Surprise New Comet (March 2006) - Go Look with Binoculars!

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Surprise New Comet (March 2006) - Go Look with Binoculars!

Postby Duchess of Malfi » Fri Mar 03, 2006 7:10 am

A Surprise Comet in the Dawn
Set your alarm and go out with binoculars at the earliest glow of daybreak.

Where to See Comet Pojmanski
Bright Venus and Altair guide the way to Comet Pojmanski's position as it emerges into dawn view, low above the east-southeast horizon. Bring binoculars! The comet will not be nearly as prominent as shown here. (The scene is drawn for the beginning of twilight as viewed from near 40° north latitude.) Click for larger view.

(Feb. 28) - Sometimes comets give us years of advance warning before they come into good view, and sometimes they take us by surprise. On Jan. 2, 2006, Grzegorz Pojmanski at Warsaw University Astronomical Observatory in Poland noticed a 12th-magnitude comet on a sky-survey image taken the day before in Chile. The comet was in the constellation Indus in the far southern sky. But as soon as astronomers were able to collect more position measurements and calculate an orbit, it became clear that the object would be heading north as it rounded the sun.

Michael MattiazzoAn Australian astronomer took this picture of Comet Pojmanski on Feb. 28.

By early February Comet Pojmanski (designated C/2006 A1) was brightening faster than expected for a comet on its trajectory. On Feb. 27 it was glowing at about magnitude 5.5 as it emerged into view very low in the dawn for observers at mid-northern latitudes. It's visible in binoculars — latitude and sky conditions permitting.

Using 10x50 binoculars on the morning of Feb. 27, I swept it up with little trouble about 20 minutes after the start of morning twilight near Boston. It was a tiny fuzzball with a barely perceptible aquamarine-green tint and a hint of a skinny tail extending to the upper right.

The time to look is just after morning twilight begins at your location. To find this time, check that your location and time zone are correct in Sky & Telescope's online almanac. (And make sure the Daylight Saving Time box is unchecked.)

Go out and scan just above the horizon to the left of dazzlingly bright Venus, as shown above. Note the shape of the triangle that Venus and Altair form with the comet's position. (The comet is plotted at 12:00 Universal Time on the indicated dates, which is around dawn on the same date in the time zones of the Americas. As days go by, the entire star field including the comet's position rise slightly to the upper right with respect to the horizon. Venus will remain at about the same height above the horizon but will shift slightly left.)

Each morning, Comet Pojmanski will rise a little higher and become easier to see from northern latitudes, but at the same time it's fading. On March 1 it's only 8° above the horizon at the start of dawn as seen from 40° north latitude, but the comet gains altitude every day: to about 20° on March 8. By then, however, it will be starting to fade rapidly, probably dimming to magnitude 6.2 by March 11 and losing 0.1 magnitude per day thereafter.

Sky Tour and Charts
If you're south of latitude 40° (approximately the latitude of Denver, New York, and Madrid), the comet will appear higher over your horizon than described above and thus will be easier to see. Seen from farther north, it will be lower and harder.

The comet's orbital elements and an ephemeris are available for entering into sky-mapping software or for plotting on a star atlas. Keep up with its doings at the Comet Observation Home Page and the Weekly Information About Bright Comets page.

© 2006 Reprinted with permission from Sky Publishing Corp.


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