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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.

Solar eclipse , Comet ISON, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars . . . welcome to November, 2013


 ISON bottom line: Awesome new movies from STERO spacecraft you can see right now – but prospects for naked eye observation very dim – though we’re still talking about a comet and as one scientists said recently – comets are like cats – they have tails and they do what they want.

Best web site I’ve found so far is this NASA blog. Scroll to the movies and the text below that explains them well. This is a rare view of a sun-grazing comet. 

As you look at the images of ISON keep a couple things in mind – first, the Sun is huge – you can fit 109 Earth’s across it’s face – so judge the changing size of the comet by that. Second, ISON is coming from the outer reaches of the Solar System where it is made of the same material from which the Earth and other planets were formed 5 billion years ago – material in its relatively pristine state. That’s one of the things that excites the scientists. Think of it as a space probe in reverse – a probe that not only goes to the outer reach of our neighborhood, but in a real sense goes back in time billions of years.

Of course, the main question has been what will ISON look like after this close-encounter with the Sun and the best answer right now is that it will be a good target for experienced astro imagers with the proper equipment – but it is very doubtful that it will be visible to the naked eye. I’ve updating this page in the hopes that we would be able to observe Comet witht he naked eye  some cool December morning – but it now looks like that will not be the case. But with these special movies it still has proven to be a mind-blowing, visual treat and no one has to get cold or lose sleep to enjoy them. 😉


Got my first look at Comet ISON this morning – sadly, not impressive.

It, of course, may still burst into full glory after it rounds the Sun on Thanksgiving – or it may break up, or it may just be so-so – have to wait and see.

At about 5:35 am when I was looking with 15X70 binoculars it was easy to spot as I scaned between the bright star Spica and even brighter Mercury which was low down, well in the morning twilight. ISON was roughly halfway  between – well, closer to Spica.

Also, a near full moon was still 26 degrees up in the west and washing out all but the brightest stars. Between morning twilight and the Moon these are pretty terrible conditions to see any comet. ISON appeared to me as nothing but a fuzzy star about 13 degrees (little more than one fist) above the southeastern horizon. Here’s a chart –http://observing.skyhound.com/ISON.html


Comet ISON is brightening and the Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury is about to get up close and personal not only with ISON, but with a second comet as well -very, very unusual.

Comet ISON is undergoing a sudden brightening – so there’s hope at last that even if we get clouded out now it might put on a good show right after Thanksgiving. And the Mercury flyby more exciting news from a science standpoint.

Right now ISON is in the pre-dawn sky and on the edge of naked eye visibility -and, of course, we have clouds in the forecast! However, the clouds will not impact the view from Mercury where we have a spacecraft circling that planet that can be used to examine not one – but two comets that will fly close by the planet in just a few days.

This is an incredible coincidence – comets can approach the Sun from any angle or direction and the chance that they pass especially close to any given planet are slim – that two comets should pass very close to Mercury in just two days. . . well, read all about it here:


I still don’t expect a whole lot from ISON in the next week, but who knows. Seeing it will require getting up early and, of course, very clear skies.

To learn more details about ISON go here  and to follow the latest reports, go here.


COMET ISON is still a fairly faint object visible in large astronomical binoculars and small telescopes in the morning sky – where there are currently three other small comets that are brighter – at this time – than COMET ISON and one of these may become visible to the Naked eye in the next week or two.

I really like the following summary from an excellent comet web site found here.

“How can ISON still be a Great Comet? ISON is running considerably fainter than initially hoped, and this trend has continued into November. But just as there is a chance that it will disintegrate one night, ISON could also flare up, becoming much brighter. In December a long tail may be visible on the pre-dawn horizon, regardless of if it survives or not. This tail could be spectacular to the eye, but even if it isn’t, it could still be spectacular in photographs.  We have no way of knowing, and this is what makes observing comets so much fun. Hang on, get out there as often as you can to have a look, and enjoy the ride!”

To get details on the other three comets – including detailed finder charts, go here.


With an unusual solar eclipse, perhaps a major comet, and planets galore – November 2013 should be an exciting month for those who look up!

The partial solar eclipse is this Sunday (November 3, 2013) and for those on the East Coast is underway at Sunrise. Also it is better the farther north you are.  But this is really the tail end of an unusual eclipse event, much of which takes place over the Atlantic Ocean. PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT WATCHING THIS EVENT REQUIRES SPECIAL PROTECTION FOR YOUR EYES! For details on what you will see from where and when you will see it, go here.

The “maybe major” comet is Comet ISON, of course, which we have been hearing about all year. It’s already well within the range of amateur telescopes and it may brighten enough to be seen with binoculars, or even the naked eye before the month is out – but the best view will probably come the first couple weeks of December.  In all cases this is a morning sky event. No one can give any guarantees on a comet – it may be spectacular, it may be a dud – I think it will likely be somewhere between these extremes. But it is coming close enough to the Sun to break up and if that happens too early in its encounter,  it will be a total dud – happen later and it could make it all the more spectacular – and, of course, the break up might not happen at all.

Comet ISON is in the morning sky now and as it draws near the Sun it will get brighter – but it also will be seen against a sky background that grows lighter because of dawn. This is part of the tension comets usually create – they’re at their best when they’re closest to the Sun, but the closer they get to the Sun the  more into twilight skies they appear.  To learn more details about ISON go here  and to follow the latest reports, go here.

A really easy – and predictable – show no one can miss right now is  that brilliant “star” low in the southwest about half an hour after sunset.  It’s no star, of course, it’s the planet Venus – and it has been hanging around low in the western sky much of the year. But in November it draws closer to Earth as Venus starts to overtake us in our orbit.  This means that through a small telescope you can watch it change form into a miniature crescent moon shape. But while it shows us less surface area as it starts to pass between us and the Sun , it gets brighter because during this time it is also getting closer to us. It gets a little higher as the month goes on and by the end is nearly two fists above the southwestern horizon about half an hour after Sunset.

Meanwhile, over in the eastern sky Jupiter is starting to put on a show at a reasonable hour. It has been with us for months now, but visible only to early risers. In November it brightens and it rises high enough, early enough, for many to see it before going to bed. At the start of the month it is rising at about 10 pm, but then we switch to  Standard Time and it rises at 9 pm. By the end of the month rise time is about 7 pm. At about magnitude 2.5 it is brighter than any star, but can’t hold a candle to Venus.

So near the end of the month and early December a dazzling Venus will be well above the horizon to the south west – then as Venus sets, Jupiter  will be rising to the east. Nice show – though you will probably have to wait another  hour for Jupiter to be easy to see.

Meanwhile, in the morning sky this month we have ISON growing brighter and coming near some familiar objects – the bright star Spica and the planets Mercury and Saturn. From what I’ve read to date I think it’s reasonable to assume it will be a nice binocular object this month and possibly reach naked eye visibility. Key dates put it reasonably close to Spica around November 16 and  Mercury and Saturn  about November 22. But again, I suggest you look at the charts and follow the updates here.  Another place to look for reporst from amateur astronomers following Ison is the the discussion thread on Cloudy Nights found here.

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 😉

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