Amateur astronomer discovers first interstellar comet
It is two years since astronomers in Hawaii discovered the first object known to have approached the Sun from beyond our solar system. Given the Hawaiian name of ʻOumuamua, this appeared to be a reddish and elongated slab-shaped body of about the size of a skyscraper that passed 38 million km from the Sun before sweeping within 24 million km of the Earth. It came from roughly the current direction of the star Vega and headed away towards the Square of Pegasus, though it may take 20,000 years to leave the solar system completely.
Its small size meant that it was followed only faintly and for barely a month. Astronomers were surprised to notice no sign of cometary activity – no surrounding fuzzy coma and no tail – while suggestions that it was an alien probe prompted unsuccessful scans for any artificial radio emissions.
Now the second-known interstellar intruder has been sighted, and this one appears larger, brighter and is surely a comet. It was discovered photographically on 29 August from an observatory in Crimea by the amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov using a telescope he built himself. Initially called C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), or Comet Borisov for short, it was clearly speeding along a strongly hyperbolic path past the Sun, very unlike the elliptical or nearly parabolic orbits followed by all previous comets. Now it has been awarded the official interstellar designation of 2I/Borisov.
The comet was travelling at about 33 km per second as it entered the solar system from the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia, fast enough to cover the 4-light-years distance of the nearest star in under 40,000 years. Perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, occurs at 303 million km on 8 December, putting it still beyond the orbit of Mars, and it reaches its closest to the Earth at 293 million km twenty days later.
It is still faint, no better than magnitude 17, but may attain magnitude 14 near perihelion and, while it will never reach naked-eye or binocular visibility, is likely to be within telescopic range until at least the middle of next year. This gives plenty of time for astronomers to study a comet that probably formed elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy at a different time and with possibly a different composition than those that formed alongside the Sun and Earth. October has Comet Borisov travelling south-eastwards to the west of the Sickle of Leo and passing within a Moon’s-breadth east of the star Regulus on the 24th.
Leo’s Sickle rises in the north-east in the early morning and stands some 30° high in the east before dawn as our southern sky is dominated by the glorious constellation of Orion. The pre-dawn also gives us a chance to spot Mars as it emerges from the Sun’s far side. The planet rises in the east one hour before the Sun on the 1st and two hours before sunrise on the 31st. Moving east-south-eastwards in Virgo, it shines only at magnitude 1.8 and lies 8° below the slender earthlit Moon on the 26th.
As the Sun tracks southwards by 11° during October, the sky at nightfall is changing only slowly. The Summer Triangle is still high in the south as darkness falls, although its three stars, Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, have shifted into the west by our star map times. By then, Pegasus, the upside-down flying horse with his nose near Delphinus the Dolphin, stands high in the south.
The sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change this month from 07:15/18:49 BST (06:15/17:49 GMT) on the 1st to 07:17/16:35 GMT on the 31st, following Summer Time’s end on the 27th. The Moon reaches first quarter on the 5th, full phase on the 13th, last quarter on the 21st and new on the 28th.
Like Mars, Venus is also coming into view from beyond the Sun, but this time into our evening twilight in the west-south-west. Although brilliant at magnitude -3.9, it stands a mere 3° high at sunset for Edinburgh and sets at present only 30 minutes later, so we need good weather and a clear horizon to catch it. On the 29th, look for it 2.8° below the sliver of the earthlit young Moon, only 3° illuminated. Mercury is fainter and even lower at sunset and not visible from Scotland.
Jupiter is well past its best as an evening object although it remains obvious low in the south-west at nightfall, sinking to set at Edinburgh’s south-western horizon at 21:14 BST on the 1st and as early as 18:34 GMT by the 31st. At magnitude -2.0 to -1.9 and 36 to 33 arcseconds in diameter, it lies close to the Moon on the 3rd and 31st.
Saturn, one tenth as bright at magnitude 0.5 to 0.6, lies some 25° to the left of Jupiter. When it is close to the first quarter Moon on the 5th, its disk and rings span 17 and 38 arcseconds respectively. It is in Sagittarius low in the south at nightfall and sets in the south-west soon after our map times.
Neptune and Uranus are binocular brightness object of magnitudes 7.8 and 5.7 in Aquarius and Pisces respectively. There is little hope of locating them using our chart, but a web search, such as “Where is Uranus?”, should bring up information and a finder chart. Uranus, in fact, reaches opposition at a distance of 2,817 million km on the 28th when it stands directly opposite the Sun and appears as a tiny 3.7 arcseconds blue-green disk through a telescope.
Our Diary, below, records the peak dates for two of the October’s meteor showers, the Draconids on the 8th and the Orionids on the 22nd. Neither is among the year’s top showers, though both can yield rates of 20 or more meteors per hour under ideal conditions. The Draconids are active from the 6th to the 10th with slow meteors that diverge from a radiant near the Head of Draco, the quadrilateral of stars below and left of the D of DRACO on our north map. Unfortunately, the light of the bright gibbous Moon will hinder observations before the Moon sets in the early morning.
The Orionids, like May’s Eta Aquarids shower, are caused by meteoroid debris from Comet Halley. They last throughout the month and into early November but are expected to be most prolific on the nights of the 22nd and 23rd when their fast meteors diverge from a point that lies around 10° north-east (above-right) of Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder. That point passes high in the south before dawn but is just rising in the east-north-east at our map times, so no Orionids appear before then. As with those other swift meteors, the Perseids of August, many of the brighter Orionids leave glowing trains in their wake.
Diary for 2019 October
Times are BST until the 27th and GMT thereafter.
3rd 21h Moon 1.9° N of Jupiter
5th 18h First quarter
5th 22h Moon 0.3° S of Saturn
8th 07h Peak of Draconids meteor shower
13th 22h Full moon
17th 23h Moon 2.9° N of Aldebaran
20th 05h Mercury furthest E of Sun (25°)
21st 14h Last quarter
22nd Peak of Orionids meteor shower
22nd 06h Moon 1.0° N of Praesepe
23rd 19h Moon 3° N of Regulus
26th 18h Moon 5° N of Mars
27th 02h BST = 01h GMT End of British Summer Time
28th 04h New moon
28th 08h Uranus at opposition at distance of 2,817 million km
29th 14h Moon 4° N of Venus
30th 08h Mercury 2.7° S of Venus
31st 14h Moon 1.3° N of Jupiter
This is an extended version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 30th 2019, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Draconid meteors glide away from the Dragon’s head
Mars dominates our southern evening sky but most of the other bright planets are poorly placed this month. Even so, our October nights are full of interest, from the Summer Triangle in the evening to the star-fest around Orion before dawn.
Although Mars dims from magnitude -1.3 to -0.6, its reddish light remains prominent as it moves from low in the south-south-east at nightfall to the south-south-west at our map times and onwards to set in the south-west a little before 01:00 BST (midnight GMT). As its distance grows from 89 million to 118 million km, and its diameter shrinks from 16 to 12 arcseconds, the planet speeds through Capricornus to climb 6° northwards and that much higher in our sky. Catch it to the left of the Moon on the 17th and below-right of the Moon on the 18th.
The Sun tracks 11° southwards as Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 07:15/18:48 BST (06:15/17:48 GMT) on the 1st to 07:17/16:35 GMT on the 31st. The Moon is at last quarter on the 2nd, new on the 9th, at first quarter on the 16th, full (the Hunter’s Moon) on the 24th and back at last quarter on the 31st.
Our charts show the Plough in the north as it moves below Polaris, the Pole Star. Mizar, in the Plough’s handle, forms a famous double star with the fainter Alcor – the pair being separated by about one third the diameter of the Moon. Once held as a (not very rigorous) test of eyesight, they were dubbed “The Horse and Rider”.
Both lie 83 light years (ly) from us although we can’t be certain that they are tied together by gravity. In any case, we are not talking about just two stars, for Alcor has a faint companion and most telescopes show Mizar to be a binary star – the first to be discovered telescopically in the 17th century. Spectroscopes reveal that each of Mizar’s components is itself binary, so Mizar and Alcor, if they are truly associated, together form a sextuplet star system.
Mizar is the same brightness, magnitude 2.2, as Eltanin which lies 14° to the right of Vega and very high in the west at nightfall, falling into the north-west overnight. It is the brightest star in Draco and a member of a quadrilateral that marks the head of the Dragon whose body and tail twist to end between the Plough and Polaris. It lies 154 ly away but is approaching the Sun and will pass within 28 ly in another 1.5 million years to become the brightest star in Earth’s night sky.
Meteors from the Draconids shower diverge from a radiant point that lies close to Draco’s head (see our north map) between the 7th and 10th. Don’t expect a major display – perhaps no more than 10 meteors per hour, though all of them are very slow as they glide away from the radiant. The shower’s peak is due in a moonless sky around midnight on the 8th-9th and is worth checking because some years surprise us with strong displays and the shower’s parent comet, Comet Giacobini-Zinner, was visible through binoculars when it swept within 59 million km last month.
A better-known comet, Halley, is responsible for the meteors of the Orionids shower which lasts from the 16th to the 30th and has a broad but not very intense peak of fast meteors between the 21st and 24th. The radiant point, between Orion and Gemini, rises in the east-north-east soon after our map times and passes high in the south before dawn. Sadly, the peak coincides with the full moon, so don’t expect much of a show.
From high in the south at nightfall, the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb and Altair) tumbles into our western sky by the map times. By then, the less impressive and rather empty Square of Pegasus is in the south and Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster are climbing in the east. Orion rises below Taurus over the next two hours and crosses the meridian as the night ends.
Neptune and Uranus, now well placed in the evening, may be located through binoculars using better charts than I can provide here. A web search, for example for “Neptune finder chart”, should help. Neptune shines at magnitude 7.8 and lies in Aquarius at a distance of 4,342 million km on the 1st. Uranus is 2,824 million km away in Aries, near its border with Pisces, when it stands opposite the Sun in the sky (opposition) on the 24th. Although the full Moon stands close to it on that day, its magnitude of 5.7 makes it just visible to the unaided eye under a good dark and moonless sky.
October should see the launch of the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury, but the planet itself is too low in our evening twilight to be seen. Venus sweeps around the Sun’s near side at inferior conjunction on the 26th and remains hidden in the Sun’s glare.
Jupiter is bright (magnitude -1.8) but less than 8° high in the south-west at sunset as the month begins. One of our last chances of spotting it in our bright evening twilight comes on the 11th when it lies 4° below-left of the young earthlit Moon.
Saturn, magnitude 0.5 and edging eastwards in Sagittarius, stands less than 10° high above Edinburgh’s south-south-western horizon as the sky darkens and sets in the south-west some 45 minutes before our map times. Look for it to the left of the Moon on the 14th.
Diary for 2018 October
Times are BST until the 28th
2nd 11h Last Quarter
9th 00h Peak of Draconids meteor shower
9th 05h New moon
11th 22h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
15th 04h Moon 1.8° N of Saturn
16th 19h First quarter
18th 14h Moon 1.9° N of Mars
21st – 24th Peak of Orionids meteor shower
24th 02h Uranus at opposition at distance of 2,824m km
24th 18h Full moon
26th 15h Venus in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
28th 02h BST = 01h GMT End of British Summer Time
31st 17h GMT Last quarter
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 29th 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Jupiter rules our April nights
Venus dominated our evening sky for the first quarter of 2017, but it is now Jupiter’s turn in the spotlight. The conspicuous giant planet lies directly opposite the Sun in the sky on the 7th so that it rises in the east at sunset, reaches its highest point in the south in the middle of the night and sets in the west at sunrise.
Our charts show it in Virgo to the east of south as Taurus and Orion dip beneath the western horizon and the Plough looms overhead, stretched out of its familiar shape by our map projection. Regulus in Leo is in the south-west and almost level with Arcturus in Bootes in the south-east. Vega in Lyra and Deneb in Cygnus are beginning their climb in the north-east.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:43/19:51 BST on the 1st to 05:31/20:50 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 11th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th.
Venus rises only a little more than one hour before sunrise and, though brilliant at magnitude -4.2, may be difficult to spot low in the east before dawn. However, the other inner planet, Mercury, remains nicely placed in the evening and stands furthest east of the Sun (19°) on the 1st.
Thirty minutes after Edinburgh’s sunset on that day, Mercury is 12° high in the west and shines at magnitude 0.0. It should be possible to spy it through binoculars and eventually with the unaided eye as the twilight fades and the planet sinks to set another 96 minutes later. By the 8th, though, it is a couple of degrees lower and a quarter as bright at magnitude 1.6 as it is engulfed by the twilight. Inferior conjunction on the Sun’s near side occurs on the 20th.
Mars, magnitude 1.5 to 1.6 and above and to Mercury’s left at present, tracks east-north-eastwards this month to pass 5° below the Pleiades on the 15th and a similar distance left of the star cluster on the 26th. By then it sets late enough to be plotted near our north-western horizon at the star map times.
Its opposition means that Jupiter is at its brightest and closest, shining more brightly than any star at magnitude -2.5 and a distance of 666 million km. It lies 6° north-west (above-right) of Virgo’s leading star Spica as the month begins and tracks 3.7° westwards during April to pass 10 arcminutes or a third of a Moon’s-width south of the fourth magnitude star Theta Virginis on the 5th.
Jupiter lies close to the full Moon on the night of the 10th-11th when the Jovian disk appears 44 arcseconds wide if viewed telescopically, one fortieth as wide as the Moon.
Jupiter’s clouds are arrayed in bands that lie parallel to its equator, the dark ones called belts and the intervening lighter hued ones called zones. There are numerous whirls and spots, the most famous being the Great Red Spot in the southern hemisphere. The planet spins in under ten hours, so a resolute observer might view the entire span of its clouds in a single April night. The four main moons, visible through decent binoculars and easy through a telescope, lie on each side of the disk and change their configuration from night to night.
The beautiful planet Saturn rises in the south-east less than three hours after our map times and is the brightest object (magnitude 0.4 to 0.3) less than 15° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon before dawn. It is a shame that its low altitude means that we miss the sharpest and most impressive views of it rings which span 39 arcseconds in mid-April, and are tilted at 26° around its 17 arcseconds disk. After appearing stationary on the 6th, Saturn begins to creep westwards against the stars of Sagittarius – look for it below and left of the Moon on the 16th and right of the Moon on the 17th.
It is not often that I advertise the annual Lyrids meteor shower. As one of the year’s lesser displays, it yields only some 18 meteors per hour at best, all of them swift and some leaving glowing trains in their wake as they diverge from a radiant point to the right of Vega. The event lasts from the 18th to the 25th and peaks on the 22nd when moonlight should not interfere unduly this year. The Lyrid meteoroids were released by Comet Thatcher, last seen in 1861.
Bright comets have been rare of late, but fainter ones are observed frequently. One such has the jaunty name of comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák and takes 5.4 years to orbit between the paths of Jupiter and the Earth. It passes within 21 million km of us on the 1st as it nears perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on the 12th. I glimpsed it through binoculars from a superb dark-sky site at Kielder Forrest, Northumberland, last week when it was a diffuse seventh magnitude smudge close to Merak, the southern star of the Pointers in the Plough.
Although its path is not depicted on our chart, the comet is poised to sweep close to three of the stars identified in Draco, between the Plough and Polaris, the Pole Star. It passes 0.6° north of Thuban on the night of the 2nd-3rd, 1.5° south-west of Eta on the 11th (sadly, in full moonlight) and 0.6° west of Beta on the 18th-19th. During past perihelia, it has been seen to flare by several magnitudes for a few days at a time, so, if we are lucky, it may reach naked-eye visibility.