Squiggly-tailed comet C/2012 V4 eyed by solar probe

Highly processed photo of Comet C/2012 V4 taken with the HI2B camera on STEREO-B shows a small, bright head and long, skinny tail. Click image to see the comet in time-lapse motion. Credit: NASA

Looks to me like a tadpole wriggling in that big, dark pond we call outer space. C/2012 V4, the likely return of Comet Pons-Gambart, last seen in 1827, has been spotted in pictures taken by one of the SECCHI (Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation) cameras on board the STEREO-B solar probe. The instrument watches the space between Earth and the sun, monitoring the progress of solar storms before they impact our planet.

The twin STEREO probes orbit well ahead and behind Earth, so they can photograph both the front and back sides of the sun. C/2012 V4 and its tadpole tail show up so well because from STEREO-B’s¬†location, it’s considerably closer than it is from here on Earth.

C/2012 V4 hangs out low in the southwestern sky above the Handle of the Teapot (constellation Sagittarius) outlined here. It’s also not far from Mars. Comet positions are shown every 5 days at 5:20 p.m. (CST) about an hour after sunset. Stars plotted to mag. 8.5. Right-click to save and then print. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

You may have heard that the comet, which appears to be headed in Earth’s direction, could actually strike our dear planet. Don’t worry, won’t happen. C/2012 V4 lies some 144 million miles away or more than 1.5 times the Earth-sun distance and moves farther away every day. On Dec. 18, it will swing wide around the sun at a distance of 75 million miles and then recede into the depths. Amateur astronomers with 8-inch or larger telescopes and a clear view down to the southwestern horizon can use the map to try and spot this long-lost visitor. It’s currently about magnitude 8.5, about as bright as it will get.

The brightest, easiest comet to see from mid-northern latitudes this month is C/2012 K5, now gliding beneath the handle of the Big Dipper and high overhead before dawn. Austrian amateur Michael Jaeger caught it this morning Dec. 9, 2012 at ~ 9.5 magnitude near the bright star Alkaid at the end of the Big Dipper’s handle.¬†

Be sure to click on the photo at top to watch a short video of the comet’s movement over several days time. Alan Watson of Australia did a great job combining SECCHI photos to show how the tail of the C/2012 V4 wriggles as high-speed particles from the sun called the solar wind sweep past. They make the comet come alive!

3 Responses

  1. Kathy

    Neat website!! I was looking for info that might tell me if what I saw in the sky Dec. 6 was the asteroid Toutatis. I had been unaware of its approach but at the time I saw this object I thought it was more than a plane.

    I’m in central California. About 4:40 pm on the 6th I looked toward the west/southwest and saw a relatively short but fairly wide white “tail” on a gleaming object that appeared to be moving lower relative to the horizon, though slowly. I had to line it up with a bare tree branch to verify the movement. It was pretty high in the sky – maybe 8 fists above the horizon?? The Sacramento airport is about 20 miles in that general direction from us, but a plane would not explain the relatively wide tail or vapor trail I saw and it seemed a plane should have been lower on its approach by then. If it was a plane lit up by the rays of the setting sun beyond it (a building obscured the sun, so I wasn’t sure its exact location) I would have expected a change in the brightness of the gleam as the object moved. A plane at that altitude often is quickly lost to view. The movement appeared to be dropping,
    Can anyone tell me if it is possible that the asteroid was what I was seeing? Thanks!

    1. Profile photo of astrobob

      Hi Kathy,
      You are very observant. The object you saw may have been a distant plane, which would have appeared nearly constantly bright for a time, or it may have been something else. Definitely not the asteroid. Toutatis was only visible in a dark sky through a medium-sized telescope. It appeared exactly like a dim star moving very slowly across the telescope’s field of view.

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