Amateur Astronomer Discovers New Dawn Comet — Here’s How To Find It

The new Machholz comet is seen here on Nov. 9 slowly crossing the constellation Virgo in the early hours before dawn. Jean-Francois Soulier

Amateur astronomer Don Machholz bagged his 12th visual comet discovery on the morning of Nov. 7 from his home in Colfax, Calif. These days, most comets are found by robotic survey telescopes that scan the sky all night long looking for anything that moves. For an amateur to spot one the old-fashioned way with a telescope in their front yard is an incredible feat. Machholz logged 746 hours of searching since his last visual comet discovery in 2010. That’s dedication.

Comet champ Don Machholz stands at his 18″ reflector telescope. AnneLouise Machholz

The new comet, yet to be formally named, bears two temporary designations: TCP J12192806-0211143 and DM001. Its final name may include more than one discoverer as two Japanese observers spotted it at nearly the same time as Machholz. (This just in! — the new object just got its official name: C/2018 V1 (Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto)

When first discovered, it was estimated at about magnitude 10, bright enough to pick up in a 6-inch or larger telescope. But it appears to be getting brighter quickly. I spotted it Saturday morning just before the start of dawn at around magnitude 9 in my 10-inch scope. Others are already seeing in larger binoculars from dark skies and putting it closer to 8th magnitude. Exciting!

C/2018 V1 was easy to spot at a magnification of 56x in my scope — a small, fuzzy glow about 3.5 arc minutes across (30 arc minutes equals the diameter of the full moon) with a bright center. There may have been a hint of a tail pointing to the west, but I couldn’t confirm it. If you have a 6-inch scope or maybe even a little smaller, you can see this! Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Find a location with as dark a sky as possible in the eastern direction.
  • Get to that spot about 2 hours before sunrise
  • Set up your telescope and use the maps below to point you to the comet.
Look for the comet in central Virgo, when it will be highest in the east-southeast sky just before the start of dawn. First locate Gamma (γ) Virginis, then use the more detailed chart (below) to guide you to the comet. Stellarium

C/2018 V1 is slowly trekking east-northeast across northern Virgo at the rate of about 1.5° per day. Lucky for us, it will be near the easy, naked-eye star Porrima (Gamma (γ) Virginis) for the next few mornings. Porrima is beautiful double star in its own right and well worth a look. Use a magnification of 100x or higher.

Thank you, Porrima! This map shows stars to magnitude 10 and C/2018 V1’s position on the dates shown at 12 hours Universal Time. That’s the same as 7 a.m. Eastern Time; 6 a.m. Central; 5 a.m. Mountain and 4 a.m. Pacific. The positions for Nov. 12 and 13 are extrapolated from current data and should be plenty adequate for spotting the brightening comet. North is up. Click the map, then right-click to save and print out to use at the telescope. Or just dial it up on your phone 🙂 Stellarium with additions by the author
This map shows daily positions of Comet Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto (C/2018 V1) at 12 hours UT (7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) through Nov. 21 as it heads east across Virgo. The comet brightens and picks up speed as it heads toward a December 3rd perihelion. Its elongation from the Sun also decreases from the current 39° to around 20° at perihelion, so it will soon become more difficult to see in the dawn skyglow. Closest approach to Earth of 41.6 million miles (67 million km) occurs on November 27th. North is up and stars are plotted to magnitude 9. Chris Marriot’s SkyMap with additions by the author

 

Stunning Venus and Spica pairing at dawn on Nov. 10. The two were just 2° apart. They’ll be even closer the next few mornings. This photo was taken with a 200mm telephoto lens. Bob King

To find Porrima look about two fists or 20° high in the eastern sky below the tail of Leo the Lion. Gamma is the star at the center of a Y-shaped asterism called the Bowl of Virgo. Next, point your scope at the star, center it in the field of view and use the detailed chart to slide or “star hop” to the comet. You can’t mistake the comet for anything else — it will be the only bright, fuzzy blob in the area.

This has nothing to do with the comet, but I thought you’d also like to know about this evening’s pairing of the crescent moon and Saturn at dusk. Stellarium

If you have a view clear down to the horizon, you’ll see the amazing duo of Venus and Spica rising in tandem. They’re excellent sky guides and will help direct you to Porrima if you’re having difficulty.  Just don’t wait too long after you spot the pair because the start of dawn is imminent upon their appearance! The two will be within 1.5° of each other through Nov. 18.

This wide-view map shows the comet’s position (yellow dots) now through Nov. 29, when it crosses a wide swath of sky. It grows brighter throughout the coming month but also draws closer to the sun in the sky and will soon be fighting twilight glow. Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

I’ll have further updates, maps and maybe even a name for this brand new visitor from afar in future updates. You’ll find more information at these sites:

8 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I have known about it for a few days now. I knew what direction it was headed but did not have an ephemera till this afternoon. I have been busy trying to locate Swift Gehrels which is about a magnitude brighter than predicted even brighter than Stephan Ortega which is slightly dimmer than predicted. I may wait till this now new named comet with an official 3 discoverers name is a little brighter to spot it. It is low but should be an easy target till at least December 1. I have not looked for Wirtanen either yet.

    1. astrobob

      Edward,

      You may want to look sooner rather than later for the new comet C/2018 V1. It will be getting lower, and the moon will enter the morning sky around Nov. 21st.

  2. allison

    Nice little comet. I thought it would be a challenge but saw it instantly upon reaching its field on the morning of the 10th. Well-condensed and bright; I estimated it at magnitude 9.0.

  3. Hi Bob, thanks for the heads up on this newly discovered comet. From my perspective, you were the first to report it!

    Was able to capture it this morning from my front deck in an image, but first light snuck up on me and I wasn’t able to see it visually, just in one image. Was much brighter than I thought, as first light was definitely a factor.

    Is it just my imagination, or do we seem to get closer to more comets this time of year?

    For image and a report, check out my site https://observingreports123429.blogspot.com/

    1. astrobob

      Great report, David! About your question: I don’t know of any seasonal connection between comets and their distances from Earth. Just happenstance.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks, Allison. It was originally listed in Wiki as Arizona after the entry was updated to include Don’s 12th discovery. Now I see you’re correct — he observed it from Cal. but will be in Arizona soon. I just checked Wiki again, and the Arizona reference is now gone, so I’ll make that correction. Thanks again!

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