A new comet C/2021 Leonard is now at binocular visibility and ‘could’ potentially sneak into naked eye visibility in the days ahead. Watch my video and audio guide which will hopefully ground your expectations and help you find it in the days ahead.
Bright comet alert. Comet NEOWISE has caught many skywatchers by surprise. There’s now naked eye reports of it in early morning skies across much of northern Europe and north America. This image was snapped a few mornings ago by Paul Sutherland @suthers from Walmer on the SE tip of England.
Or check out this incredible time-lapse of sunrise with Comet NEOWISE (with Noctilucent clouds) by Martin Heck (Insta @martin_heck) from Bayern, Munich
A quick guide to locating Comet NEOWISE, valid for northern Europe and north America.
Time: You’ll need to stay up late or rise early and ideally be in position between midnight and 3am. Too early and the comet will be too low on the horizon. Too late the Sun will have risen too much, washing the comet out. At the moment of writing 2am is probably a good optimal time to aim for, although this will change over the coming days and weeks.
Direction: The direction you need to look in from direct N (around midnight) to NNE (in early dawn skies). If visible you could use the bright star Capella in Auriga as a rough reference.
Equipment: Many observers in Europe claim to have see the comet naked eye. This might be possible but your best chance will be with binoculars. Any pair will do, they don’t need to be fancy astronomy binoculars. Low power and wide field is always best for viewing comets.
Clear skies and good luck.
Comet SWAN update! ☄️ Comet SWAN is just starting to become viable for observation at northern European latitudes as it sails through the constellation Perseus. This one will be very tough to see due to its low altitude and lack of darkness 🌅 . In fact it may not be visible at all if you live too far north. However, if you’re up for a real challenge, grab your binoculars and read on.
Just like this week’s Venus and Mercury planetary conjunction 🪐 , SWAN will be visible towards the north 🧭. As the week progresses it will rise higher and higher in the sky so theoretically should become easier and easier to observe (see attached guide images). Unfortunately this will be countered by less and less darkness as May advances.
The absolute best instrument for spotting a comet is a pair of binoculars, or the widest possible eyepiece you have on a telescope. Scan the sky using my pictures and bright stars for reference. Don’t expect a huge streaking object like you’ll see in astronomy magazines (or the front image I’ve attached 😆 ) – If you’re very lucky you might detect a tiny and faint smudge.
The darker your surroundings and more dark adapted your vision the better 🌑 👀 , so stay away from bright street lights and mobile phone screens for at least 15 minutes. If you live under street lights 🌃 your chances of sighting the comet are far lower but don’t let that put you off. Comets can vary in brightness dramatically and can very occasionally brighten enough to be detected naked eye.
What’s great about this challenge is you can also look out for Mercury and Venus at the same time, as all the action takes place towards the same cardinal direction – North.
Good luck and clear skies.
The annual Lyrids meteor shower is underway with peak activity on the evening of April 21st. With no Moon to spoil the party conditions will be ideal for observing them this year assuming those pesky clouds stay away. The best times to view the shower are as late as possible, close to midnight or in pre-dawn skies when the Lyra radiant is at its greatest elevation. However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.
What Causes a Meteor Shower
Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system. Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of their material into space. The Earth then travels through these large dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers. The Lyrids are generated by Comet Thatcher, which has a 415 year orbit.
Observing the Lyrids
You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.
Put away any lights or bright mobile phone screens and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light, red LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.
For optimal viewing, head out late at night or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the radiant is highest in the sky.
Don’t Expect Too Much
You need to be patient with meteor showers. Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all. Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and breath in some fresh air. Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up. Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky.
Photographing the Lyrids
If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.
- Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
- Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
- Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor. Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
- Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
- Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
- Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures. Note: don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
- Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!
If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval. Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold. Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.
Good luck and clear skies!
I’m almost always rewarded in some form when I head out to observe, even in less than perfect conditions. As it happened I knew comet Wirtanen was in a favourable position over Christmas and close to the 6th brightest star Capella. I posted about it on Facebook here.
Despite the unfavourable early rising of the Moon and some patchy skies on Christmas eve I decided to take a short walk in the woods over Bunchrew, in the off chance I might catch the comet.
When I was sufficiently well away from the western lights of Inverness I looked up, and there was the comet faintly visible in binoculars. Not the clearest I’ve seen it this year, but probably under the darkest conditions.
The took the picture above before I continued my walk, with the comet and Capella sitting above the trees.
Happy comet hunting!
This month brings the excitement of a comet hunt, as Wirtanen 46P reaches closest approach on December 16th. This is a relatively small comet (1.5km across) with a period of just over 5 years. However Wirtanen is known to produce a relatively large tail for its stature, so it’s definitely one to look out for. In mid December it’ll be positioned between the Pleiades star cluster and red giant star Aldebaran in Taurus, so will be relatively easy to locate in the night sky.
Reports of naked eye sightings and some photographs are already emerging online despite the current low altitude of the comet at high norther latitudes. However its vantage will steadily improve as we head into mid December, although Moon conditions will become less favourable then, so time your hunt well.
Wirtanen should be observable in a wide-field telescope or binocular view, and possibly naked eye under very dark conditions. You could also try locating it by taking a 10-30 second exposure in your DSLR camera.
I’ve put together a short video to help you locate it over December. Clear skies!
The annual Leonids meteor shower is due to peak over the weekend between 17 and 18th November 2018. Although the waxing gibbous Moon will diminish conditions somewhat it will still be more than worthwhile heading out somewhere dark to observe them. Over the peak as many as 10-15 meteors per hour may be visible. Occasionally meteor showers will erupt into storms, as was the case with the Leonids in November 1833, when 100,000 meteors per hour rained down over an entire evening!
The shower is caused by the Earth colliding with the debris left behind by comet Temple-Tuttle, a short period comet with a period of 33 years. Temple-Tuttle is due to swing past the Sun again in May 2031, when it will once again deposit fine dust trails behind it, seeding future generations of meteor showers.
Observing the Leonids
You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.
Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving you night vision.
For optimal viewing, head out after the Moon sets, or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky.
Approximate Moon set times at Highland latitudes this weekend:
Friday night 12.30am
Saturday night 1.30am
You can still see meteors with the moon up but generally only the brightest ones. Early morning viewing will be optimal as Leo (the radiant) is high in the sky then.
Good luck and clear skies!