After a recent discussion about comets, I was encouraged to write and share my experience in the hope that others will take up the hunt.
I sat down and compiled a list of all the comets I have searched for and seen visually since I began to seriously pursue astronomy in 2008. Starting with Comet Lulin (C/2007 N3) on a cold night in February of 2009, I came up with a list of 11 comets. Seven of those have been in the last two years. Either we've been lucky, or I've just become aware and interested.
Several of these comets were easy to find, and the rest were only found after intense searching. For some, I had to keep going back, several nights(or mornings) in a row. I specifically remember that with ISON (C/2012 S1) and Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) in the fall of 2013. Then, there was the wonderful surprise of PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) in the spring of 2013. I followed that comet for 2 months. I observed how it changed, especially its 2 tails. I enjoyed it with family, and friends, and alone, at several different locations. Several of our members shared their images of that beautiful comet. Thanks guys!
Currently, we have Lovejoy Q2 (C/2014 Q2) in the night sky. It is passing through Cassiopeia during March. We have watched this particular comet since Jan 13/15. Every chance the sky affords, I grab my binoculars and sneak a quick peak, watching its progress through the constellations.
Then there was Comet Jacques (C/2014 E2) in Cassiopeia this summer. My first sighting of it was in August 2014 at Starfest. That was especially fun, since I could share the excitement with more enthusiastic astronomers than normal. Members shared pictures of that prize too.
I had a hunch that most comets seem to pass through the constellation Cassiopeia. I looked through my sky journals, and with the help of the SkySafari program, I looked at 9 out of 11 of the comets I have seen. It so happened that only 5 of them had been in Cassiopeia. In actual fact, after research shared by friends, there is no scientific reason to support my hunch. At least we settled that!
Perhaps you have never actually seen a comet. My journal entry after viewing my first comet, Lulin, says " comet very fuzzy - seemed a lot like a galaxy." In binoculars comets usually look like fuzzy out-of-focus stars. In a telescope, it is a much bigger fuzz, but still a fuzz. You can't get a sharp focus on it like you can a star. The nucleus is often bright, and is usually surrounded by larger fuzzy haze. The larger aperture telescopes can often bring out the tail(s) of a comet, making it that much more exciting. My best views of comet tails have been with the club's 28" Webster, of course.
Comet Lovejoy is hanging in still. Image by John H. 9s f/5.0 ISO6400 200mm Mar 24, 2015
I suggest waiting until at least deep twilight to try to view a comet. The bright sky makes it very difficult. As well, doing your homework ahead of time should make a more profitable search. Finding a good chart with the locations of said comet, for each day, will make a big difference. Comets move very quickly against the background stars, especially when they are closest to the Earth.To conclude, here is my list of comets I have enjoyed. Perhaps these names will bring back memories for some of you. Or perhaps it will encourage more comet tales, for those who have been watching the sky for more years than I have. From Feb 2009 to March 2015: Lulin, McNaught, Hartley 2, Garradd, PanSTARRS, Lemmon, Lovejoy, ISON, PanSTARRS, Jacques, and Lovejoy Q2.
Good news! The star that went Nova in Sagittarius has flared back to naked eye visibility!
Today Sky and Telescope reports the nova at magnitude 4.4. This will make it a cinch to find and identify with binoculars even in the pre-dawn light.
Use the photo for a guide. The nova is brighter by far than any star in it’s vicinity.
Image by Bob King
I made my first and only observation last Sunday morning at about 6:20. Leaving it that late was almost a mistake. The sky was getting pretty bright and there were only a couple of dozen stars still visible. I couldn’t make out the Teapot without the binoculars. Fortunately with optical aid the nova was unmistakable. Any type of binocular will help do the trick but starting out before 6 am is the best bet.
Yesterday morning I had hoped for a repeat observation from Sauble Beach but there were clouds in the south blocking the view. We were so fortunate that we had an unobstructed western sky for the Lunar eclipse.
Here's to more favourable skies for nova spotting in the near future. I hope some of you are able to get out and have a try at this!
Clear skies all
BAS past president (still)