The moon’s been killer beautiful the past couple mornings. As the waning crescent has grown ever slender, the earthshine has become ever more amazing. Earthshine is the faint illumination filling out the remainder of the lunar disk caused by sunlight reflected from the Earth to the moon and back. I hate to see the crescent go — new moon is Friday — but with its departure, skies are now dark before dawn, perfect for viewing Comet Catalina.
Using 10×50 binoculars this morning, I easily spotted the comet a few degrees to the left and above Venus. How nice that it’s finally high enough in the sky I needn’t drive five miles to find an open horizon. The joys of stargazing from the front porch! Catalina looked like a small fuzzball with an obvious bright center. When it reached its highest altitude at the start of morning twilight, I could make out the faint streak of a dust tail sticking out below (southeast) of the comet’s head with maybe a hint of gas tail. Despite my best efforts using eyes alone, I was unable to see any trace of Catalina at its current magnitude of +6.5.
Through the telescope, the view resembled the photo above with a bright, dense aqua-hued coma and tails that extended out either side like bicycle handlebars. The dust tail appeared brighter overall, but the blue gas tail seemed to go on and on – maybe for as much as two full degrees. At the very center of the coma I could make out a faint “false nucleus”, the name given to the feature at a comet’s center that looks almost but not quite like a point. The real nucleus, far too small to see, spins and spews the ingredients for tail-making within this minute compaction.
I encourage anyone with a pair of binoculars to step outside and look for Comet Catalina the next clear dawn. Go out 2 hours before sunrise — that’ll give you a half hour to find and view the comet before twilight begins. You can use this new map to help you find it.