Possible naked eye comet on the rise

By Phil Plait | June 8, 2010 2:15 pm

If you’re an early riser in the mid-northern latitudes of our planet (and statistically speaking, the odds are good for the latter part), then there’s a comet you might want to check out.

Comet McNaught (C/2009 R1) is currently moving rapidly across the northern sky, and it’s just on the edge of being bright enough to see with your unaided eye. Over the next few days it may even get bright enough to see easily in dark skies.

comet_mcnaught_2009r1

This picture, taken by Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero, shows the comet and its long tail. It’s a multiple exposure centered on the comet, which is why you see several star images for each star. You won’t get a view this nice (probably) with binoculars, but you should be able to spot the tail.

The CometChasing website provides a helpful map of the comet’s location over the next few days. On June 21 it’s pretty close to the bright star Capella (one of the brightest in the sky) but it’s not known how bright the comet will be by then. Also, McNaught reaches perihelion (closest point in its orbit to the Sun) on July 2/3, so it’ll be tough to see in a few weeks (though probably brighter; as they gets closer to the Sun most comets get much brighter, but their proximity to the Sun makes them very difficult to spot). With comets it’s always good to get them while the getting’s good. Go look now!

You can find more info on the Cometography site, a spectacular picture on APOD, and an interesting animated GIF showing the motion of the comet, too.

As a bonus for early risers, Jupiter and Uranus will have a series of close approaches to each other in the sky, so you can check that out as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (18)

  1. Bryan

    On the animated GIF, directly to the left of the comet, on the edge of the graphic, there’s a dot moving to the lower right, about a quarter inch (on my monitor). What is that? Coincidental artifacts?

  2. As usual nothing interesting happens here in the south hemisphere. You evil americans and your money bought all the fancy sky phenomena. I blame Bush.

  3. KC

    Could be a meteor or satellite…could also be a cosmic ray hitting the CCD.

  4. Kevin F.

    @Cardoso – Do you have any idea how very much I would like to see Alpha Centauri with my own eyes? You lucky Southern Hemisphere folks. Stupid Earth for getting in the way of our view of the southern stars.

  5. You got the previous Comet McNaught a few years ago and it rocked…we missed it. Even with this one, the Southern Hemisphere is way ahead.

  6. Rory Kent

    @Bryan

    If you click on the ..gif you can see a much larger resolution version of it. On that image it splits clearly into a pair of bright stars.

  7. Jokes aside I can’t complain. Specially now I’m living in a tiny little town, less than 5K people, the closest city is +50Km from here, and my house is in a hill, 1Km to the nearest neighbor.

    Check what a nice moon: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cardoso/4629876587/

    And the night sky http://www.flickr.com/photos/cardoso/4629876587/ Yes, it’s full of stars ;)

  8. Alex

    How big is a comet like McNaught? I could not find any info on the linked websites.

  9. @Bryan (1)
    I noticed that as well. It’s a pure white speck that seems to move down as the comet moves up. I suspect that it’s a hot pixel on the image sensor (you get those a lot). The photographer probably trained the camera on the comet for each of the multiple frames, so that when a single image was compiled, they could get a high exposure of the comet with star trails. For the animated GIF, I suspect they used the same image data, but aligned on the stars instead. Because the camera actually moved between frames, a bright pixel on the image sensor seems to move as well.

  10. About that comet McNaught,
    the one antipodeans see not,
    if it fails to appear
    (like Kahoutek, I fear),
    us stargazers shall be distraught.

    Okay, okay. There’s a reason I don’t write poetry. :(

  11. I was only in seventh grade when Hale-Bopp came around, but I remember how amazed I was at how brilliant it was in the sky. Looks like I’ll be getting up extra early to check this out!

  12. I remember Hyakutake when that came around in 1996. It was stunning! I hope I get to see this!

  13. TripCyclone

    Anyone else notice the initial frame on the animated GIF appears to have a meteor, satellite, or plane crossing the center of the frame from left to right? Also an edge-on galaxy left of the tail, about halfway between image center and the comet nucleus. Lots going on in the images.

    The first comment about the “hot pixel” or whatever it is made me look closer. I’ve counted at least three others, all moving in the same direction. They all look like hot pixels to me.

    Now I need to get up early the next few mornings and see if I can see this.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    I just hope this comet McNaught ends up something like as good as its last – really bright- namesake was – visible even in very light -polluted skies and even from the Adelaide oval after a day-night cricket game. :-)

    I’ve seen a few comets in my time and McNaught 2007 was by far the best of them followed by Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. ;-)

    @4. Kevin F. Says:

    @Cardoso – Do you have any idea how very much I would like to see Alpha Centauri with my own eyes? You lucky Southern Hemisphere folks.

    Ever thought of travelling south of the equator? Expensive I know but it can be done ..

    @ 10. Kuhnigget : Well that’s not bad. Better than most of my attempts anyhow! ;-) :-)

  15. Michel

    Curses!
    After a few nice weeks with clear skies it´s now cloudy for the rest of the week.

  16. Kevin F.

    @Messier Tidy Upper

    God, I’d love to. Alas, raising three kids on a blue collar job… : /

  17. Grand Lunar

    Ah poopie, likely I won’t be able to see it due to urban light pollution (from the lights of Fort Lauderdale).

    Least I can see Jupiter. Often, it’s been a favorite target for me.
    That, and the moon.

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