Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas Comet on Christmas Night

Comet 46P/Wirtanen

Christmas time is a synonym of  family, happiness and gifts.  And this year the gift was especially good for us stargazers. It brought back the comet 46P Wirtanen in a way that could be seen with just our eyes and a decent dark sky. I have to admit that I was very skeptical to the idea that it could be seen with the naked eye because until now, I had never been able to see one of those fuzzy blobs with just my eyes. There was always something in my way: my observation site was close to light pollution sources, there was moon light while the comet was there or simply the comet was too close to the sunset or sunrise.  This time was not the exception, the huge redwood trees declared their challenge to see from my backyard. Despite that, the night of the 12th I went out with my 10x50s Up Close binoculars and tried just for luck. What a surprise I had, when I discovered that the area where the comet was supposed to be was right in the middle of two tree tops and the gap between was wide enough to locate the comet. I followed the only two guide stars in my field of view: α Cet and λCet in the tale of the whale and drifted with my eyes to the east, just a couple of degrees left of them.  I could clearly see a particular fuzzy blob that I hadn’t see before. It must be the comet, I thought. Greedily. I pointed the binoculars to the spot to confirm it, and I was right. Voila! The comet was there, in the middle of two 3rd magnitude stars : ξTau and οTau in the back of the bull. What a good one!

With the moon growing, my chances of seeing the comet again were decreasing, so I had to wait until after the full moon to try  to spot it again and then sketch it.  Between some cloudy nights and rainy days the 25th arrived with the sky clearing up and as a child on a Christmas morning, I went to look for my gift at night. I took the telescope and some sketching pads and visited a spot a couple of miles from my house where there is more open sky so the chances to trip on a tree top were less. The sky seemed pristine but the abundant rain in the previous days promised to bath my scope as soon as the temperature started to descend. 

Above me, I could see the milky way showering Cassiopeia and the leftovers of the Cygnus region. I set the scope and checked for the comet. It was supposed to be in the hat of Auriga. Somewhere, between the triangle formed by the stars Capella and the less bright ones Menkalinan and δAur. The constellation was right above the brightest dome of light pollution coming from Silicon Valley so I had trouble seeing the comet with just my eyes. Without a proper star chart, I had to navigate the area with my finderscope and wait until some blob or fuzzy appeared on the scene. It did not take too long till I found it. It had drifted from the center of the triangle towards the NE. By that time, my telescope corrector plate started to show signs of dew so I quickly traced some dots on the paper and in a matter of minutes a raw sketch was done. I wish I could have been more prepared for the dew, but this was what I had at hand and at least I didn’t let the year go without another sketch since I have been very limited with those this year.

The comet will be in the skies for a while, so if you haven’t see it, grab a pair of binos and go get it.  It is there for you!
To all my worldwide readers I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy and starry 2019 year.


Edited by: Jennifer Carvajal (editor in chief)

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