The Great Comet of 2020 That Never Was

Back in March, the astronomy crowd was buzzing about a possible”naked-eye” comet expected in late May 2020.  Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) was first detected at the tail end of December as a very dim magnitude 19.6 object and by mid-March it had brighten to an easy telescope target magnitude of 8. Those not familiar with the magnitude scale, going from 19.6 to 8 is not a doubling in brightness, but around a 4000 times increase!

That dramatic increase in brightness help fuel the hype for the Great Comet of 2020, and there were two other factors that got people excited:

  1. It would be visible at dusk from the Norther Hemisphere, hence within easy viewing to much of the world population.
  2. It was following a similar orbital path as the “Great Comet of 1843“, suggesting that it was from the same original body and could potentially provide the same viewing spectacle. That 1843 comet was visible in daytime!

Well all that went south when the comet’s breakup was observed in late March after peaking momentarily at magnitude 7. It began to dim, along with any hopes of a Great Comet repeat. Below is a graph showing the the original (grey line) and revised (red) comet brightness forecast (dots being observed measurements) on this chart created by Seiichi Yoshida (comet@aerith.net)

Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) Brightness - Copyright(C) Seiichi Yoshida

Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) Brightness – Copyright(C) Seiichi Yoshida

Comet C/2019 Y4 is expected to make its closest approach to the sun on May 31st, however most experts believe it will disappear (disintegrate) before that date.  Seeing that I had a small window of opportunity to capture the comet I decided to try my luck last Saturday evening.

Below is an extremely processed (and ugly) image that I got by combining 25 photos (15 seconds each at ISO 3200) using my Skywatcher 80ED scope. The photo just about makes out the distinctive blue-green hue and elongated shape of a comet. It is around magnitude 10, very diffuse and about 147 million km away from us the day this photo was taken.

Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) on April 18, 2020 - Very faint at about magnitude 10. Imaged with 80ED telescope 25 x 15sec

Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) on April 18, 2020 – Very faint at about magnitude 10. Imaged with 80ED telescope 25 x 15sec

I pushed the image processing so hard that I was able to pick up faint magnitude 13 galaxies!

On to the next comet!

Telescope: Skywatcher 80ED
Camera: Canon 80D
Image: 25 x 15sec at ISO3200 (6 minutes)

It’s a good time for Jupiter

The last time Jupiter was in a favorable position for good photos was 2010, so while I have photographed the planet a few times since, the results weren’t really satisfactory.  So on July 7th, finally took the equipment out and set my mind to image some planets (Venus was also in a good position).

As luck would have it, the Great Red Spot was pointing our way, and landed my best shot of it yet. We may be past the May 2018 sweet spot for opposition, but that doesn’t mean you should not attempt to observer or photograph the Jupiter. Still plenty of good days ahead.

Jupiter with moons Europa (left) and Io (right)

Jupiter with moons Europa (left) and Io (right)

I took about 11 video sequences of the planet, and sure enough the last one yielded the best result. I guess as the evening progressed, the air cooled and provided for better viewing.

Skywatcher 80ED
Televue 3X barlow
Vesta Webcam with IR/UV filter
Processing with Registax and GIMP.

In case you missed the Venus-Moon close encounter

Last Saturday evening, if you happened to look outside and had a clear view there is no way you could miss the Venus-Moon close encounter in the dark blue sky. But just in case it was cloudy, or you weren’t paying attention here it is.

Moon and Venus within 8 degrees on June 16, 2018

Moon and Venus within 8 degrees on June 16, 2018

For those curious on the camera setting, the above is cropped from a single frame at 33mm f/4.5 1/30sec and ISO800 with Canon 80D.

Moving up to 85mm gives you the image below, also at 1/30sec and ISO800.  Both images were hand-held from a bedroom window. Could a tripod have helped? Sure, but I figured I could do just fine , especially with image stabilization enabled on the lens.

Moon and Venus within 8 degrees on June 16, 2018

Moon and Venus within 8 degrees on June 16, 2018

To put a bit of perspective on the distance of these two heavenly bodies and their apparent size in the sky I’ve added a bit of information on the above image. While Venus may be nearly 4 times larger in diameter, it looks quite small next to the Moon in the sky.

Moon and Jupiter Through the Clouds

After yesterday’s photo with the smart phone, I decided to go for a more professional shot and grabbed the Canon 80D and capture once again the Moon and Jupiter through the clouds. However this time around took two exposures, and stitched the together.

Moon and Jupiter Through the Cloud - May 27, 2018

Moon and Jupiter Through the Cloud – May 27, 2018

The wide-angle was 24mm F4.0 1/10s ISO-1600. This was to pick up the clouds against a night sky as well as Jupiter. Then a close-up of the Moon, with a shorter exposure and lowered ISO to pick up details of the lunar surface (85mm F5.6 1/250s ISO-200).

Opened them both in GIMP and played with layers, masks and curves to get the desired image.  The close-up Moon photo was scaled down to match the 24mm wide-angle photo to avoid having gigantic moon.

 

Bright Jupiter

Sometimes all it takes is a little cloud layer to hide the background stars to really reveal how bright Jupiter is right now. The photo below was taken with my smartphone on May 26th, with Jupiter clearly visible next to the Moon.

Jupiter and the Moon shining through the cloud - May 26, 2018

Jupiter and the Moon shining through the cloud – May 26, 2018

Jupiter and Earth were at their closest (opposition) on May 8th, but the entire month of May is a good time to spot Jupiter as it’s up high in the sky most of the night. Once Venus sets in the early evening, Jupiter is the brightest “star” in the sky, a good 20 times brighter than the next brightest stars.

Up until May 28th, Jupiter and the Moon will be near each other in the night sky, making for good photo opportunity.

Blue Moon Lunar Eclipse

The second Full Moon in a month is generally called a Blue Moon. And yes the old saying “once in a Blue Moon” is in reference to this rare event.  Well… if you consider every 2 to 3 years rare. However this one will be extra special because it won’t be blue at all!  It’ll be blood-red because we’ll have a lunar eclipse on our hands!

LunarEclipse_27sep2015

September 27th 2015 Lunar Eclipse

The lunar eclipse will be visible from most of North America, but people out West will be better placed to see it.  In the East, the we’ll only get a partial eclipse as the moon sets in the early morning on Wednesday the January 31st around 6:48am EST.

If you do plan to photograph a lunar eclipse, a tripod is strongly advised, and if you are using a telescope, an equatorial mount is required. The above photo is a single frame at 2.5 second exposure and ISO400 with a Skywatcher 80ED. Yes those are a few stars popping into view during the eclipse.

 

 

 

Coming this March – Reentry of Chinese Space Station

Its inevitable, what goes up must come down. On average there is one large piece of equipment that re-enters our atmosphere every week. Some are controlled and planned decommissioning of satellites after their useful life. They are purposely commanded for re-entry and burn-up in the atmosphere to avoid adding debris to our already crowded space orbits or worse, cause a collision with another satellite creating an enormous field of debris. Other objects that re-enter are left to fall on their own such as discarded rocket bodies and old satellite that ceased to operate long ago or malfunctioned and can no longer be controlled.

Tiangong-1 : First Chinese space station launched in 2011

Tiangong-1 : First Chinese space station launched in 2011

This coming March the 8,500kg (18,700lbs) Tiangong-1 Chinese space station is coming back to Earth. Launched in September 2011 and used for two manned missions, it suffered a malfunction and the Chinese have not been in control of it since 2016. The space station has been in a decaying orbit ever since, and now below the 300km altitude  where Earth’s atmosphere is causing the space station to slow down due to aerodynamic drag it will soon make its re-entry.

Delta 2 rocket fuel tank surviving re-entry near Georgetown, TX, on 22 January 1997

Delta 2 rocket fuel tank surviving re-entry near Georgetown, TX, on 22 January 1997

Now there is no need to panic. Most of Earth is ocean, and we’ll probably not see anything let alone have a piece of it land in a city. However as this is a fairly large body, there is a good chance  not all pieces will burn up and some may make it to the surface.

This isn’t the first time a space station makes a re-entry.  The American Skylab at 77 tons re-entered in 1979, and Russian Mir (120 tons) made its re-entry in 2001.
For the Mir re-entry, Taco Bell even got it onto the re-entry buzz by anchoring a large

Taco Bell target for Mir re-entry (2001)
Taco Bell target for Mir re-entry (2001)

target off the Australian coast along the planned re-entry track, and should Mir crash into it there would be free tacos for all Americans. The fast food chain even took out an insurance policy just in case it would happen.

In early January 2018, Tiangong-1 is orbiting at an altitude of around 270-290km (to put that into perspective, ISS is at a 400km orbit) and in a 45 deg orbit, hence the re-entry will be within those latitudes.  The green area in the map below is where Tiangong-1 could make a re-entry, and also marks where the re-entry could be observed.

Tiangong-1 ground coverage - http://www.aerospace.org

Tiangong-1 ground coverage – http://www.aerospace.org

It’s still too early to determine the time and location of potentially crash site, as Earth’s atmosphere is influenced by space weather and swells based on our Sun’s moods, which alters the drag force on the space station.  However various space centers and organizations will continue to track the space station the coming weeks to improve the prediction.

You can follow everything at Aerospace.org for up to date information and predictions.

What could the re-entry look like?  Below is a video shot by NASA of the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft during a controlled re-entry on June 13, 2010

Setup for the Geminids

With the Geminids peaking tonight and a clear sky after two nights of snow, I charged the camera battery and got a quick setup going to take some pictures of the sky.  As for any nigh sky photo, both lens stabilizer and auto-focus is set to OFF and focused manually at infinity. Then found a corner of the yard shielded from stray lights and planted the tripod, roughly aiming the camera 70deg up and pointing east (the constellation Gemini was rising at 10pm).

However at -15C outside, the old battery wouldn’t last very long.  I left it running for about 30 minutes, taking 20 seconds exposure at ISO 800 with a 17mm F4 lens.  The camera is now thawing (covered with frost after bringing it indoors) and will wait until tomorrow before checking the pictures out.

Setup for the 2017 Geminids

Setup for the 2017 Geminids

In the brief moments that I was outside I caught a 2-3 meteors and one really bright one (easily visual magnitude -4). So even living in the city, the Geminids are visible and accessible to all.  With my feet deep in snow I wasn’t dressed well enough to hang around in the cold wind to watch the show for long. So I hope the camera managed to capture a few.

Watching the Geminids

It’s that time of  the year again: the Geminid meteor shower. It is visible almost all the month of December, however the best and peak viewing, with up to 120 meteors an hour, is between December 12 and 15.  It should be a good year because we are heading towards a new Moon on December 18th, so no bright moon to ruin the show.

This meteor shower is called the Geminid because the radiant (apparent direction of travel in the sky) of the meteors is centered on the constellation Gemini.  However the source of the debris is not a comet like most other meteor showers, but an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon. The asteroid and orbit were discovered in 1983 and is too good of a match with the Geminids to be anything other than the source of the debris. However its makeup is closer to asteroid belt material, so it may very well be a 5km chunk from a larger asteroid, with all the associated debris.

To watch the Geminids, the best time is past midnight as the constellation will rise east around 10pm.  The higher it is in the sky the better. The Geminids do regularly create fireballs: bright displays that can exhibit colour and even leave a smokey trail, so observation even in light polluted city sky is possible.

Here are some tips for the observation:

  1. Dress to be warm.  You’ll be sitting still in the cold night. Nothing will get you indoors faster than the shivering knowing that warmth is only a few feet away.
  2. Lay down or recline in a chair.  Standing and looking straight up is very uncomfortable and quite the strain on the neck.
  3. Give yourself a good 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness  If you give up after 2-3 minutes, your eyes are still adapting to night vision and will miss the fainter meteors.
  4. Find a spot away from sources of lights.  Of course heading out of the city is best, but if you can’t, just find a spot in your backyard without the glare of street lights and neighbors’ porch lights. That also means no electronic screens to ruin your night vision.

You can also setup a camera on a tripod to see if you capture some of the meteors. Grab a short focal length, remove auto-focus and go for a 10-20 second exposure setting.

Clear skies!

This Weekend: 4 Planets in Plain Sight

If you are able to get out of bed early before sunrise and the sky is clear, you can catch a view of our three closest planets, and if you include Earth that makes 4.  Mercury was at the greatest elongation on September 12th (furthest from the Sun when viewed from Earth) which makes it a good time to spot without the glare of the Sun.  But it happens that Mars and Venus are also on that same side of the Sun, making a chanced planetary alignment.

The sky map below [click for larger] shows the position of Mercury, Mars and Venus for the morning of the 16 to the 19 of September.  Bright star Regulus and our Moon are also there to make this a worth-while event, especially on Monday the 18th.

September_AlignmentMars and Mercury will be closest on the 16th, while the 18th will probably be the most photogenic as the Moon will be a thin crescent in the middle of this alignment.