Comet Jacques zips through Cassiopeia – catch it this week!

Wow! Comet Jacques cuts between the Heart (right) and Soul Nebulae in Cassiopeia on August 19th. These clouds of fluorescing hydrogen gas are also known as IC 1845 and IC 1848. Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Not many clear nights in my town lately – we had exactly one this week. I’m grateful because we finally got a peek at Comet Jacques, which recently climbed out of the morning sky into the familiar ‘W’ of Cassiopeia. That’s good news because it means you can spot Jacques now at nightfall instead of dawn.

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques cruises through the W of Cassiopeia the next few nights. The view shows the sky facing northeast at nightfall in late August around 9:30 p.m. Click for a detailed map showing the comet’s position nightly through early September. Stellarium

Through a pair of 8x40s two nights ago, the comet was a faint, fuzzy patch next to the lower left star of the ‘W’. Jacques is currently making its closest approach to Earth; on August 28 it will pass us at 52.4 million miles (84 million km). While that’s a fair distance, its relative proximity causes it to move relatively quickly across the sky. Currently the comet’s puffing along at a couple degrees a day. Those with telescopes can easily see it shift position against the background stars within an hour.

Small telescopes will reveal Jacques’ largish diffuse coma and bright core. The core is where the icy nucleus hides behind a shroud of dust and gas vaporized by the heat of the sun. No one knows its exact size – thanks to all that dust – but it’s probably a mile or two across, typical of many comets.

36 pictures of Comet Jacques taken on August 17th combined into a movie show its motion and changes in its gas tail caused by interaction with the solar wind, a stream of subatomic particles blowing from the sun. Click to enlarge. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Larger scopes 8-inches and up will show varying amounts of the comet’s long, faint ion or gas tail that points to the southwest and a hint of green color in the coma from fluorescing gases.

Even though Jacques has been traveling away from the sun since closest approach on July 2, its brightness will remain nearly constant at magnitude +7 through early September because it’s ‘in the neighborhood’.

Try to spot it the next clear night. From a dark sky, the comet’s easy in binoculars and any telescope will show it. Moonlight won’t get in the way until early next month.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

26 thoughts on “Comet Jacques zips through Cassiopeia – catch it this week!

  1. I was trying to spot comet Jacques about 11.45 BST and I saw to the west of the great W a series of lights moving at incredible speed in a northerly direction. No sound and I didn’t get to focus on them as there was cloud and trees. Did anyone else spot anything similar? I am in central Ireland

  2. Hi bob.im just a total amature star gazer,and I’m just after seeing jacques comet now in my home town of limerick Ireland.a beautiful clear nite here…I took sometime to locate it but eventually I found it..I had help from the starlight app on my iPad and also from your directions…it’s 1.30 in the morning here now…hopefully we can get some more clear nights to view it’s progression in the next while…thanks

    • Hi Mike,
      Nice of you to write and share your observation. Thanks! I also viewed it in last night in everything from binoculars to a 24-inch (60-cm) telescope and share your hopes for more clear nights ahead.

    • Apparently Comet Panstarrs discovered possibly the same day may make mag. 3 or brighter in July, perhaps being visible to us in a twilight sky.

    • Edward,
      The original close approach possibilities were based on a preliminary orbit based on fewer than a dozen observations, so I’m not surprised it’s changed. Pity though.

  3. Hey Bob,

    I was out early this morning to see the Venus-Jupiter-Moon conjunction and to chase Comets Jacques and Oukaimeden. I was lucky to witness an extraordinary event which I will describe first, then give my spoiler as to what I think it was. Around 4 AM (Why didn’t I note the time?), I spotted an orange “meteor” at about 20 degrees above the ENE horizon. Almost always, something like this is over as soon as it starts–this thing just kept going. It was bright but not dazzling (maybe between Venus and Jupiter), straight orange (right between red and yellow) with a noticeable size to it (not star-like) and a tail of the same color that waxed and waned as it crossed the sky–maybe just over a Moon diameter at its longest. I didn’t notice any train left behind. I’ve never seen anything like this move so s-l-o-w-l-y. As it approached the edge of the roof, I was able to walk out into the yard to keep it in view till I lost sight of it at maybe 35 degrees elevation in the SW (WSW?). There were scattered clouds so I’m not sure if it went behind one, burned up or faded into the distance but I don’t think it could possibly have reached the ground. It passed near Cassiopeia and the zenith and, as it did, I heard (or imagined) a faint hissing sound that seemed to be coming from right where it appeared to be. That made me consider the possibility of a firework/rocket but I’m confident it was much higher than that. Total time to cross about 120 degrees of sky: five seconds or less (four?). The binoculars were around my neck the whole time but I didn’t think they would show much more and I was afraid I’d lose observation time trying to catch it in the field of view. Since I’d never seen one and I’d never seen anything like this, my best guess was space debris re-entering the atmosphere. But I just looked at several YouTube videos of re-entries and all were much brighter, white or bluish, and had flashes and explosions. Mine was very steady, never changed color. It did sound like events I’d read about from long before artificial satellites–did one involve Edmund Halley as a witness? Is there any reason why a meteor can’t enter Earth’s atmosphere at a very low speed? I’ve seen earthgrazers and it wasn’t totally unlike that so I wonder. Any thoughts? The conjunction was beautiful but a little too spread out for maximum impact. I couldn’t find either comet with binoculars which confused me because I’ve seen Jacques many times and it was well-placed for locating and observing. Have you seen Comet O? I didn’t know what to expect, thought I was seeing something at one point in the binocs but a small scope showed nothing. It was quite a night, really, including what I guess were a few late Persieds plus the one whatever-it-was. Later.

    Norman

    • Norman,
      Great night! My first thought was you saw an earthgrazing meteor. It sounds like one I saw that lasted about 8-10 seconds several years back. It’s possible it was a small piece of satellite debris (no big flareups). I don’t know a minimum speed for a meteoroid to enter and flare in the atmosphere, but slow meteors can occur when the meteoroid approaches from a direction where it’s trying to catch up with Earth. Only thing is, those are usually in the evening. In the morning, we turned into our direction of motion around the sun.

  4. Check this out, Bob. I wear metal aviation-style glasses.

    A similar phenomenon occurred in 1719, when a fireball passed over England. Astronomer Edmond Halley reported, “Of several accidents that were reported to have attended its passage, many were the effect of pure fantasy, such as the hearing it hiss as it went along, as if it had been near at hand.”

    Halley (who also calculated the orbit of the eponymous Halley’s Comet) was among the first to note that, if a distant meteor makes a sound, that sound should arrive after the meteor had passed, not simultaneously, since sound travels much more slowly than the speed of light.

    Skywatchers hearing things

    As recently as the 1970s, people who reported hearing a sound as a meteor passed were routinely dismissed as crackpots, according to the report by Keay, published in the journal Asteroids, Comets, Meteors.

    But after a large meteor passed over New South Wales in 1978, hundreds of anecdotal reports from people who claim they heard the meteor flooded the news media. Keay analyzed 36 of these reports and drew some important conclusions.

    Meteors obviously release electromagnetic radiation in the visible portion of the spectrum, but the fact that they also release very low frequency (VLF) radio waves, below 30 kilohertz, is less known and less studied.

    Because these VLF radio waves travel at the speed of light (not at the speed of sound), they arrive at the same time observers see a meteor passing overhead. But in order to be heard by hundreds of people, Keay deduced, radio waves need a “transducer,” or some physical object that could create a sound.

    Under laboratory conditions, Keay was able to do just that: He created rustling sounds in ordinary objects by exposing them to VLF radiation. Aluminum foil, plant foliage such as pine needles, thin wires — even dry, frizzy hair — produced sounds that were easily heard. This phenomenon is known as electrophonics.

    Wire-framed eyeglasses seem to be particularly sensitive to VLF radiation: “When I was out [viewing the Leonid meteor showers in 1999], I had my head back on the ground and heard a sizzling sound,” one observer reported. “My head was close to grass and leaves and I wear wire-frame glasses as well. The sound was definitely simultaneous with the observation of a rather large streak.”

    Far out!

    • Norman,
      All very interesting, and I’ve written about this (http://astrobob.areavoices.com/2011/05/31/how-to-listen-to-the-aurora-borealis/), however I’m still skeptical only because I’ve seen many auroras over the years and have worn wire frame glasses much of my life, yet I’ve never heard a single sound. I’ve been near buildings, out in the country and on highways – not a whisper. Now that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’m not willing to go that far, but I need more than that experiment to convince me. Besides, VLF is very low frequency while sizzling sounds are very much higher. I’ve heard the northern lights on VLF with the receiver tuned to receive those frequencies, but once the headphones are removed there is silence.

      • It’s all very mysterious, isn’t it? Most of the literature I’ve uncovered in the past few hours theorizes that a bolide is required to generate the waves necessary to induce a sound in objects (eyeglasses, hair, grass) near the ground. What I saw wasn’t very bright and certainly didn’t explode. The sound I “heard” was a hissing–almost without perceptible pitch. I’ve seen aurora in Alaska but never heard anything. My best pal, however, insists that she was woken up in her tent by the sound of the first aurora she ever saw. This research is in its infancy so there’s a long way to go. You surely haven’t done all your aurora watching alone–has anyone accompanying you ever heard anything? Is the theory the same for generating meteoric and auroral sounds? I seem to remember that aurora generated sounds had something to do with the current flowing in the display. At the time I heard the hissing, I knew I “shouldn’t” and wasn’t aware of anecdotal evidence that meteors could produce such sounds. But it’s reasonable that I would have crossed paths with some reference, somewhere. I take it no one else has reported this meteor to you from my neck of the woods (Tucson, AZ)? I haven’t uncovered any references to it but am not hooked into any social media. I’ll keep looking.

        • Norman,
          You might try checking http://www.amsmeteors.org/fireballs/fireball-report/ if you haven’t already. I’ve been with others watching auroras and none of those folks have heard them either. I’m also a member of an astronomy club. Among the regular membership I don’t believe any have reported sounds. The electrical fields generated by the aurora create VLF radio waves in the ionosphere and greater magnetosphere.

  5. Spotted it on 8/22 with my 10 x 70 binos on a mono-pod, after realizing that the dates on my chart are in UT, and the comet is a day ahead of that position.

    Decided it WAS worth dragging out my 16″ telescope for a steadier view, so set that up on 8./23. ~ 9:30 PDT it was passing a small star. The movement is not noticeable when you look at it unless you watch for a while. After I let my wife and child have a look, after a few minutes, when I looked again yes it moves! It was on the other side of that small star. Awesome at 150x.

  6. Bob: Hi,
    have you noticed any appreciable Tail on Comet Jacques!? I see a Great Greenish Coma, but nary a Tail!? This was the last couple of Nites in Cassiopeia… Thanks, Great Snippets, reading them all in the above!.

  7. Astrobob,

    I was hiking high in the mountains in Washington with my daughter this past weekend and spotted what I thought was a comet. It was at dusk just above the eastern horizon. We were camped out at just under 10,000 feet and had incredible visibility. I’m trying to find if what we saw was an actual comet or something else.

    I snapped a photo with my phone here:
    http://imgur.com/ZetGMvn

    Was it Comet Jaques that we saw?

    • Hi Lance,
      Thanks for the photo. It’s definitely not Comet Jacques, which isnt’ bright enough to be visible with the naked eye (binoculars will show it very well). My guess is that you saw and photographed an airplane contrail, which can appear brilliantly lit and look just like a comet when viewed in the direction of the setting sun. Speaking of which, are you sure you weren’t facing west when you took that photo? Colorwise, it looks like the same direction as the setting sun.

      • Thanks, Bob. Yes, I was facing west. It would make sense for it to be an airplane, because that would be the rough flight path of a plane departing from Seattle and heading south. However, since it didn’t leave a trail, I thought it might not be an airplane.

        • Lance,
          Yes, sounds like plane and contrail then. The same / similar sight has made me stop and pull the car over. I had binoculars with me one time and watched as the ‘comet’ soon became a plane.

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