New Comet Bruenjes brushes the lovely dust

Venus (bottom) and Jupiter are points of brilliance against the subtle radiance of the zodiacal light Sunday evening. The pink glow is light pollution from the city of Duluth. Photo: Bob King

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.

Comet hunter and discover Fred Bruenjes at his telescope. Credit: Fred Bruenjes

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.”

Our new fuzzy visitor Comet Bruenjes photographed last night by Michael Jaeger of Austria. The comet is an 11th magnitude object in the constellation Aries.

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.

As Comet Bruenjes orbits the sun, the Earth and it will continue to move farther apart in the coming days and weeks. The comet poses no danger to our planet. Credit: NASA/JPL

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

7 thoughts on “New Comet Bruenjes brushes the lovely dust

  1. Hi Bob

    Great find and I looked it up on JPL website and it says its a parabolic comet what does that mean, and do we know all its orbit and will it eventually fizzle out do you think and is earth ok with it, and remember Bob i’m new to this :) thanks.

    • Hi Lynn,
      Parabolic refers to the shape of its orbit. Since the numbers are preliminary, it may turn out to be a very long ellipse instead of a parabola – a bit early to tell. Both Earth and the comet are moving away from each other, so it will gradually fade in the nights ahead. It’s closest to the sun on March 12 when it will be over 74 million miles away — a very healthy distance. No, nothing strange going on here. Comet Bruenjes will pass through the inner solar system and then head back out into the cold depths of space.

  2. Hi there,
    Not knowing anything about comets, is the best night to view this March 12th? I live near an Observatory and would love to check this out. Thank you!!

    • Hi Kristi,
      The best nights to view the comet are from now until the crescent moon returns to the evening sky later next week. Since the comet is leaving Earth’s vicinity it will be slowly getting fainter in the coming weeks. Good luck!

  3. Bob, what a lovely shot of the zodiacal light! And having Venus and Jupiter there really gives it a valuable “grounding” that makes this an especially valuable visual teaching aid; it should really help folks make the leap from diagrams and solar system models, into the sky overhead. Ah, if only the crescent moon were added to the scene!

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