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.
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.
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 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
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.