Hergenrother: Mouthful of a comet worth the bother

168P/Hergenrother displays a bright nucleus (center of the comet’s activity), a blue, elongated coma (its atmosphere) and short tail on Oct. 3, 2012. Credit: Michael Jaeger

The title is my desperate attempt to find a rhyme for this comet’s wonderful name. While I may not have succeeded, that doesn’t change Hergenrother’s status as the coolest comet in amateur telescopes right now.

With the moon out of the sky, the next few weeks are ideal for those with 6-inch and larger scopes to pursue 168P/Hergenrother, currently the brightest comet visible at mid-northern latitudes.

Thanks to a recent outburst of activity, this fuzzy interloper shines around magnitude 9.5. It’s in a very handy spot, too, located not far from the upper left star in the familiar Great Square of Pegasus. The Square is well up in the southeastern sky by 9 o’clock local time.

Finder chart showing the comet’s nightly position starting Oct. 5 at 9 p.m. (CDT). Hergenrother moves across the northeastern half of the Great Square. The star marked Alpha is Alpha Andromedae, which is shared by the Square. Stars shown to magnitude 9.5. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I’ve included a detailed chart for tracking the little comet. Look for a dense, fuzzy patch of light. Hergenrother has a bright head and short tail fanning south. Through my 15-inch scope at low power it was miniature spectacle last night. Hergenrother’s nucleus mimicked a fuzzy, bright “star” at the north end of a well-concentrated coma; a wispy tail blew back from the comet’s head like.steamy breath on a cold day. Beautiful!

C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS on September 9 from Australia. The comet was 11th magnitude at the time. It’s currently best viewed from the southern hemisphere. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

Tracking comets will develop your observing skills and help you to recognize subtle features like the density of the coma, whether the nucleus is star-like or fuzzy and the length and orientation of the tail. You can then apply these skills to future comet chasing to better enjoy and appreciate how the character of these icy beauties changes as they approach and recede from the sun.

There’s much to chase. Next March C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS could shine as brightly as Sirius and display a long, feathery tail. Then in November 2013 C/2012 S1 ISON will pass near Earth after a close flyby of the sun with a potentially spectacular show in store.

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