Last comet of the year?

You may not have been enough of a bear to be out past midwinter midnight watching for sparse Ursid meteors, but here is a possible sight for the kindlier evening sky.

Mars is getting steadily lower in that sky, but is still 43 degrees from the Sun and setting a bit more than 3 hours after it. But if you can spot the orange planet, then you can imagine – or, if you have a telescope or, just possibly, binoculars, see – that very close to the south of it is Comet Finlay.

There is more about this comet on page 61 of Astronomical Calendar 2014. Though still getting nearer to the Sun, it is already dropping into the distance from us, because we overtook it earlier in the year as it was on its way inward; this is why it is in the evening sky. It will reach its perihelion (nearest to the Sun), just inside Earth’s orbit, at the end of December 26. So around now is the time when it was expected to be as bright as it could be at this visit, and this might have been only magnitude 13 (about 700 times dimmer than the naked-eye limit). But it was spotted on Dec. 16 flaring from magnitude 11 to 9 – a cometary outburst, though still to below naked-eye level. It dimmed again afterwards; will it throw off some more shining dust as it passes closest to the Sun? You can’t tell what comets will do, even relatively old ones like this one, which was discovered from South Africa in 1886.

CometFinlay201412
Chart of Comet Finlay’s path in late December 2014.

 

2 thoughts on “Last comet of the year?”

  1. I’m excited about C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, currently reported at magnitude 5.3 in Columba, heading north, and moving from the midnight into the evening sky. I haven’t seen the comet yet because of its low declination and my urban light pollution, but I’m hopeful.

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