’ll have much better luck with 2005 YU55 when it will reach 11th magnitude on Nov. 8 and be visible in even small scopes.

  11. peder

    hi again ,still wundering of this why its not visible with telescopes ? I mean they did see fragments of elenin with stereo Hi2 behind 26 september I think and faulk telescope is much better so they should see dust 🙂 and a friend of mine want you to explain for him you can go to his blogg here 🙂 if you just can contact him and explain 🙂 thank you bob great page you have 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Dear Peder,
      The images taken by STEREO on September 26 were mistakenly interpreted as Comet Elenin. In reality they were 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova. The Faulkes is an excellent and large telescope. The fact that no fragments have been found indicates that it must have been a small comet, the pieces of which rapidly vaporized away. I just got word of another series of images made with the Faulkes last night and no fragments were seen to 21st magnitude. The field of view of the telescope is narrow and not the best for detecting a large, dim dust cloud. And thanks for your comments about my blog – I appreciate it!

  12. peder

    ok , thank you for the answer 🙂 it wasnt that I dont believed you first time but im not so good on this space stuff so im not completely shure on everything 🙂

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