Skip to comments.New Comet Now Visible to Naked Eye
Posted on 12/08/2004 8:40:35 PM PST by Right Wing Professor
A comet discovered earlier this year has now moved close enough to be visible without binoculars or telescopes by experienced observers under dark skies. It is expected to put on a modest show this month and into January.
Comet Machholz will be at its closest to Earth Jan. 5-6, 2005, when it will be 32 million miles (51 million kilometers) away.
People with dark rural skies and a good map should be able to find it on Moon-free nights now into January.
Backyard astronomers have been watching Machholz for months through telescopes. It was spotted by naked-eye observers for the first time about three weeks ago from the Southern Hemisphere, said Donald Machholz, who discovered the frozen chunk of rock and ice in August.
"I saw it last night for the first time with the naked eye," Machholz told SPACE.com Friday.
Comets are made of rocky material and icy mixtures of water and various other chemicals. As a comet approaches the Sun, the surface is heated and essentially boils off. Scientists call the process sublimation. The gas and dust creates a head, also called a coma, and sometimes a tail. Sunlight reflects off the material, making some comets visible from Earth.
Comet Machholz, officially named c/2004 Q2, is not expected to produce the sort of spectacular display put on by comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 or the periodically stunning Halley's comet.
Astronomers cannot say exactly how bright Machholz will get, because it is notoriously difficult to predict the behavior of comets making their first observed close trip around the Sun. Scientists don't fully understand the composition of comets, nor their variety, so they don't know how much stuff will sublimate nor how fast.
Machholz is expected to reach magnitude 4.0, based on an early estimate. On this astronomers' scale, smaller numbers represent brighter objects. The dimmest things visible under perfectly dark skies are around magnitude 6.5. The brightest star, Sirius, is magnitude minus 1.42.
Recent observations suggest Machholz will do at least as well as first predicted.
"The comet is doing better than expected and is about 0.5 magnitudes brighter than expected," Machholz said. "So it will probably get brighter than the Andromeda Galaxy, brighter than magnitude 4.0."
The Andromeda Galaxy is the furthest object visible to the unaided human eye under dark skies. It is a magnitude 3.4 object.
If the comet were to become roughly magnitude 3.0, it would still appear common among the sea of stars available to dark-sky observers. City and suburban dwellers would likely not find it without optical aid. In either case, binoculars or a small telescope might reveal the comet as more of a fuzzy patch, and if it develops a significant tail, that could be visible too.
Machholz, who has found nine other comets, suggests looking for his latest discovery when the Moon is out of the picture, such as around Dec. 11 when it will be at its New phase.
"The comet can still be seen when the Moon is out, but it will be difficult," he said by email. "Use binoculars or a wide-field (low power) telescope, and/or get to a dark site."
The comet is low on the horizon now, where the atmosphere makes for poor viewing. By early January, the comet will be much higher in the sky, improving viewing conditions.
I haven't yet found a decent online map of its current and predicted positions; if I can't find one tomorrow, I'll draw one and post it.
Finding it: draw a line between Betelgeuse, the top left, reddish star in Orion, to Rigel (the bright bottom right star). Go further along that line the same distance again. The comet is right there. It's about 2 degrees (the length of Orion's belt) south of 54 Eridani, which is really the only star easily visible to the unaided eye in the region; it's moving north, and by December 12 should be due East of 54 Eridani. By early January it will be much brighter and next to the Pleiades.
There was a comet a few years ago that went right over the north star.It was like the night sky itself was a giant clock and the comet was its hour hand. Pretty neat.
Tsk! Letting the amateurs beat you guys at your own game :-).
Amazing naked-eye observers can still make discoveries like this.
Amazing what good eyes some people have. I know where it is, but I haven't picked it up yet without binocs, even with averted vision.
All I see is the moon and a bunch of dots.
Are you way out in the boonies? Can't see anything around here.
Cloudy here, darnit!
Could you put that into laymans (farm people) terms please?
Heh, it's the amateurs that have the time and telescopes to find these things (aside from the LINEAR comets). Us pros get too caught up in other things.
This was described at space.com as the estimated position on January 5th, 8pm local time, at the northern mid-latitudes.
bump for later--
long way away bump
Oh, here we go, back outside!
Rural Nebraska. As boonie as it gets. You might need to wait a couple of weeks to see it in the city.
I have to get up in the morning!
Oh well. BRB! :) Thanks for the ping!