Tears For Comet Elenin, But There’s More To Life

Seven sunspot groups dot the sun's face in this photo from 8:30 CDT this morning. Credit: NASA/SDO

Time to catch up on the news. The sun is positively peppered with sunspot groups but they’ve been mostly well-behaved with few flares to shows for so much spottiness. Just the same, there’s a good chance for minor auroras across the northern U.S. and Canada this evening from something else in the sun’s bag of tricks – a coronal hole.

Look low along the northern horizon for a greenish glow during the early evening hours . Views will be compromised after about 9 p.m. when the moon is up high enough to spill light across the sky.

Let’s not forget the supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy in the Handle of the Big Dipper. At magnitude 11.7, it’s still within easy range of 6-inch and larger telescopes. Amazing to think that the supernova, discovered on August 24, is nearly two months “old” and continues to blaze so brightly. Catch it as early as you can at the end of evening twilight before it drops below the trees and roofs. Maps for finding it are here in this earlier blog.

Photo of Comet Elenin's position on October 9 taken through a 10-inch telescope. Stars (long streaks) as faint as 17th magnitude are visible while the red squares are positions of even fainter asteroids in the field of view. No comet cloud or fragments are visible. Click photo to read and see more Elenin attempts. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Giovanni Sostero and Nick Howes

There’s a discussion going on right now among comet observers about whether Comet Elenin is visible or not. Tomorrow, what’s left of the comet makes its closest approach to Earth at 22 million miles. This was the time we’d all been hoping to see it near naked eye brightness, but it crumbled in August and the remaining icy fragments have all but vaporized away in the sun’s heat.

Comet Garradd photographed last night from Italy by ace astrophotographer Rolando Ligustri. Two tails are visible - a blue ion tail at top and a yellowish dust tail below.

Two positive observations of Elenin were made about a week ago by trustworthy observers under excellent skies, but larger telescopes and long time exposures have shown nothing. Other experienced visual observers have also had no success. Granted, they were all battling low altitude and the glow of the zodiacal light. What the two observers would have seen was the faint, residual dust cloud left in the wake of the breakup. The next opportunity to see Comet Elenin will be in about a week, when it will be much better placed in a dark morning sky. Expect lots of amateur astronomers to be out with scopes and cameras for one last attempt. I’ll have more news then.

To find Comet Garradd with binoculars or telescope, face due west and find the two bright stars on the right side of the Summer Triangle - Altair and Vega. Use them to create another triangle with 2nd magnitude Alpha Ophiuchi directly below. Once there, use the map below to navigate the short distance from Alpha to the comet. Created with Stellarium

Despite Elenin’s poor showing, there’s no need to hang your head. Comet Garradd is still going strong at around magnitude 7.5 during the early evening high in the western sky near the border of the constellations Hercules and Ophiuchus (oh-fee-YOU-cuss). From a dark sky it looks like a small, fuzzy puff in binoculars. Telescopes will show a bright comet head or coma and faint tail pointing east. The moon is now rising late enough to provide the dark sky you’ll need for the best view.

Once you're at Alpha Oph, you can star hop up a chain of 5-6 magnitude stars to get to the comet. Nearby Alpha Herculis is also a helpful guide star. This map shows the sky as you face west. Comet positions are shown every five days. The dashed line is the constellation boundary. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Don’t forget to look for the X-ray telescope ROSAT tonight we talked about yesterday. Now that its orbit is dropping lower, the doomed satellite has been reported as bright as 1st magnitude! Scroll down to Friday’s blog for links on how to find it.

This image of the asteroid Vesta, calculated from a shape model and based on photos, shows a low angle view of the south polar region. The mountain in the foreground is 13 miles high. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

And finally, I’ll leave you with a couple recent pictures taken by the Dawn spacecraft of a dark-rayed crater and one of the highest mountains in the solar system.These wonders of nature are found 168.5 million miles from your doorstep on the asteroid Vesta.

A fresh 1-mile diameter crater surrounded by dark rays of excavated rock from Vesta's crust. Rays are normally composed of bright material, so more study will be needed to answer why these are dark. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

27 Responses

  1. David

    Hey Bob. Do you think its right to say that Elenin couldnt handle the critisism. Its kind of like this comet was bullied by so many people that it just fell apart. Elenin basicly isnt even half the size it was. Right? And now it has to pass earth tommorow with its head hanging low. Im kinda sad for the dirty snowball!

    1. astrobob

      Hah! Yes, David. It was just too much scrutiny. People should have left well enough alone 🙂 There is a delicious poetic justice in it all.

  2. David

    Is it like this with every comet and or astroid that comes into our iner solar system? Do people always pick on these objects to become the ultimate dooms day intstrument? Also with all the observers you included wouldnt be pretty dang hard to hide the truth… I mean if something was going to hit earth we would know. Right?

    1. astrobob

      David,
      Only certain objects are picked, but of course comets and asteroids are whizzing by all the time. My guess is that Elenin was chosen because of an earthquake coincidence and the early expectation it was going to become bright enough to see with the naked eye. There was never any scientific proof to link it with any quake. As far as something hitting the Earth, we are getting a pretty good idea of asteroids in our neighborhood thanks to all the surveys in recent years. Still, we might not know in time if an undiscovered asteroid approached us from the direction of the sun. It would be invisible in the daytime sky and found perhaps too late. As of now, we’re not aware of any objects on a collision course with Earth.

  3. thomas s

    hi once again. talking about comets and things that frighten us like things that go bump in the night. remember the Halley’s comet’s appearance in 1066 and all that? but something that I read recently triggered a recollection, albeit vague, of a spectacular red aurora that was seen widely in Europe in 1938 (on the eve of you know what). do you have any information on that, a link perhaps? since my curiousity has been piqued, I will try an on-line search, also. but you are a treasure trove of info regarding things celestial so perhaps you could help. thanks in advance.

  4. thomas s

    Bob, a P.S. lots of stuff on the net re aurorae in general (no surprise there). found a little on the 1938 display. apparently it was spectacular, blood red and seen as far south as Gibraltar. 25 January 1938. but apparently there was another similar display on 16 April of the same yr. haven’t foud much on that one. also, not surprisingly, there was a vivid auroral display following the Carrington event in September 1859. interesting material: enjoy reading about it. all the best.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Thomas,
      Yes, it looks like there’s a lot about that aurora. Must have been spectacular. In our own time, we’ve had amazing displays in the late 1980s and early 1990s — all sky with lots of red.

      1. thomas s

        didn’t see much of the 1980’s or 1990’s occurrences. living in an urban area with lots of artificial light dulls your interest in and/or ability to see things celestial. sad but true.

  5. heather

    Hello again Astrobob!
    I need some help identifying another star. This one was very bright and low in the eastern sky around 8pm est. It looked like it had a yellow/orange glow to it. Also, is there a good website (besides yours, of course) or tool to help me identify these stars/planets? Thanks again!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Heather,
      Very low and bright in the east at 8 p.m. would definitely be Jupiter. You can download Stellarium for free (www.stellarium.org) and create the sky for your city right on your computer making it easy to ID any star or planet at whatever hour you choose.

  6. Milayla

    Hey bob I thought elenin passes us on the 21st not on the 16 /17? and i gotta know does the sun recover from sun spots? and is our sun ok after the comet that hit it? Thanks

    1. astrobob

      Milayla,
      Comet Elenin is closest to the Earth today around 3 p.m. Central time. Sunspots are a naturally occurring phenomenon that have been part of the sun’s “anatomy” for the centuries they’ve been observed and no doubt much, much longer. No recovery is needed. Other stars have spots too, some of which are much bigger than the sun’s. As for that comet “hitting” the sun, it was only in the range of a hundred feet or so across and it almost certainly vaporized very near the sun without actually hitting it.

  7. Jay

    Hey Bob,
    I was just reading 2 articles this afternoon stating that Comet Elenin has already pass the earth this morning around 4a.m., is this true?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Jay,
      Close enough. Using JPL’s ephemerides on NASA’s Horizons site I get around 3 p.m. CDT today for closest approach.

    1. astrobob

      Jay,
      No, nothing will be visible. The remaining dust cloud is very faint and because of moonlight cannot be seen. Once the moon’s out of the sky by about the 21st, those with large telescopes may be able to see some something.

  8. Milayla

    How long will it actually take for comet elenin to pass earth it self not its tail? Im just curious and so glad this whole comet thing is just about over lol thanks a million bob for keeping me sane!!!

    1. astrobob

      Milayla,
      Hard to say exactly but probably a matter of hours. Since it’s after 3 p.m. here, it’s already on its way out.

  9. Jack

    I was wondering about that big comet that vanished close or in the Sun , what was its name ? and did someone saw it enter the solar system ? Honda , elenin , garradd was seen and expected for months …. But that bad boy gave many a big show on soho.
    My most important question is : If another bad boy came in that fast , would we know about it before it shaves or hit another planet?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Jack,
      It’s named SOHO-2143 and was actually a small fragment (maybe a few tens to a 100 feet across) of a group of cometary fragments called the Kreutz sungrazing group. They’re pieces of a larger comet that broke up long ago. No one saw it enter the inner solar system because it was too tiny and faint. It only became visible because it approached so closely to the sun, became bright for a matter of hours and then got toasted. Some sungrazers are found in advance but many are too small and only become bright enough when too close to the sun to observe from Earth. That’s why this one was only seen by the space-based SOHO observatory. Comets like 2143 are seen every year and many are discovered by amateur astronomers studying the SOHO images.

  10. David

    Step up! Step up! So whos next? The name of the game is blame. So whos going to take the blame next will it be an astroid will it be a comet or will it be something that just doesnt exist!? Ow hey there Bob! What do you see as the next destroyer of worlds? Hah!

  11. Jack

    Hey Bob ! Thanks for well explained answer . I wish to know if mars held life in a distance past , i really think something happend to it in early earth formation , could of been some planet, wheres now is the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter … maybe… affected Mars or just some big object hit it … well cant wait to see what else they gonna find there. maybe they did already 😛
    Some people like me knows for a fact that the size of the cosmos is too big to not have some kind of life form relativ. close by . Wont freak out to learn about it cuz we already know the possibility is astronomical high in our favor !

  12. Jack

    Hi Bob ! 1 last question for comet Elenin , or what happend to it , looks like its gone , what you think about the presumed explosion that we see on this video and your thoughts about what we see there link:

    1. astrobob

      Hey Jack,
      This is clearly lens flare from Venus (or Jupiter, can’t remember which) as it exits the field of view of the STEREO Behind probe. Very common phenomenon. Definitely not the comet or some kind of explosion. This topic came up in late August and was discussed here then too.

      1. Jack

        I gess so , just the shock wave doesn`t seem to move either so i`ll go with the sun flash in the lens too . 🙂

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