Heads Up! – A Comet in the December Dawn
A new comet is coming into our morning sky, for our binocular viewing pleasure.
Comet Catalina, aka C/2013 US10, has emerged from behind the Sun and is beginning to rise into our northern hemisphere dawn sky. The new comet promises to be visible in binoculars, but likely won’t be obvious to the unaided eyes.
On the morning of December 7 the comet sits within a binocular field of the waning crescent Moon which itself sits just above brilliant Venus. That in itself will be a remarkable view, best appreciated in binoculars, and a fine photogenic sight for the camera.
The close conjunction of the crescent Moon with Venus alone will be enough of an attraction on December 7, but the comet should add to the scene.
December 7 Venus Occultation
Even more, later in the day the Moon actually passes in front of, or “occults,” Venus in the daytime sky for most of North America.
That occultation happens in the morning for western North America and in the early afternoon for eastern North America. However, you’ll need a telescope to see it well, and very clear blue skies.
Use planetarium software (the free Stellarium program, for example, shown above, if you do not own astronomy software) to simulate the sky and provide the occultation times for your location. Zoom into the Moon and run time back and forth on December 7 to see when Venus goes behind the Moon and reappears. The screen shot above is for Calgary.
Back to the Comet
Comet Catalina was discovered in October 2013 at the Catalina Observatory in Arizona. The comet spent the last few months in the southern hemisphere sky, but is now coming north and into our sky, but at dawn.
It rises higher and higher each morning through December and into the new year. It may remain at fifth magnitude, bright enough to be easily visible in binoculars from a dark site, but likely not naked eye.
The chart above plots the comet at daily intervals, from December 4 to January 1. The comet is shown for December 15. Note that on the morning of January 1 it sits within a telescope field of the bright star Arcturus.
The distance from Earth to the comet decreases through December and early January, keeping the comet at a constant brightness even as it recedes from the Sun. We are closest to Catalina on January 17, at a far distance of 108 million km. But in late January the comet fades rapidly to become a telescope target.
To see Comet Catalina this month, get up 1 to 2 hours before sunrise and look southeast to east. But you will need dark skies to see it well. This will not be a good urban comet.
Nevertheless, as far as we know, this will be the best comet of 2016.
— Alan, December 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com