A stunning photo! It’s comet C/2014 E2 Jacques, tail as straight as a Q-tip, forming a cosmic question mark with the glowing cloud of hydrogen gas called the Flaming Star Nebula. Two tails stand out. The one reaching beyond the frame is made of carbon monoxide gas fluorescing in the sun’s ultraviolet light. To the left of the bright head a meeker dust tail shines by reflected sunlight.
The nebula’s 1,500 light years away in the direction of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, while Jacques plies the solar system just 112 million miles from Earth. Discovered by a group of Brazilian amateur astronomers last March, a study of its orbit hinted it might wax bright enough to see with binoculars after making its closest approach to the sun in late May.
That’s exactly what happened, and you can see it right now – assuming you’re willing to rise at 4 a.m. – low in the northeastern sky just before the start of morning twilight. I caught it in 8×40 and 10×50 binoculars Saturday from home. No tail stood out but the comet’s head looked like a small, fuzzy spot compared to the sharp points of nearby stars. Through a telescope I saw a dense, bright cotton ball and hint of a tail.
Comet Jacques glows at magnitude 6.5 and will remain about that bright through early August. Because the comet’s moving up and away from the sun, it’s getting higher in the east and easier to see with each passing morning.
If you need another reason to arise so early, the International Space Station will light your path all this week and next. Head over to Heavens-Above and click on the ISS link to get times for passes over your city. Simultaneous evening passes begin on or around August 2.
The last of the European Space Agency’s five automated space freighters, ATV-5, is being prepared for launch to the ISS on Tuesday, July 29. Named “Georges Lemaître” in honor of the Belgian astronomer who first proposed the idea of the Big Bang, the ship will ferry six tons of supplies including lots of drinking water and food to the astronauts. If there’s an opportunity to see it ‘chase’ the space station, I’ll provide an update.
ATV-5 is the last of the European cargo ships and will burn up like the others during atmospheric reentry once its mission is complete. But this one ends with a twist. The fiery burn-up and disintegration will be recorded from the inside by a unique infrared camera. Before the camera becomes toast, it will transmit the images to a ‘black box’ called the Reentry SatCom, a spherical capsule protected by a heatshield. The SatCom will relay the data to a nearby Iridium satellite and from there back to mission control. Can’t wait to see that video!