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Updated November 14th 2018

Pre-Dawn Comet Observing - Nov 13th


(Above) Comet hunting before dawn from Maghera using the 8" with comet position marked in red within the zodiacal light

I was eager to observe new comet C/2018 V1 Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto which had just been discovered by amateur comet hunters five days earlier in the morning sky. After a period of cloudy weather the pre-dawn hours of Nov 3rd were forecast to be clear so I planned on 'meeting' this new comet then. I went to sleep then my alarm woke me at 04.00 UT to a wonderful clear dark sky, in fact, the best clear sky I have seen for some time. I changed and headed out to the back garden and it was then I realized I would never catch the comet from here due to it's low altitude so I packed my Meade 8" F/6.3 LX10 into my van then drove into the Maghera countryside to find a dark location which offered a good low view to the E. I tried several locations however trees blocked my view then suddenly an ideal vista came into view, I ended up reversing into a narrow grass lane between fields with hedges on both sides which hid me from view, the visual profile to the E was perfect.

I set up the scope and began sweeping however the low altitude was rendering stars faint and the seeing made stars within the FOV turn to blobs. The sky clouded over and began to rain so I waited and waited, then finally the shower stopped and the stars re-appeared better than ever before. The pre-dawn sky really was a place of celestial glory, Orion and Sirius sparkled like vivid diamonds akin to a scene from a Christmas card. I settled myself and observed M81, M82, M35, M31, M32, M1 and M42 then when fully dark adapted I turned the mount to the E and began a slow horizontal sweep through Virgo and a few minutes later I found the comet at 05.00 UT some 10 degrees above the true horizon and 1 degree above a strip of cloud. I was thrilled and overjoyed to finally get to see this fresh discovery, I was genuinely on a high. The comet was located to the E of naked eye Porrima and in the telescopic field it was a striking sight, my first impressions were that this comet was bright and very well formed indeed. At a casual glance it looked like an unresolved globular cluster, the coma was a well defined round form with relatively sharp edges, at centre was a white disk-like central condensation with star-like false nucleus within. On two occasions during moments of good seeing I glimpsed an elongation to the W which must have been the tail recently captured on CCD images.

(Above) Sketch showing the comet's rapid motion to the E in the 26mm eyepiece

I was astonished how rapidly the comet moved so I made a sketch and returned periodically to the eyepiece only to see that the comet had clearly moved. The above sketch shows this motion between 05.00 UT and 06.15 UT, during which time it moved 5'. I made a rough magnitude estimate at +8.6 however I really suspected it was brighter than this. Once the comet climbed higher within the growing twilight a sublime aqua hue could be discerned from the coma which was my final view of the comet before advancing twilight and the singing of birds ended the session. I wonder what this comet has in store?, we will find out in the next few weeks. I would like to congratulate all three discoverers for this exciting surprise comet.

When planet Venus rose above the country hedges it made for a stunning sight, for a few seconds I thought it was an approaching aircraft with bright lights, it looked all the more surreal located close to the Spica. I made it back home for 06.30 UT buzzing with contentment. Here's my log book entry from this session.

Latest Comet News! - UPDATE

(Above) C/2018 V1 on Nov 11th by Michael Jager from Austria. Skyhound Finder Chart

A new comet discovered by three amateur astronomers has now been officially designated as C/2018 V1 Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto by the IAU. The comet was discovered independently on November 7th close to the sun in the morning sky, both Japanese hunters used photographic patrols while Don Machholz made an astonishing visual discovery using an 18" reflector, the comet now rightly bares the name of all three discoverers, this is certainly reminiscent of the old days when comets with such glorious names were being discovered by amateurs. Nowadays robotic professional surveys scan the skies every night searching for NEOs or Near Earth Objects which may pose a threat to our planet in the future. These tireless surveys discover nearly all new comets leading many to assume that the days of amateur discovery - especially visual - to be over. Now this idea has not only been challenged but proven wrong.

The latest information indicates the comet was close to the sun for some time and hidden from view then brightened as it grew closer to perihelion when it came within range to amateur comet hunters. The comet is brightening rapidly, preliminary data suggests the orbit is parabolic in nature with the comet at a high inclination to the ecliptic. V1 will reach closest approach to the Earth on November 27th then perihelion on December 4th at 0.38 AU. At the moment the comet resides very close to the sun low in the east before dawn trekking eastward from Porimma within Virgo while staying at a low elongation, it will pass into Ophiuchus in December.

Chris Wyatt from Australia estimated the comet at mag +8.8 with a coma diameter of 4.4' and DC6. The coma is green, circular in form with a condensation at centre while CCD images show a plasma tail growing rapidly. This is a comet is for trained comet observers at the moment and not for the general public. The future of V1 is uncertain, the comet could suddenly fade, break apart, or flare up in brilliance, at the current time no one knows for sure what its future olds, however some speculation from the BAA suggests a peak at mag +5.7 within solar glare, but one thing is for certain, the comet bares close watching!

(Above) 46P on Nov 12th by Gerald Rhemann from S. Africa. Heavensabove real time position & Skyhound Finder Chart

Our next comet of interest is short period comet 46P/Wirtanen which is currently only visible from the southern hemisphere within Sculptor. Chris Wyatt estimated the coma at 28' in diameter at mag +6.6 and a DC of 4. The comet has been observed in binoculars and finder scopes, the coma is almost the diameter of the apparent size of the moon already and looking healthy. CCD images show a long ion/plasma tail. If this trend continues the comet should become naked eye by mid December in the northern hemisphere evening sky, very large in diameter (possibly 1 degree or more) and diffuse in nature. It should become visible by late November. We have no shortage of comets on display at the moment, both expected and unexpected, faint and bright, of short period and long period with much uncertainty so it looks like an exciting period ahead from November and December, stay tuned for updates.

* My new ebook called Hunting Celestial Wraiths - An Observing Guide To Comets is now complete as a draught and will be available soon for download for a small fee. I will do an image report detailing the recent three nights of photo shoots in the near future, I may even get another night in soon.

New Visual Comet Discovery! - NEWS (Updated)

Breaking News - Comet hunter Donald Machholz has just discovered a new comet in the pre-dawn sky on November 7th. Don has discovered numerous comets throughout the course of his life however in an era were the visual discovery of a comet by amateurs was considered over Don managed to prove the skeptics wrong and catch a moderately bright interloper in the morning twilight. Don had spent a staggering 700 plus hours with his eye at the telescope searching since his last discovery in 2010, that's eight years of hunting tenaciously to make his new find. Two other Japanese hunters S. Fujikawa and M. Iwamoto also independently picked up the comet during the course of a photographic patrol, however due to uncertain issues with reporting it's unclear at this stage exactly who will be credited with the comet or what the comet's final designation will be, I will update with details when the situation becomes clarified.

Don has informed me that the comet is currently mag +10.0 and located within Virgo. Preliminary light curve and orbit data suggests the comet is already at it's peak brightness and expected to fade so make sure to catch it quick, it's likely the comet was in outburst (this is uncertain) during discovery. Congratulations to Don for this exceptional find and also for his tenacity and dedication to keep searching against all odds, this is an inspiration to all of us to never give up on our dreams!

Ballintoy Cave & Update - Nov 9th

I had a very productive photo shoot and observing session on Nov 7th/8th at the north coast with Nigel McFarland, our reason for being out was simple, the forecast was for clear skies, something which we have rarely seen much of in recent times. We ended up at Ballintoy where we were immediately struck by the presence of a waterfall flowing over the cliff wall adjacent to the cave (to the left). I have shot many times here over the years but never had timed my visit to catch a waterfall like this by chance, we had so much rainfall the water was flowing at high speed and offered us an unexpected photo opportunity. Here's a 10mm image of the cave and waterfall with stars and Milky Way aloft.

The view from inside the cave looking out as water dripped from the ceiling all around us. We then shot star trails at the stacks, observed the Gegenschein and at last 14 Taurid meteors. During the early hours I used the 8" S. Cass to hunt down two periodic comets well placed in a dark sky at far elongations from the sun.

38P/Stephan-Oterma in Gemini, mag +10.0 or slightly fainter, DC 3, dia 4 arc min's. Comet very diffuse at edges and gradually brighter towards centre visible as a colorless fuzzy blop in a sea of stars. In fact, this rich field and the proximity of a bright star hid the comets glory due to stellar glare so I will try for it again another night when it moves across a more vacant region of sky. This was my first observation of this comet and my 66th comet to date so I was delighted to have observed it, oh and it was near the Eskimo Nebula too.

64P/Swift-Gehrels in Andromeda, extremely well placed high in the sky to the N of Mirach and several degrees below M31. Mag +10.5, much easier to see than 38P and sporting a very large coma at least 7 arc min's in diameter. Diffuse outer coma, DC 4 with condensation at centre, pastel grey in colour and the most prominent of the two comets. It was a treat to observe two telescopic comets from Ballintoy under a perfect clear sky such as this after a good photo shoot.

Comet 38P/Stephan-Oterma In Morning Sky - WATCH

(Above) 38P captured by Michael Jager on October 4th 2018 from Austria

Comet Stephan-Oterman is the 38th periodic comet ever discovered, it's currently making a fine apparition in the morning sky, in fact, this is the comet's first appearance since it was last seen in 1980. The comet is a target for experienced observers and not an object for the general public due to it's fainter magnitude and skill set required to find and observe. The comet is located in the eastern sky during the early hours of the morning and highest before dawn between Orion and Gemini which will provide suitable bright stars as guide posts for star hopping to the comet. Currently at mag +10.5 it appears as a diffuse elliptical haze. The comet requires moderately dark skies and good transparency and a 6" telescope to observe. 38P is slowly trekking to the east each night and will continue to brighten at a sedate pace when it could peak at mag +9 in November by which time it will be in proximity to bright stars Castor and Pollux and rising slightly earlier in the night. Despite being faint the comet is a good target to observe to enhance your comet observing skills in preparation for 46P/Wirtanen which should be a naked eye object this December.

(Above) 38P finder chart from Sky & Telescope, click on chart to enlarge. Also check out the real time finder chart from Heavensabove


J. E. Coggia (Marseilles, France) found what he thought was an uncataloged nebula on 1867 January 22.9. The sky clouded up almost immediately and remained completely cloudy until the night of January 24, when E. J. M. Stephan (Marseille, France) checked on the nebula through a brief break in the clouds and saw that it had moved. Stephan was able to confirm this was a comet on January 25.86. Stephan said the comet was rather brilliant, round, with a very marked nucleus. The initial announcements did not mention Coggia's name and the comet was named after Stephan. E. W. L. Tempel (Marseille, France) independently discovered this comet on January 28.86 near Pi Arietis.

Although he knew of Stephan's discovery, he noted a distinct difference in the description from his and figured he had found a different comet. Tempel described the comet as very faint and about 3 arc minutes across. Liisi Oterma (Turku, Finland) discovered this comet on 1942 November 6.00. It was described as magnitude 13. Oterma confirmed the discovery on November 6.84. It was described as magnitude 13, with a slow northward motion. A short time after the announcement, Fred L. Whipple (Harvard College Observatory, Massachusetts, USA) found a pre-discovery image on a patrol plate exposed on November 5.23. The magnitude was also estimated as 13. Source: cometography

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Image Reports

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Reports

Astronomy is not the only subject I'm interested in. One other such area is severe weather which will be playing a major role on nightskyhunter from now on in conjunction with my other astronomical pursuits. Check out my new N. Ireland Storm Chasing section and view the chase reports and images which detail not only storms but other phenomena such as a moonbows, noctilucent clouds and aurora displays.

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Martin McKenna