Sure I love the moon. Last night’s walk with the dog wouldn’t have been nearly as romantic without it. But tonight the moon won’t rise for an hour after twilight ends. That means the return of dark skies and the Milky Way. It’s also a perfect time to follow what has now become 2012′s brightest comet – C/2012 K5 LINEAR. Just in time it would seem!
On Christmas morning I saw it in plain old 8×40 binoculars as a fuzzy glow near Big Dipper’s Bowl. Through a 15-inch telescope the comet was sheer beauty with a compact bright head and tail nearly as long as the full moon is wide (1/2 degree).
Currently shining around magnitude 8.5 and moving swiftly as it makes its closest approach to Earth tomorrow, C/2012 K5 is now out during convenient evening viewing hours.
You’ll find it still around 8-8.5 magnitude during the coming week as it skims through the bright constellation Auriga not far from Jupiter. I have to be honest – while visible in binoculars from a reasonably dark sky, it’s no great shakes, just a patchy glow. Through a small telescope however, you’ll see the little head and at least a hint of the tail stretching off to the west.
Consider the comet a warm-up for the brighter fare coming this March when C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS makes its appearance in the evening sky. You can read more about that one and another bright comet in my best sky events of 2013 blog.
C/2012 K5 LINEAR was discovered earlier this year by the automated Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project. The joint effort by the Air Force, NASA and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory uses a 1-meter (39-inch) telescope to discover and track Earth-approaching asteroids. In addition to thousands of new asteroid finds, the survey has picked up a few comets along the way. K5 was discovered on images taken May 25, 2012.
The comet comes closest to Earth on Dec. 31 at a distance of 27.3 million miles. Now at its brightest, the comet will soon fade after about the middle of January. Stop by for a look the next clear night.