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How to find a comet TONIGHT!

It looks like the next few nights are going to be quite clear for large parts of the UK (I know, I know, I’m optimistic/eternally naive/gullible aren’t I??), and with the Moon now getting out of the way – having drowned our everything in the sky with its silvery light for the past couple of weeks – this could be our best chance to get a good look at a comet in the sky. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “A comet! Wow! They’re gorgeous! They have huge tails, and bright heads, and they blaze in the sky! Yeah, I’ll drag myself off the sofa and go outside and look for one of those tonight!” but calm down! Yes, it’s true that if you do a Google image search for “comet” you’ll be presented with lots of pictures like this…

comet google image search

…which leads many people to think that ALL comets look amazing and spectacular in the sky, with beautiful bright tails stretching up to overhead, and obvious to the naked eye, but that’s not what’s on offer in the sky at the moment. While some comets can look like that they are very rare, and we maybe see one of those every decade or so. No, most comets are very faint and fuzzy, with no tail at all, and really look just like an out of focus star, and they are so small in the sky that you need binoculars or even a telescope to find them and look at them. It’s a comet like that which is visible in the northern sky at the moment, and it’s called “Comet Jacques”.

Comet Jacques is a classic “decent comet”, and by that I mean it’s not bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, even from a dark site, but it is clearly visible in binoculars and small telescopes. It has a fail, but that tail is very small, and faint, and only shows up in long exposure photos. Visually, through binoculars or a small telescope, it really does look just like an out of focus star, slightly hazy, and with a pale greenish tinge.

So, now I’ve stuck a pin in your big excited balloon, why are the next few nights a good time to look for Comet Jacques? Because unlike shooting stars – which dash across the sky in a fraction of a second – comets move slowly across the sky, shifting their position amongst the stars a little each night, and for the past few weeks Comet Jacques has been drifting slowly up from our horizon, through rather anonymous, unremarkable starfields, until it is now very close to a pattern of stars which is very easy for anyone to find, no matter how much or how little they know about the night sky and astronomy.

For the next few nights Comet Jacques will be drifting up towards a small “W”-shaped pattern of stars known as “Cassiopeia” (“Cass-EE-oh-pee-ah”). Cassiopeia is one of the easiest-to-spot constellations in the whole sky, because of its shape, size and height in the sky at this time of year, so having Comet Jacques drifting up towards it ,means finding the comet is a lot, lot easier now than it has been. Here’s how you find it.

First – if your sky is clear, of course – you need to go out about ten, half past ten tonight, when the sky is getting nicely dark, and the stars are popping out. Face roughly north east and scan the sky above the horizon for a lone, bright golden-coloured star… This is “Capella”, one of the brightest stars in the sky, and your first “celestial stepping stone” to Comet Jacques…

1 arrow

Having found Capella you want to look at the sky to its upper right… you’re looking for a small but distinct “W” of stars… This is Cassiopeia…

1b

Now we’re getting somewhere! Having found Cassiopeia, look beneath it, a little to the left, and you’ll see a fairly bright star…

2b

You now need to go halfway back UP that imaginary line between Cassiopeia and the star… look closely there and you’ll see, maybe out of the corner of your eye, a smudgy, blurry area…

2c

This smudgy blurry area is actually a pair of star clusters, known, with staggering originality, as “The Double Cluster”… Here’s a photo I took of the area recently, and if you click on it to enlarge it you’ll see I’ve “joined the dots” of Cassiopeia and circled the Double Cluster to help you find them, and show you how close they are, too…

cass d cluster marked photo

Seen through a telescope the Double Cluster is a gorgeous sight…

Picture saved with settings applied.

…and even a small pair of binoculars will show you two clusters of teeny tiny, looking like pinches of salt on a dark tablecloth. The Double Cluster is your guide to Comet Jacques at the moment, because the comet is going to drift up past it over the next few nights, en-route to Cassiopeia itself, which it will wander through over next weekend.

Here’s where the comet will be tonight – Tuesday evening – after dark, in relation to the Double Cluster…

tues night

Now, I’m not going to give you a more detailed map than that because there;s no point, it could just confuse you. Rather, you just should find the Double Cluster in your binoculars and then move them to the left, and start to sweep the area of sky for the comet. You’re looking for something that looks like this…

Picture saved with settings applied.

…but it will be small, seriously, like an out of focus star. Its colour should give it away tho, and its general hazy appearance will be a give away too. If you don’t find it at first, KEEP LOOOKING, but BE PATIENT; don’t get all flustered with yourself if you still haven’t found it after a few minutes. It might take time, but you’ll spot it, eventually, it will just be *there* one time you sweep, and you’ll know right away that you’re looking at the right thing. And once you have found it, you’ll be able to go back to it again much more easily, and then will be able to follow it as it moves up towards Cassiopeia during the rest of the week…

Jacques map dalby b

So, there you go, that’s how, and where, to find a comet in the sky tonight and for the next few nights. If – no, WHEN you find it, just take a moment to consider what you’re looking at. Comets are huge masses of very dusty, very dirty ice that are relics leftover from the birth of the solar system. At the moment a European Space Agency probe called ROSETTA is flying close to a comet, and sending back quite incredible images, revealing that it looks like this…

Comet_on_11_August_2014_-_NavCam_node_full_image_2b

So when you spot Comet Jacques in the sky, just remember that that little, fuzzy, greenish blur is actually an enormous space iceberg, cratered and covered in mountains and cliffs…

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks Stuart, Found it. Thurs 22:45

  2. Observed the comet over 3 nights this last week with my little Pronto 70mm at 16x & 20x from a darkish site in South Kerry Ireland.
    Also visable in my 10 x 30s.IS
    No tail but nice to watch its movement in a 4 degree FOV
    Double cluster was easily visable with the naked eye.
    M22 low down south in Sag was easy in me 10x 30 IS……..dark skies by British standards me thinks,

  3. Hi unrelated issue but.. This morning around 5am under Hercules near bootes I could plainly see a triangle(ish) smudge it looked like a comet tail but I can’t find anything relevant any ideas?

  4. Thanks mate I haven’t seen it on any nights since and it was driving me mad .. How did you find out?

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