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.
That would be... bad. For everyone... everywhere.
Wow, I had NO idea. Yeah, I always thought Anchorage, and especially Fairbanks, were relatively small and safe. Never been to Alaska. Always been a dream of mine.
Dang. I went outside and looked up, but all I could see was the Sears Tower...
Here's his story...
great graphic - thanks for posting...
Anchorage is over 250,000 population now. Much like any other city of similar size it has the same problems. But a half-hours drive will get you in the boonies and a half-hours flight will get you beyond the road system to areas where you'll rarely see another human.
Very helpful tips. Thanks!
Thanks for the ping.
I've found a little photoshop enhancement does wonders with digital photos of the sky. In any case, I'll give it a shot myself this evening.
Of course, if you wait a month, you may be able to get a nice wide-angle shot with the comet and the Pleiades.
Trying to figure out how to get beyond the 30-second max time exposure on my camera. It doesn't have the bulb setting. Otherwise won't be able to get the pix.
I refuse to go into public with naked eyes.
I mean, have some shame, man!
Be aware that with a standard 50mm f.l. lens on a 35mm SLR, you can take a time exposure of no more than about 60 seconds without the celestial objects "trailing" on the film (or CCD) due to the rotation of the earth. Shorther focal lengths = longer exposures without trailing, at the expense of smaller image size of the object.
Hope that helps.
Thanks, longshadow. I'll use hi-res, wide open (f 2.8), ISO 400 and 30 seconds. That's the best I can do with the camera. I imagine I'll get a lot of noise, but have noise reduction if I need it, if it doesn't wipe out the comet pixels. Later.
Any chance we could suggest some left-wing kook kult to hitch a ride ala Hale-Bop?
Thanks for posting the sky chart showing where to look for this comet.
Thanks, I work nights and have some old binocs from the early 1900's but they still work fine. I'll look again tonight.
Those are gate symbols.
thanks. I will be in big sky country on jan6- should I look next to pleiades?
Excellent -- that's what we out-the-backdoor-and-look-up amateurs needed!
Thanks for the info! Even more amazing he does it all manually.
Thank you. I'll be here all week.
I see a vague resemblance... :)
...or until the produce hits the stage. Try the veal.
I got up this morning and saw what I thought was a jet con trail far off on the eastern horizon as the sun was rising. But a few minutes later I noticed that it wasn't moving much, so I started looking closer. Bith binocs it's an amazing sight.
It looks to have a very large "head" with a wide, but fairly short tail. Maybe the comet has broken up or something, and maybe we're seeing the tail from an angle.
But it's at least as bright as that evening comet a few years ago, Hale-Bopp I think it was. Highly recommended viewing for anyone up before dawn. Just look east!
LOL. Good one.
Well, with that screen name, I'd expect to find you here!
Easily seen in the bright skies of phoenix, especially with binoculars. I am not in the mood to trudge out my enoumously inconvenient 6 inch reflector and plug it in and all that, its 25 years old and very analog!
I just went outside and the binoculars really bring that little fuzzball to life.
ThinkinGal, Glad to be an activated fuzzball and nice to see you again.
Yeah, I gotta get a computerized scope, this one I have is good, but I have never been able to get it balanced correctly enough to follow the stars correctly, plus, you have to set the Lattitude on it manually, using a screw. But, its 1980 technology.
As for the comet, we have been raining and flooding all week here in Phoenix, not good enough to bring out the scope.
Yeah, now all we need is for the friggin' cloud cover to abate in the NE. I'm looking forward to seeing this comet near the Plieadeas - but you have to be able to actually see the sky first.
I tried looking at it just now but everytime I turned up, the snowflakes kept getting in my eyes. Maybe tomorrow night.
I've had the same problem here in VA. I followed Machholz about every night from the bottom of Orion up through Taurus with my binoculars, but it has been cloudy for the last week.