2012 DA14

Remember to duck this Friday!

As any one who has been following the news lately knows, a small asteroid named 2012 DA14 will make an especially close flyby of Earth later this week. The 50-meter wide (~150-foot) asteroid will pass within 27,700 km (22,200 miles) of the Earth’s surface at 19:24 UT on February 15. At that time the asteroid will be over the Indian Ocean.

This is the closest known approach of an asteroid of this size. Such an occurrence should happen once every 40 years, on average. The reason this is the first detected close approach of its kind is because we only possessed the technology to easily discover such object over the past 10-15 years.

There is a zero probability that this object will hit the Earth this week. Its orbit is well enough known that not only will it not hit the Earth but it will also not be impacting any Earth-orbiting satellites. There is a 1-in-50,000 chance DA14 could hit the Earth in the years between 2080 and 2109, though it is likely that even these small impact probabilities will drop to zero after this week’s flyby.

More on the close approach of 2012 DA14 can be found at NASA/JPL and Sky & Telescope.

As close as this asteroid gets to Earth, it small size means it never gets very bright. It will brighten to about 7-8th magnitude at its closest which will make it an easy binocular or small telescope object. The hard part will be finding it. It will be moving as fast as nearly a degree per minute at its fastest. Not too mention being so close also means parallax will be an issue.

By the time the sun sets in the United States, it will have faded to 11th-12th magnitude. Only observers with relatively large telescopes will be able to spot DA14 by then as it recedes into the distance near the north star, Polaris.

In the Transient Sky – February 2013

February 2013 Highlights
* Not one but two comets should be naked eye brightness for SH observers (C/2011 L4 and C/2012 F6)
* Up north only comets 273P/Pons-Gambart and C/2012 T5 are bright enough for small scopes at 9th magnitude
* Comet C/2011 F1 (LINEAR) is also in range of small telescopes from the SH
* Small near-Earth asteroid 2012 DA14 passes 34,000 km from Earth on the 16th
* Mercury and Mars pass within 1/2° of each other low in the WSW evening sky on the 7th
* The Moon joins Mercury and Mars on the evenings of the 10th and 11th
* Moon occults Jupiter for observers in southern Australia
* Saturn rises before midnight
* Jupiter continues to dominate the evening sky
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

Mercury -Mercury will have three good evening apparitions for Northern Hemisphere observers this year. The first takes place this month. The innermost planet is a relatively bright -1 magnitude at the start of the month. Though it slowly fades every night it rapidly ascends higher nightly in the western sky during dusk. On the 7th it passes ~0.4° from much fainter Mars. A very thin crescent Moon is located to the lower right of the duo on the evening of the 10th and to the upper right on the 11th. By the second half of the month Mercury is fading to 1st-2nd magnitude and falling back into the twilight glow.

Mars - Use Mercury and the Moon (see above) to spot Mars this month. The red planet will be all but unobservable for most observers for the next few months as it passes behind the Sun.

Jupiter – The King of the Planets dominates the evening sky being visible nearly overhead at the end of evening twilight. Jupiter is now two months past opposition. It spends the month just north of the stars of the Hyades cluster in Taurus as it fades from magnitude -2.5 to -2.3.  The Moon pays Jupiter a visit on the evenings of the 17th and 18th.

Morning Planets

Saturn – Saturn is an early morning object rising around 1:00 am at the start of the month and 11pm by the end of the month.  All month Saturn glows at magnitude +0.5 between Virgo and Libra. The Moon passes close to Saturn on the morning of the 3rd.

Venus – Venus is too close to the Sun for easy observation this month. It will be back, this time in the evening sky, this summer.

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 still near an annual maximum 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 February 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

None this month.

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)

Last month Comet PANSTARRS looked on pace to peak around magnitude -1 near its March 10th perihelion. But over the past few weeks the comet has not been brightening as quickly as hoped. As a result it is likely that the comet will be much fainter than -1 at its peak brightness and more along the lines of 2nd to 4th magnitude. The comet will still be a nice sight especially in binoculars and telescopes.

The comet was first seen by the Hawaiian based PanSTARRS asteroid survey on June 6, 2011 at a large distance of 7.9 AU from the Sun. At perihelion it will approach within 0.30 AU of the Sun. The comet is a new Oort cloud comet meaning it is making its first passage through the inner Solar System. The fact that it is a new Oort cloud comet explains its failure to brighten as quickly as first predicted. These sort of comet often appear relatively bright when far from the Sun because they still contain a large amount of very volatile ices. As the comet approaches the Sun, these ices sublimate and the comet brightens at a slower rate.

This month, the comet starts at a distance of 1.0 AU from the Sun with that distance dropping to 0.43 AU at the end of the month. A few recent observations place it at magnitude ~6.5-7.0. If it continues to brighten at its current rate it should become a naked eye object by mid-month. The comet will only be observable from the Southern Hemisphere this month as moves from the constellation of Sagittarius to Piscis Austrinus. Northern observers will have to wait till late March when the comet should be a naked eye object.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Feb 01   19h 21m  -45d 22'  1.649 1.009   34    6.8
2013 Feb 10   20h 26m  -45d 15'  1.427 0.822   34    6.0
2013 Feb 19   21h 49m  -41d 06'  1.238 0.626   30    4.5
2013 Feb 28   23h 16m  -29d 13'  1.118 0.431   22    3.0

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 has brightened at a rapid rate. If this brightening trend continues the comet may be a fine naked eye object this February through May. Perihelion will occur on March 24, 2013 at a distance of 0.73 AU from the Sun.

Over the past few days visual observers have estimated the comet at magnitude 6.2 to 6.5.

The comet is already too far south for most northern observers and the comet will continue to travel deeper into the southern sky this month. As a result, this comet will only be visible to southern observers till May.

The comet starts the month around magnitude 6.3 and will continue to rapidly brighten all month. By the end of the month the comet may be as bright as magnitude 6.0. It will be traveling through the far southern constellations of Musca, Octans, Tucana and Phoenix.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for C/2012 F6 (Lemmon)
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Feb 01   13h 32m  -81d 08'  0.993 1.221   76    6.3
2013 Feb 10   23h 00m  -81d 07'  0.993 1.098   67    5.5
2013 Feb 19   23h 52m  -65d 58'  1.053 0.981   57    4.5
2013 Feb 28   00h 03m  -52d 43'  1.154 0.877   47    4.0

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

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet C/2012 T5 (Bressi)

Comet Bressi was first spotted by Spacewatch observer Terry Bressi from Kitt Peak on October 14, 2012. If any of the comets in this blog post are likely to not survive perihelion, this is the one.

The comet is currently just within 1 AU of the Sun and little over 1 AU from Earth. Even after a recent outburst a week or two ago the comet is still rather faint. My observations place it at V magnitude 13.0 but this is most likely an underestimate as the observations were hampered by a very right Moon nearby and the comet’s low elevation. Visual observers place it closer to magnitude 11-12.

Comet Bressi will reach perihelion on February 24 at a distance of 0.32 AU from the Sun. It will be interesting to see if it survives. If it does it may brighten enough to be seen in small telescopes though observations will be limited to southern observers until March.

Recent observations place the comet at magnitude 10.5. If it can hold together till perihelion it should can brighten up to 8th-9th magnitude. Northern observers will only be able to follow the comet till around mid-month. After that it will solely be a southern object till next month.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for C/2012 T5 (Bressi)
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Feb 01   23h 51m  -30d 29'  1.016 0.709   41   10.5
2013 Feb 10   23h 20m  -33d 04'  0.984 0.517   30    9.8
2013 Feb 19   22h 28m  -32d 03'  0.933 0.357   21    8.9
2013 Feb 28   21h 34m  -19d 22'  0.917 0.344   20    8.0 or Puff!

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

273P (Pons-Gambart)

On June 21, 1827, French astronomers Jean Louis Pons and Jean-Félix Adolphe Gambart discovered a comet among the stars of Cassiopeia. Both men were prolific comet finders. Pons was the most prolific discoverer of comets up until the modern era and still holds the record for most visual discoveries. A record that is unlikely to ever be broken. Between 1801 and 1827, Pons found 26 comets. Comet Pons-Gambart was his second to last comet find. Though not as prolific as Pons, Gambart is credited with 5 comet discoveries between 1822 and 1834. Comet Pons-Gambart was his 3rd find.

As the comet was already a few weeks past perihelion at discovery, it was only observed for ~1 month before it faded. Over the years, orbit computers have noticed that Pons-Gambart was on an obvious elliptical orbit and determined periods between ~45 and 65 years. The only problem was with periods that short the comet should have returned at least 2 to 4 times since 1827. Perhaps the comet was fainter now or even broke up in the intervening years to explain why it was constantly being missed.

Fast forward to this year… Robert Matson of Newport Coast, CA found evidence of an unknown comet on images taken with the SOHO spacecraft. SOHO’s SWAN imager is used to map the Lyman-α emission of the solar wind. SWAN is also very good at detecting hydrogen was dissociated water molecules released by comets. As a result, SWAN has been used to discover comets. Matson noted the presence of a comet on SWAN images from Nov. 7, 10, 11, 13 and 19. He then informed a number of observers about the new find and on Nov. 29 Terry Lovejoy of Australia found the comet.

Before the comet was even formally announed, Maik Meyer of Limburg, Germany noticed the similarities between the new SWAN/Matson comet and long-lost Comet Pons-Gambart. There is little doubt that the two are related and are probably the same object. Only problem is the 2012 observations don’t exactly match the 1827 observations assuming orbital periods of 45-65 years. A recent MPEC released by Gareth Williams of the Minor Planet Center found that the 2012 observations are consistent with a much longer period than previously assumed. It is likely that Pons-Gambart wasn’t really missed before because with a 188 year orbit this is actually its first return since 1827.

At first there was still come question as to whether the newly seen comet was Pons-Gambart and for awhile the comet was only known by its designation C/2012 V4. The Minor Planet Center has now officially announced it as 273P/Pons-Gambart.

After spending over a month too close to the Sun for observation, 273P is once again observable. This month it is a morning object traveling north from Serpens Cauda into Hercules.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for 273P/Pons-Gambart
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Feb 01   18h 30m  +05d 10'  1.636 1.132   42    9.0
2013 Feb 10   18h 22m  +10d 30'  1.538 1.243   53    9.2
2013 Feb 19   18h 10m  +16d 46'  1.432 1.359   65    9.4
2013 Feb 28   17h 54m  +24d 10'  1.331 1.477   77    9.7

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/2011 F1 (LINEAR)

No one has seen this comet for a few months because it has been too close to the Sun. It should be around magnitude 9-9.5 as it slowly moves away from the Sun.

The LINEAR near-Earth asteroid survey picked up this comet back on March 17, 2011 at 18th magnitude. It passed perihelion on January 8 of this year at 1.82 AU from the Sun.

It is yet another comet that can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere this month as it moves from Sagittarius to Microscopium.

Finder charts can be found at Chasing Comets.

Ephemeris for C/2011 F1 (LINEAR)
Date            RA        DEC    Delta   r   Elong    V
2013 Feb 01   19h 45m  -36d 01'  2.691 1.845   24    9.2
2013 Feb 10   20h 13m  -37d 51'  2.662 1.867   29    9.3
2013 Feb 19   20h 44m  -39d 26'  2.634 1.896   33    9.4
2013 Feb 28   21h 15m  -40d 44'  2.610 1.931   38    9.5

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

Asteroids

2012 DA14

On February 15th a ~50-meter asteroid will pass 34,000 km or 21,000 miles from Earth. The asteroid will appear as a fast moving star of 8th magnitude at its closest. For observers in the United States, the asteroid will already have made its closest approach when it becomes visible. As a result it will have faded to 11th magnitude by then.

I’ll post more on this object over the next week or so.

Welcome to 2013!

2013 promises to be another great year for observers of the Transient Sky! Right now, it looks like we will have not one, not two but possibly three naked eye comets [C/2011 L4 (Panstarrs), C/2012 F6 (Lemmon), C/2012 S1 (ISON)] including one that may turn out to be a Great Comet [C/2012 S1 (ISON)]. The Perseid Meteors of August will be observable under dark Moon-less skies. Also the small asteroid 2012 DA14 will fly past the Earth at an incredibly close distance of 21,000 miles or 1/10th the distance to the Moon on Feb 15.

Doug Snyder of the Huachuca Astronomy Club (HAC) has created a very handy single page summary of 2013. His 2013 sky calendar can be downloaded from the HAC site here.

Another useful list of 2013 sky events can be found at the Astro Guyz blog.

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