12 October 2010

An Elusive Comet in Urban Skies: Hunting for Hartley 2

Comets can be bold and brash, streaking across the sky like Hale-Bopp in 1997 (see image on right), a comet that was visible even in light-polluted urban areas. Comets can be more humble but then unexpectedly brighten, as did Comet Holmes in 2007. This year marks the return of periodic Comet Hartley 2, a small but frequent visitor to the inner Solar System that is making a fairly close pass to the Earth (11 million miles) on October 20th. Because of the bright Moon on October 20th, this and last week mark the best chances to see the comet because the Moon is young and not brightening the sky. So I took a look last week and again this week to see if I could spot this elusive comet from a city location (last week in a suburb of Frankfurt, Germany and this week from my home in San Francisco).

I hunted quite a while on both occasions, using this very helpful map from Sky and Telescope Magazine. In fact, S&T has been running updates as viewers report seeing Comet Hartley 2 with binoculars. However, it seems that to see Comet Hartley 2 you need a location with very dark skies. I can attest to this, having twice tried and failed to discern the comet from the surrounding stars.

However, all is not lost. Searching for Hartley 2 requires you to find Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga, three very nice constellations that grace the Fall and Winter skies. While searching the path of the comet, you encounter a range of deep space objects near and between Cassiopeia and Perseus, and tonight the view was quite good. So even though city lights may have drowned out the faint comet, I enjoyed my first good look at the Double Cluster in Perseus and other celestial gems in the spiral arm of the Milky Way that is beyond Cassiopeia.

I recommend a good jacket, a comfortable chair or blanket, a few minutes patience, the S&T sky map, and binoculars. No matter whether your hunt for Comet Hartley 2 is a success or not, you will be glad you made the effort.


Sidewalk Universe said...

Yes I too could not see this interloper. High altitude haze really hurt our seeing. What was really funny about it all is that I am sure I passed over it dozens of times w/o detecting its coma. Maybe it appeared stellar due to the haze?

But I have seen many other comets and I am sure another will swing around our neck of the woods soon!

Paulie said...

SUG, you probably have gone right over it. It was observed though, outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago on October 7. Chicago Astronomers were able to hone in on Hartley 2 through astrophotography, and show it to visitors at our star party that night.