A night with no wind is one of amateur astronomy’s greatest joys. You can stay out and enjoy the sky in comfort even in cold weather. Last night was that kind of night. I found a very dark place where the Milky Way was all smoke and starry sparks and Venus bright enough to cast shadows.
We talked about the zodiacal light two days ago, so I won’t belabor the topic, but I had to share this picture taken yesterday at the end of evening twilight. The cone of comet dust towered in the west, ornamented in the most beautiful way by the planets Venus and Jupiter. The zodiacal light, like the planets, lies in the flat plane of the solar system. If you’ve ever wanted to visualize the flatness, find a dark sky and take a look this week and next.
Hidden inside that wedge of dusty light not far from Jupiter is a brand new comet discovered this weekend by Fred Bruenjes of Warrensburg, Missouri. Fred describes himself as an “electrical engineer by day and amateur astronomer by night.” He’s been systematically hunting comets since 2009 with a digital camera and 14-inch telescope. Here’s a snip of what Bruenjes (rhymes with sponges) wrote in his discovery account:
“Friday, February 10th 2012 just felt like the perfect night for a comet to be discovered by an amateur astronomer. I felt really compelled to observe, as the sky conditions were perfect, the cold weather probably scared off other amateurs, and most professional observatories had been shut down by the full moon for several days. That leaves the sky wide open for new discoveries.”
After examining images taken through the telescope, he spotted a fuzzy object that was not plotted on any of his sky charts. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush Bruenjes must have felt at that moment. Still, he held back, checking for other objects like a gas-venting satellite or a known asteroid that might show comet-like activity. Not until he obtained a second set of photos the next night that showed his “fuzzy” had moved, did he report it to the Minor Planet Center for confirmation. Again, in Fred’s own words:
“Waiting a little longer, in the next frame that object was definitely there and it had a greenish fuzzy tinge! Oh. Wow. It was dead nuts at where it was supposed to be. Wow. This thing is for real! It’s at about this time that it begins to sink in that a lifelong quest has just been fulfilled. I just crossed another thing off the bucket list!”
Congratulations Fred! Comet C/2012 C2 Bruenjes has been confirmed and is now official. Any comet discovered by an amateur is cause to celebrate, since these days most are first “seen” by robotic survey programs. Goes to show that with a good program and determination, an amateur can still (literally) make a name for himself.
I suppose you’re wondering how bright this new comet will become. Unfortunately not very. Right now, it’s conveniently visible in the evening sky in the constellation Aries, but shining only around 10.5-11.0 magnitude. You’ll need at least an 8-inch telescope and dark skies to see it well.Through a 15-inch telescope, I had no problem coaxing it into view last night. Bruenjes looks like nearly every other comet – a soft, blurry spot with a slightly brighter center. Since it’s moving quickly to the west in the sun’s direction, I could see it shift position against the background stars in just a half hour.
For a time, no one even knew this comet was there, like a celebrity in town wearing sunglasses and a concealing hat … until Fred called it out.
Today the comet is about 65 million miles from Earth but will fade in the coming weeks as its distance from us increases. If you have a star charting program that allows you to input comet orbital elements (numbers that define the comet’s orbit) you can make your own charts to find it. Just go to the Minor Planet Center’s page for Comet Bruenjes and scroll down to the orbital elements. I’ve also listed them below. Although the numbers are preliminary, they took me straight to the right spot last night:
T = 2012 March 12.84724
q = 0.8019135
e = 1.0
Peri. = 62.95552
Node = 117.75580
Incl. = 162.71216