Jan 1/2 Meteors and Tonight’s Quadrantids

Tonight brings the peak of the best meteor shower you have probably never seen. The best showers of the year are almost always August’s Perseids and December’s Geminids. Number 3 and 4 are usually October’s Orionids or tonight’s shower, the Quadrantids.

The reason I say the Quads are probably the best shower you’ve never seen is two-fold. First as a northern shower, they take place in the dead of winter and only a few days after New Year’s. If the exhaustion from the Holiday’s season doesn’t keep most people inside then the cold definitely will. Also unlike most showers which have broad peaks which last a few days, the peak of the Quads is very narrow. Even if you are observing on the peak night, you can miss much of the show if you are off the peak by only 12 hours.

The International Meteor Organization predicts this year’s Quads peak to take place at ~19:30 UT on the 3rd which suggests the best viewing will be in Asia. But… predicting the peak time for this shower is always difficult so pretty much anywhere on Earth may see the best. The only way to know is to get out and look.

Bob Lunsford has posted an excellent guide to observing the Quads at the American Meteor Society (AMS) website. Please check it and the AMS (of which I am their Secretary) out.

For many years, astronomers were uncertain as to which comet caused the Quadrantids. No known comets was visible on a similar orbit even though the narrowness and strength of the meteor stream suggested it was created recently. We now know that the asteroid (196256) 2003 EH1 is the likely parent body of the Quads. Even though today it appears as nothing more than an asteroid it was a comet in the past and a rather bright one when seen in 1490. Earlier this year I observed 2003 EH1 with the Vatican Obs/Univ. of Arizona VATT 1.8-m as seen in the image below.

[I forgot to add that yesterday’s Earth impacting asteroid, 2014 AA, is not related to the Quadrantid meteor shower. The asteroid and the meteors have very different orbits and the fact that they both intersected the Earth on the same day (or two) is not only a coincidence but shows just how crowded space is with debris.]

Co-added R-band image of the Quadrantids parent body (xxx) 2003 EH1 taken on 2013 Sep. xx.xx UT with the Vatican VATT 1.8-m. Credit: Carl Hergenrother/Vatican Obs./University of Arizona.

Co-added R-band image of the Quadrantids parent body (196256) 2003 EH1 taken on 2013 Sep. 14.25 UT with the Vatican VATT 1.8-m. At the time the object showed no cometary activity. Credit: Carl Hergenrother/Vatican Obs./University of Arizona.

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Last night was another clear night in Tucson. Though 28 meteors were detected, only 2 were possible Quads. Tonight should see a huge increase in Quadrantid meteors.

Obs  Date(UT)      Time    TOT SPO ANT AHY COM DAD DLM JLE QUA
SAL  2014-01-02   12h 33m   28  23  1   0   0   0   2   0   2

SAL - SALSA3 camera in Tucson (Carl Hergenrother)
Time - Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT - Total number of meteors detected
SPO - Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
ANT - Antihelions
AHY - Alpha Hydrids
COM - Coma Berenicids
DAD - December Alpha Draconids
DLM - December Leonis Minorids
JLE - January Leonids
QUA - Quadrantids

Dec 30/31 Meteors and 2 comets

This morning I ventured out to observe comets C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) and C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) with 10×50 binoculars. Under a magnitude 6.0-6.2 sky, Lovejoy was easy to see as usual. Highly condensed with a slightly bluish-green 6′ coma, the comet also showed a faint ~1° long tail. I estimated it at magnitude 6.1. LINEAR was harder to see at magnitude 8.5 with a 5′ coma and no detectable tail.

I also observed both comets two nights ago with the Sierra Stars 0.61-m telescope in California.

Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) on 2013 Dec 30.xx with the Sierra Stars 0.61-m. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) on 2013 Dec 30.57 with the Sierra Stars 0.61-m. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR)

Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) on 2013 Dec 30.57 with the Sierra Stars 0.61-m. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

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The meteors were also active last night. A total of 23 were detected by the SALSA4 camera system.

Obs  Date(UT)      Time    TOT SPO ANT AHY COM DLM DSV
SAL  2013-12-31   12h 20m   23  19  2   2   0   0   0 

SAL - SALSA4 camera in Tucson (Carl Hergenrother)
Time - Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT - Total number of meteors detected
SPO - Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
ANT - Antihelions
AHY - Alpha Hydrids
COM - Coma Berenicids
DLM - December Leonis Minorids
DSV - December Sigma Virginids

In the Transient Sky – April 2013

April 2013 Highlights
* Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) will be visible in the morning sky fading from magnitude 4 to 7
* Comet C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) will be a 5th-6th magnitude object for SH observers
* Saturn at opposition on the 28th
* Jupiter continues to dominate the early evening sky
* Mercury finishes a great morning apparition for southern observers (not so good for northerners)
Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them with my readers, send them to the Transient Sky at <transientsky1@yahoo.com>.

Planets

Evening Planets

Venus – Venus was in superior conjunction last month. This month the planet is still too close to the Sun for most observers. A lucky few may be able to pick it out against the bright glow of evening twilight by the end of the month.

Jupiter – The King of the Planets dominates the early evening sky being high in the western sky at the end of evening twilight. On the 1st Jupiter sets around 11:30 pm and by 10 pm at the end of the month. It spends the month a few degrees  northeast of the stars of the Hyades cluster in Taurus as it fades from magnitude -2.1 to -2.0.  The Moon pays Jupiter a visit on the evening of the 14th.

Saturn – Saturn reaches opposition this month on the 28th. On that data the ringed planet will be observable all night long. It will also be at its brightest for the year on that night at magnitude +0.1. The Moon passes close to Saturn on the morning of the 25th.

Morning Planets

Mercury – Mercury starts the month in the midst of a good morning apparition for Southern Hemisphere observers. The view is much worse for northern observers. Mercury slowly moves back towards the Sun as the month progresses.

Mars – Both planets are too close to the Sun for easy observation this month. They will be back this summer, Venus in the evening sky and Mars in the morning sky.

Meteors

The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December have high rates with many major showers. Meteor activity is near its annual minimum this month.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During April mornings, 5 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky. The rate is near an annual minimum this month.

Major Meteor Showers

Lyrids [LYR]

This year’s Lyrid meteor shower is seriously hampered by a nearly Full Moon on the night of its peak (April 22nd). The Moon will greatly reduce the usual number of 10-15 meteors per hour.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Info on many minor showers are provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the International Meteor Organization’s 2012 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)

Comet PANSTARRS peaked around magnitude 1.5 when it reached perihelion at 0.30 AU from the Sun on March 10. The comet has rapidly faded as it moves away from the Earth and Sun. Observations over the past few days place is around magnitude 4.0 to 5.0.

In March it was an evening object though it spent all month hugging the western horizon and was only visible in twilight. In April the comet can still be seen in the evening with difficulty but it has become much easier to see in the morning. PANSTARRS starts the month in Andromeda only a few degrees from the Andromeda galaxy. As the month progresses it will continue moving north across Andromeda and Cassiopeia.

The comet will fade by ~1 magnitude per week but should remain a good sight in small telescopes and binoculars all month long.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Apr 01   00m 31m  +36d 33'  1.275 0.684   32    4.4
2013 Apr 11   00h 27m  +48d 13'  1.358 0.899   41    5.5
2013 Apr 21   00h 21m  +58d 12'  1.442 1.102   50    6.3
2013 May 01   00h 11m  +67d 12'  1.528 1.295   57    7.0

RA = Right Ascension, DEC = Declination, Delta = distance from Earth in AU
r = distance from the Sun in AU, Elong = elongation from Sun in degrees
V = Visual magnitude

C/2012 F6 (Lemmon)

Everyone was expecting C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) and C/2012 S1 (ISON) to be the two naked eye comets of 2013. No one was expecting C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) to be vying for the status of naked eye comet when it was discovered by Alex Gibbs of the Mount Lemmon survey back on March 23, 2012. At that time the comet was a faint 20th-21st magnitude and 5.0 AU from the Sun. It also appeared to be an intrinsically faint comet. So faint in fact that I though it had a good chance of disintegrating near perihelion. Instead the comet brightened at a rapid rate.

This surprise comet brightened to magnitude 4.5 to 5.0 as it reached perihelion on March 24, 2013 at a distance of 0.73 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately there have been very few brightness estimates made over the past few weeks. Not only is the comet not visible for those north of the Equator but the comet is also located only ~24 degrees from the Sun.

Lemmon should fade now that it is moving away from the Sun and Earth and may be as faint as magnitude 6-7 by month’s end. Even though it is moving nearly due north through Cetus and Pisces this month it will still not be visible to northern observers till May.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for C/2012 F6 (Lemmon)
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Apr 01   00h 11m  -17d 50'  1.547 0.746   24    4.9
2013 Apr 11   00h 12m  -08d 40'  1.622 0.810   24    5.3
2013 Apr 21   00h 14m  +00d 06'  1.671 0.910   28    5.8
2013 May 01   00h 17m  +08d 32'  1.701 1.031   34    6.4
RA = Right Ascension, DEC = Declination, Delta = distance from Earth in AU
r = distance from the Sun in AU, Elong = elongation from Sun in degrees
V = Visual magnitude

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

None

Comet PANSTARRS now fading

Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) peaked between magnitude +1.0 and +2.0 in the days after its March 10th perihelion. Since then the comet has moved away from the Sun and Earth is now located 0.57 AU from the Sun (versus 0.30 AU at perihelion) and 1.23 AU from Earth (versus 1.10 AU on March 5).

The comet is still a difficult object to observe since it located low in the northwestern sky during evening twilight. Adding to the difficulty is a nearly Full Moon and the fact that the comet has now faded to magnitude +3.0 to +3.5. That’s 4-6 times fainter than it was two weeks ago.

The image below was taken from my backyard near Tucson with a Canon 50mm F/1.4 lens, Hoya X1 (Green) filter and a Imaging Source DMK41 camera. It is a composite of 19 2-second exposures. As you can see by the trees, the comet was already quite low at an elevation of ~5 degrees above the horizon.

The image is also close to what the comet looked like in 7×50 binoculars. Close but not quite… I’d say the comet was looked a little fainter in the binoculars versus the image.

C2011L4_2013Mar24_50mm

Comet PANSTARRS dazzles in the evening sky

Comet PANSTARRS is putting on a nice show in the evening sky. Even though it is located low in the west and is definitely affected by the brightness of the twilight sky, many observers have been able to spot it with the naked eye and small binoculars. My magnitude estimates place the comet around magnitude +1.5. This agrees with estimates made by other observers from around the world.

Here in Tucson, I first saw the comet on Sunday night. Though I first spotted it in 10×50 binoculars I was able to see it, with difficulty, with the naked eye. On Tuesday and Wednesday evening, the comet was much easier to see. Here in Tucson we are blessed with dry, clear skies so I the comet was relatively easy to spot with the naked eye.

On Tuesday night, a thin crescent Moon was located only a few degrees to the right of the comet. Salvador Aguirre of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico imaged the pair. His image comes very close to matching what the comet and Moon looked like to the naked eye. Note that the comet really only looks like a faint star with a hint of a tail. And this is under dry clear Sonoran skies. Anyone observing from locations with any amount of humidity and/or smog will have a much harder time to see the comet. This is why binoculars are a must for finding and enjoying the comet.

Salvador_C2011L4

Image of Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) and the crescent Moon on the evening of March 12 from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. Credit: Salvador Aguirre.

 

The following image was taken on the same night as Salvador’s by Bob Lunsford from Chula Vista, CA. This view closely matches what the comet looks like in small binoculars.

 

Lunsford_C2011L4_moon_2013mar13_crop

Image of Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) and the crescent Moon on the evening of March 12 from Chula Vista, CA, USA. Credit: Bob Lunsford.

 

The view of the comet gets better in a telescope. Salvador also acquired a movie of the comet as it set through his telescope.

 

 

I was able to get a few images of the comet through my 12″ dobsonian. Unfortunately the telescope doesn’t have a tracking mount so I had to obtain a hundred or so very short exposures and co-add them.

 

2013mar13_C2011L4_12inch

 

The comet is slowly moving higher in the sky every night. This should make the comet easier to see though the comet will also start to fade as it moves away from the Sun. Also the Moon will start to become a problem as it gets brighter. For those who want to observe the comet please see Bob King’s finder charts at his Astro Bon blog.

Comet PANSTARRS naked eye from Tucson

This evening I was successful in visually seeing Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) for the first time. Though not an easy object to see I was consistently able to observe it with the naked eye after ~7:00 pm when the comet had already descended to an elevation of ~4-6 degrees above the horizon.

The comet was much easier to see in 10×50 and 30×125 binoculars. Though the comet appeared as nothing more than a faint star to the unaided eye, its yellow color and 0.3-0.4 degree long tail were very obvious in the binoculars.

Due to the bright sky and lack of bright stars near the comet it was difficult to estimate the brightness of the comet. Using a few stars that were much higher in the sky and atmospheric extinction tables produced by Dan Green at the International Comet Quarterly, I estimated the comet to be magnitude +1.5.

Now that I’ve seen the comet, I can recommend that anyone attempting to see the comet for themselves needs the following: 1) a very clear horizon free of any obstructions, 2) binoculars and 3) plan your observations in advance to pinpoint exactly where the comet will be in the sky. For #3 I noted the point on the horizon where the Sun set and then determined that the comet would be located near the same azimuth of the location of sunset. Then it was just a matter of time (over 30 minutes after sunset) till the sky darkened enough for the comet to appear.

Bob King has a nice collection of finder charts that will help in locating the comet over the next few weeks. Finding the comet will be a little easier on Tuesday evening because a very thin crescent Moon will be located only a few degrees to the right of the comet.

Comet PANSTARRS heads north

Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) has been thrilling observers in the southern hemisphere for the past few weeks as it approaches its March 10 perihelion at a distance of 0.30 AU from the Sun. Over the next week, the comet will travel north and become visible (though still a difficult sight) for those of us north of the Equator.

At discovery PANSTARRS appeared to be an intrinsically bright comet and many forecast that it would brighten to magnitude -1 or so. But as is common for dynamically new comets making their first trip through the inner Solar System, PANSTARRS’ rate of brightening slowed down. With the comet as close to the Sun and Earth as it will get it should not brighten further. Still at magnitude +1.5 it ranks as one of the brighter comets of recent times.

The image below shows PANSTARRS in at its current best. The image is interesting in that it shows us a lot about this particular comet. First off, it is a brilliant yellow. Being a dust-rich comet, the dust it has released does a very good job of reflecting the light of the Sun, hence the yellow color. Its yellowness is also enhanced by the excitation of sodium atoms in the comet’s dust. This is especially true for comets that have perihelia at small heliocentric distances.

The other thing to notice in the image below is that PANSTARRS has three separate tails. The most obvious is the broad dust tail extending towards 11:30am position from the head of the comet. This tail is composed of dust released by the comet over the past few weeks. The narrower dust tail extending towards the 9:30 am direction is composed of larger dust particles that were released by the comet over the past few years. It is very possible that some of this larger dust may even have been released before the comet was discovered when it was located 10-20 AU from the Sun and activity was driven by highly volatile ices. The third tail is the hardest to see. It is easiest seen near the top of the image as a thin long tail just to the right of the main dust tail. This faint thin tail is the comet’s gas or ion tail. Its faintness is a clear indication that PANSTARRS is not a very gas-rich comet. Note, that the gas tail is usually bluish in color so it is not as easy to see in a bright (and blue) twilight sky compared to the yellow dust tails.

close-comet

Comet PANSTARRS seen from Queenstown, New Zealand, on Mar. 2, 2013. Credit: spaceweather.com, Minoru Yoneto / AP .

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Though observers down under have had the comet all to themselves the past few months, PANSTARRS is now rapidly moving north. Last night I tried to spot the comet during bright twilight with 10×50 binoculars here in Tucson with no luck (latitude 32°). Also Salvador Aguirre was unsuccessful in his naked eye attempts to spot the comet from Hermosillo, Mexico (latitude 29°). The northernmost observations that I know of is from Malaysia (as reported by Spaceweather.com) (latitude 5°).

The lack of northern observations should change rapidly. Luckily for us, the Moon will be well placed to point the way to the comet next week. On the evening of March 12, the comet will be located within 2 to 3° to the left of the Moon. Even then this will be a very difficult observation. A clear unobstructed view of the west horizon is a must as the two will be only a few degrees above the horizon. Also binoculars are highly recommended as even the Moon will be very difficult to find due to its thinness, faintness, low elevation and the brightness of the sky.

Over the next few weeks the comet will slowly appear higher in the sky though it may not be till early to mid-April till we see a nice view of the comet in a dark sky. By that time the comet will have faded to a faint naked eye object (for folks under dark skies, city folks will likely have to rely on binoculars to spot the comet by then). The finder chart below was produced by Bob King (‘Astro Bob’).

Comet L4 PANSTARRS keeps low to the horizon when its brightest from early to mid-March. The map shows the comet’s position and approximate tail direction each night from March 7-25 about 30 minutes after sunset from the mid-section of the U.S. (around latitude 42 degrees N). Created by Bob King with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software.

Comet L4 PANSTARRS keeps low to the horizon when its brightest from early to mid-March. The map shows the comet’s position and approximate tail direction each night from March 7-25 about 30 minutes after sunset from the mid-section of the U.S. (around latitude 42 degrees N). Created by Bob King with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software.

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As impressive as the comet appeared in the first image above, to the naked eye it should look more like the image below.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS as seen from Mount Dale, Western Australia. The lights on the distant horizon are from the city of Armadale, which is southeast of Perth. Image credit: Astronomy Education Services/Gingin Observatory.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS as seen from Mount Dale, Western Australia. The lights on the distant horizon are from the city of Armadale, which is southeast of Perth. Image credit: Astronomy Education Services/Gingin Observatory.

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