C/2012 K5 – an evening comet worth chasing

Comet C/2012 K5 photographed this morning Dec. 16, 2012 from Austria. Two tails are visible – the obvious one and a faint dust fan to the upper left of the comet’s head. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Sure I love the moon. Last night’s walk with the dog wouldn’t have been nearly as romantic without it. But tonight the moon won’t rise for an hour after twilight ends. That means the return of dark skies and the Milky Way. It’s also a perfect time to follow what has now become 2012′s brightest comet – C/2012 K5 LINEAR. Just in time it would seem!

This picture of Comet C/2012 K5 on Christmas Eve morning was made with an 8″ telescope and nicely shows the comet’s two tails. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

On Christmas morning I saw it in plain old 8×40 binoculars as a fuzzy glow near Big Dipper’s Bowl. Through a 15-inch telescope the comet was sheer beauty with a compact bright head and tail nearly as long as the full moon is wide (1/2 degree).

Currently shining around magnitude 8.5 and moving swiftly as it makes its closest approach to Earth tomorrow, C/2012 K5 is now out during convenient evening viewing hours.

The comet moves swiftly through Auriga and n. Taurus in the coming nights. Watch especially on Jan. 3 when it passes next to the bright star cluster M36. Stars shown to mag. 7.3 and map dates are for 7 p.m. CST.  Right-click, save and print a copy for use at the telescope. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

You’ll find it still around 8-8.5 magnitude during the coming week as it skims through the bright constellation Auriga not far from Jupiter.  I have to be honest – while visible in binoculars from a reasonably dark sky, it’s no great shakes, just a patchy glow. Through a small telescope however, you’ll see the little head and at least a hint of the tail stretching off to the west.

Consider the comet a warm-up for the brighter fare coming this March when C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS makes its appearance in the evening sky. You can read more about that one  and another bright comet in my best sky events of 2013 blog.

C/2012 K5 orbit is steeply inclined to the plane of the solar system, which is why it’s been visible in the far northern sky of late. Now the comet’s rapidly moving southward as it plunges through the plane. Credit: NASA/JPL

C/2012 K5 LINEAR was discovered earlier this year by the automated Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project. The joint effort by the Air Force, NASA and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory uses a 1-meter (39-inch) telescope to discover and track Earth-approaching asteroids. In addition to thousands of new asteroid finds, the survey has picked up a few comets along the way. K5 was discovered on images taken May 25, 2012.

Facing east around 7 p.m. local time Dec. 30. Use this wide view map to locate Auriga and then the more detailed view above to find the comet. Created with Stellarium

The comet comes closest to Earth on Dec. 31 at a distance of 27.3 million miles. Now at its brightest, the comet will soon fade after about the middle of January. Stop by for a look the next clear night.