One Weird-looking Comet Plus A Constellation That Can Spell

The two-tailed comet photographed through a telescope on February 12. While two tails aren't unusual in a comet, seeing them exactly opposite one another isn't common. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Comet Garradd is one weird-looking comet. At the moment, because we see it high above the plane of our planet’s orbit, the two tails stick straight out of either side of its head. It’s not often you get to see a comet’s tails 180 degrees apart, but Garradd has been visible for so many months now, it’s like an entertainer remaking his image in hopes of rekindling that old fire.

The bluish gas tail points to the right; the dust tail to the left. According to the photographer, Michael Jaeger, the gas tail has been fading recently. You can see the comet as a fuzzy spot in a pair of binoculars under reasonably dark skies. The fainter tails require an 8-inch or larger telescope to see well.

Comet Garradd now never sets for the northern U.S. The map shows its location every five days low in the northern sky during early evening hours. Stars shown to 6th magnitude. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Recently Comet Garradd became circumpolar for the northern half of the U.S., Canada and much of Europe. A star or comet that’s circumpolar is always visible above the horizon, forever circling around the pole star Polaris. The good news is that you don’t have to get up before dawn to see it; the bad news is that it’s still rather low in the north – at least during the early evening hours.

Sigma-shaped Cassiopeia is up in the northwestern sky on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper during late February evenings. Created with Stellarium

You can use the map at any time of night however simply by saving it, printing it and then turning it counterclockwise, so the constellations match your sky view.  The comet will continue to climb higher in the north as it arcs its way through Draco the Dragon and passes between the two Dipper Bowls early next month.

The ancient and modern Greek letter sigma

While you’re out facing north, take a look off to the northwest (to the left of the Little Dipper) at the zigzag of Cassiopeia, now standing on its end. When it first rose in the northeastern sky late last summer, it looked like the letter W. Come December, when it was pitched high overhead, the W was inverted and became the letter M. Now it’s sitting up sideways and resembles the upper case Greek letter sigma.

No matter the season, Queen Cassiopeia always gets our attention not only because of her bright form but also her rudimentary attempts at spelling.

4 Responses

  1. Lynn

    Hi Bob, what will happen to comet garrad is it a long term comet or when will it leave or is it one that will be around for a long time it just seems you hve been talking about comet garrad for a while now and it seems its never leaving lol, and whats happening with comet lovejoy now haven’t heard you speaking about it in a while. Thanks Bob 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Hi Lynn,
      Comet Lovejoy is now far too faint to see at least in a fairly large amateur telescope. I tried just the other night to spot it without success. However a photo of its very faint head was taken recently. Comet Garradd on the other hand is a much larger comet, remains active, and continues to approach the Earth. That’s why it has staying power. Its light has been steady around magnitude 7 for many months, and it will continue to brighten very slowly through the beginning of March when it’s closest to Earth. After that it moves on and will fade.

  2. Look closer: there are *three* tails here! Underneath the plasma tail the ‘real’ dust tail shines, while its extension in the opposite side is an antitail, made of heavier dust particles less affected by solar radiation pressure. From above one would see, of course, that there’s only one continuous dust tail.

Comments are closed.