Comet ISON: It’s Time to Get the Telescope

By on Nov 27, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Alexandria, Virginia – The astronomy community is buzzing as a beehive – comet ISON finally lit up. Until recently it was humbly flying towards the Sun, showing the brightness in accordance with most pessimistic predictions. The brightness was slowly crawling to apparent magnitude of 8 (8m). However, on November 15th a bright flash raised the light of the comet to a limit visible to the naked eye.

On November 15th the claimed brightness was 6m. The next day skywatchers, mostly astronomy enthusiasts, were already talking of 5m and even 4m brightness.

6m is a minimal visible brightness of an object provided there is no light pollution and a clear sky. It should be noted that apparent magnitude is a logarithmic scale, and the difference between each step is approximately 2.5 times. A step of five units will mean a 100 times brighter object. That means that in two days the comet stepping from 8m to 5m became about 15 times brighter.

Apparent magnitude of 5m means that you can try to see the comet in the sky near medium-sized cities. A comet is a “smeared” (diffuse) object, so its brightness is not concentrated at a single point, like a star, but distributed over the area, so better yet get somewhere where there is neither smog nor bright lights around.

Photos with longer exposure will allow you to see the comet even in those circumstances where it is not visible to the eyes. However, if shooting from the city, you will see the comet itself but you can forget about the luxurious tail.

To find the comet, look near the horizon to the south-east, a few hours before sunrise. You can type ISON in search in Star Walk to get more accurate details for your location. With each passing day it will become brighter, but at the same time closer to the sun, so it will be harder and harder to see it.

We only have a few days before the convergence of the comet with the Sun, so it’s time to look for good optics and recall all the spells you know to disperse the clouds. November of course is not the best time for astronomical observations from our latitude, but it should be worth it.

A few words about the technical side:
If the abilities of the naked eye are not satisfactory, you can arm it with something. You can use any optical devices that allowing to zoom in on distant objects, be it binoculars, spotting scopes, or telescopes . To take a picture you can use any camera that allows to adjust shutter speed, any lens will do. You might want to use a tripod with the camera. Finally, if you do decide to go astro-photo-shooting, make sure to dress warmer, my experience with the comet Panstarrs in March tells me you might end up spending three or more hours in one place.

Also it might be worth reminding that we have a lot of man-made stuff flying in the sky just like a comet, so do not be confused:

Comet moves much slower than aircraft, it is singular and it is green. It is best to shoot the sky with a wide-angle lens with approximately same time intervals, then you can easily distinguish one from the other. The planes will quickly fade from sight, while the comet moves in sync with the stars.

Based on the trajectory of the comet we know that it will have a longer period of visibility after moving away from the Sun and closer to the Earth (Easy! It will not fall!) . However, there is an important “but”: we don’t know whether the comet will survive a close encounter with the Sun.

There is a well-founded fear that the Sun will destroy the comet and we will see a flock of small fragments at best, and at worst – a subtle cloud , like the one that turned the comet Elenin into.

Those who do not have the patience to wait for good weather in the morning and watch the comet with binoculars in hand , can follow it on pictures that are regularly uploaded to various astrophotographers’ websites and on Twitter. During the close encounter with the Sun the comet will be observed by NASA solar telescopes: STEREO, SOHO, SDO. You can get their pictures on websites or at Helioviewer.

Alternatively, you can use offered remote telescopes. Now is the best time for them.

Let us hope that the comet will survive the meeting with our star and will not go out immediately after the fly-by, and in December heavens will give us at least a few good days for observation.

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