Check Out These New Photos Of Comets Encke, ISON And Lovejoy

Beautiful shot of Comet ISON taken with the VATT telescope on Sept 12. The brighter nucleus – source of the comet’s ice and dust – feeds a tail that points to the northwest. Credit: Carl Hergenrother / University of Arizona / Vatican Obs

Carl Hergenrother, a professional astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab, recently used the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) 70.8 inch (1.8-m) telescope on Mount Graham to photograph three upcoming bright comets. His images reveal personalities and details not seen in smaller scopes.

Comet 2P/Encke looks like a big powder puff with a faint, pinpoint nucleus (the tiny dot) on Sept. 12. Inset photo shows comet photographed in red light. Credit: Carl Hergenrother / University of Arizona / Vatican Obs

All three are wiggling their way across the morning sky – Comet ISON near Mars in the constellation Cancer; Encke in Auriga and high in the east at dawn and Lovejoy in Monoceros the Unicorn, a dim grouping of stars with a wonderful name east of Orion.

ISON stays within a few degrees of the planet Mars now through late October. Not only is the comet headed toward the sun from the direction of Mars as seen from Earth, it will be physically close to the Red Planet, passing just 6.5 million miles (10.5 million km) away on Oct 1. That’s 6 times closer than its flyby of Earth on Dec. 26. Mars makes a convenient marker for anyone wishing to know where to look for the comet.

Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy on Sept. 12 shows a bright nucleus and broader tail than ISON. Credit: Carl Hergenrother / University of Arizona / Vatican Obs

From Martian skies, Comet ISON should be easily visible to the naked eye glowing at around magnitude 2-3. NASA hopes to enlist the electronic eyes of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and two rovers – Opportunity and Curiosity – to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity.


Comet Encke has the shortest orbit of any known comet. When closest to the sun it swings within the orbit of Mercury then loops out nearly to Jupiter. On Nov. 18, the comet will pass only 2.3 million miles from Mercury.

Comet 2P/Encke has the shortest orbital period of all known comets, cycling around the sun once every 3.3 years. It was first seen by French astronomer Pierre Mechain in 1786 but not recognized as a returning or periodic comet until its orbit was computed by German astronomer Johann Encke in 1819. Like Halley’s Comet, Encke is named after its orbit calculator instead of the original discoverer. The “2P” refers to it being the second periodic comet with a calculated orbit

The sky facing east-southeast just before the start of dawn tomorrow morning Sept. 15. Our three featured comets form a large triangle in the east. All three require at least an 8-inch telescope to see. Created with Stellarium

Although faint and very diffuse now, Comet Encke will brighten to binocular visibility in November. Yesterday morning it was a faint, soft glow through my 15-inch telescope at low magnification. Comet ISON looked great too. It’s “pumped up the volume” compared to a week ago and now burns more brightly at magnitude 12. I noticed that its center was distinctly brighter than a week ago.

Our third morning comet, C/2013 R1 Lovejoy is brand new, discovered by Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy only a week ago. It’s also brighter than several days ago, shining now at around magnitude 12.5-13.0.

The fall is shaping up to be a good one for comet lovers. I want to thank Carl and all the other generous astronomers – amateur and professional – for freely sharing their images with us.

13 Responses

  1. Leah

    Very cool & informative. This is the only place I was able to find out where to look for ison, not to mention 2 other comets not even mentioned by media! Please do post pics if the mars rover gets a good look at ison. That would be incredible!

  2. Octavio Becerra

    Great article and website Astrobob. As Leah, I too was looking for information on ISON and found out about two other comets I didn’t even know about. I can’t wait to see the Rover pictures! In the meantime, I have plenty of reading material at my disposal on your site. I’m definitely adding this site to my bookmarks.

  3. Bob Crozier

    Hey Bob,

    I had heard that they were going to try to take pictures of ISON from Mars. They will be doing the same for another comet that will be even closer to Mars next year, won’t they? Will those photos typically become available fairly quickly? And, even though ISON’s closest approach to Mars is October 1, would they not have started to take at least some pictures already?

    Please continue to keep us informed about this! Thanks so much!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bob,
      NASA has planned specific dates for the pictures to be taken. They tried on Aug. 20 but the comet was still too faint to image. The next date is later this month and I believe there are two dates in October. ISON will certainly be close enough then to be seen in MRO’s camera.

  4. Edward O'Reilly

    Like many,am anxiously awaiting Curiosity’s pics of Ison in a few days time.Interesting news on the site regarding Ison: apparently Ison is brighter than Comet Lovejoy was when it was the same distance from the Sun in 2011.And,as we all remember,Lovejoy(the comet,not the astronomer)not only survived a very close perihelion but also went on to become quite spectacular in southern hemisphere skies around Christmas 2011.
    Certainly a cause for optimism
    – Ed O’Reilly

  5. skilletlegs

    i would LOVE to see some new images/videos/ect of ison/ Encke/ lovejoy…do you think earth is REALLY in for an apocalyptic event soon…with all the webflack its hard to believe anything anymore…

    1. astrobob

      No apocolyptic event is in the offing and certainly not from these comets which will all pass many millions of miles from Earth at closest. Don’t believe the web nonsense – it crops up every time an astronomical event of broad interest happens.

  6. Thomas

    Astrobob, do not be too sure. Just look at the pockmarks on the Moon.
    Even though Ison will be far above the earth, comets do encounter asteroid belts.
    A meteor shower is the result of an interaction between a planet, such as Earth, and streams of debris from a comet. Comets can produce debris by water vapor drag, as demonstrated by Fred Whipple in 1950 or 51,….

    Throughout recorded history, hundreds of Earth impacts (and exploding bolides) have been reported, with some occurrences causing deaths, injuries, property damage or other significant localised consequences.[1] One of the best-known recorded impacts in modern times was the Tunguska event, which occurred in Siberia, Russia, in 1908. The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event is the only known such event to result in a large number of casualties, and the Chelyabinsk meteor is the largest recorded object to have encountered the Earth since the Tunguska event. The most notable non-terrestrial event is the Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 impact, which provided the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial collision of Solar System objects, when the comet broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994. Impact events have been a plot and background element in science fiction since knowledge of real impacts became established in the scientific mainstream.
    But no, I am not expecting an “impact event”

    1. astrobob

      While all those things you write about are true, Comet ISON is not expected to hit anything any time soon. It’s not on a collision course with moon, Earth or asteroid.

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