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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Let the Year of the Great (maybe) Comets begin!

The year 2013 should bring us two of the most spectacular comets imaginable – two! But . . .


Yeah, I said “maybe ”  and I mean it. I was so proud in November 1973  when my first article for Popular Science magazine appeared with this headline on the cover:

“Get Set for Comet Kohoutek – Sky Spectacular of the Century!”

Well, as you probably know, Comet Kohoutek was the sky dud of the century! So forgive me if this time around I remain just a tad skeptical – call it “cautious” – when it comes to  what could be, for Northern Hemisphere observers,  the two greatest comets of the century – Comet PanSTARRS in March, 2013 and Comet ISON in  December of 2013.

That said, I’m psyched! Comets are the most wondrous – and unpredictable – beasties in the heavenly menagerie. They are full of surprises, beauty, and awe. The great ones dominate the sky presenting easy targets for the newbie and veteran to find and view with nothing but the naked eye, though if you have binoculars, by all means use them. Comets are easy to photograph as well and every viewing will have its unique qualities so I’m sure a lot of cameras, Iphones, and a zillion other imaging gadgets will get a real workout.

Here are the particulars – and while the dates are probably right on, the comet’s performance can be quite different depending – scientists now believe – on its origins.  More on that in a minute.

  • Comet PanSTARRS – look for it March 10-20 low in the West when it may shine as bright as magnitude -2 – that’s almost as bright as Jupiter is right now – which for a comet is very, very bright – brighter than any I’ve seen in the past half century. 
  • Comet ISON – look for it in the morning sky (before dawn, of course) in November and in both the morning and evening sky in December with the most spectacular views (and longest tail) from mid-December t until near Christmas.

That said, do keep in mind that in the final analysis the comet experts can make good forecasts of what to expect – and I respect these – but comets don’t always have the same respect. They carry a great big “your experience may vary” label. They have the ability to totally fool – as Comet Kohoutek did – and they have the ability to gloriously mystify, as Comet Holmes did in 2007. Comet Holmes was discovered in 1892 and had been coming by at roughly seven-year intervals since then with no one but a few comet experts taking notice. Then in October of 2007 without warning it suddenly brightened by a factor of about half a million, became visible to the naked eye, and eventually grew to be the largest – though very tenuous – object in the solar system!

Comet Observing – Your View will differ!

Comets do not streak across the sky, as the name implies. You have plenty of time to see them and they appear to be standing still. But – and this is a big BUT – there will be a great, good, and so-so time to see any comet, so the trick is don’t let opportunity pass you by and don’t expect that if you saw it one day, it will look the same the next. Several factors impact the view of any comet, the most obviously one being local weather.

Comets are at their brightest when near the Sun – but that also makes them difficult or impossible to see. Yes, it’s possible for a comet to be so bright that it is visible in daylight – and that could happen with either of these – but it is not likely. And even when a comet is visible in daylight it may just be for a few hours. The more typical case is a comet is going to be at its best when it’s near the Sun – which means it will be shining in twilight. This will probably be the case with Comet PanSTARRS in March.


Using Starry Nights sky simulation software I started playing around with different scenarios for this comet based on its predicted path and brightness – and possible tail length.  I found that on March 14 at an hour after sunset – dark enough to see the brighter stars, but not really dark here in Massachusetts – Comet PanSTARRS should be about as bright as the brightest stars and have developed a nice tail.  It will be about 7 degrees above the western horizon and the 3-day-old moon may be close enough (about two fists away) and bright enough to wash out the end of the tail.

Does that mean Match 14 is the only day to see it? Or the best day? Hardly. It may be better several days before or several days after that. The comet will continue to juggle several factors that impact its appearance – it will change in brightness, the tail will change in length, and it will get farther from the Sun each night meaning the sky background will be darker while it is higher – but since it’s getting farther from the Sun it’s also probably getting fainter.

The greatest comet I’ve ever seen was Comet McNaught in 2007. Here’s a picture. Take a look at that fantastic shot.  That’s how it appeared to Southern Hemisphere observers. I was extremely pleased to see it when it was a quite nice comet – but nothing like that. Here’s what I saw and photographed in Westport.


That should give you an idea of how different the same comet can appear at different times to different observers. That was taken a week before the spectacular pictures linked above – and for several such pictures, go here. Notice that even when at it’s best it is varying from night-to-night.

So will Comet PanSTARRS or ISON look like McNaught? I really don’t know. No one does.  But both are sure going to be fun to watch.

For weekly updates and detailed comet information go here – scroll for PanSTARRS and ISON.

For detailed page with charts, go here – Comet PanSTARRS or go here Comet ISON.

And keep in mind, a bright comet can appear anywhere any time and with little warning. One of the brightest comets of the last century came in 1910 when everyone was reading about – and some were worrying about – the next appearance of Halley’s Comet. But what some folks in South Africa discovered was not Halley’s Comet, but an entirely different one – only at first the professional astronomers thought they were simply mistaken.  To read about this and other very bright comets in history, go here.

So will this year’s comets be spectacular? Wait and see. Hope for the best – but don’t forget Kohoutek – I haven’t 😉

Comet Lulin an easy binocular object now (February – 2009)

I looked for Comet Lulin when I went out at 3:30 this morning and although I had forgotten to check it’s exact position, just knowing it was roughly between Saturn and Spica was enough. I swept the sky in that direction with my 12X36 binoculars and it popped right out. I haven’t tried for this comet before. It’s been visible for several weeks, but I knew it was now getting near its peak.

I must say I was a bit surprised by its size. From pictures I had seen I expected something smaller with maybe a hint of a tail. Instead what I saw reminded me of  Comet Holmes, though, of course, dimmer and smaller.  Holmes had a wonderful halo effect – strong core and significantly weaker, but distinct shell. (See my pictures here.) Lulin was more a blob – appearing in binoculars much as the globular cluster M5 does – only larger.  It had a definite nucleus, but the surrounding matter was brighter in relation to the nucleaus than was the case with Holmes.  I tried, after my eyes dark adapated, to see it with the naked eye. No luck. My guess is it is roughly magintude 5.5 which for an extended object is well below naked eye visibility for my skies – and my eyes.

But it’s nice in binoculars and real nice in small telescopes – and while I was looking at 3 am, it’s well placed in the evening sky by about 9 pm and will get better over the next week or two as it passes near Saturn and eventually the Behhive – M44.

For more details and a timetable see my earier post here.

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