This week get your binoculars and telescopes out of the closest and try your hand at hunting down an elusive comet in the late night sky. Comet Hartley 2, first discovered back in 1986 by an Australian astronomer – its namesake – is now the closest it will get to our little planet. Reaching about 11 million miles from Earth comet Hartley will be about 45 times the distance the Moon is from us. This close encounter occurring this week will offer your best views of comet Hartley.
Now don’t expect a comet McNaught or Hale-Bopp with this one. In fact it has not really lived up to its initial billing when predictions said it would become an easy naked eye object. Technically it will be reaching 4th magnitude mid week – making it about as bright as one of the stars in the Little Dipper handle- but you will need to be in a dark sky location to really get an unaided glimpse. Through binoculars and telescopes the comet appears like a faint fuzzy patch of diffuse light amongst the stars – much like a puff of smoke.
I found it in my 12 inch dobsonian telescope late last night using a low-power 31mm Nagler eyepiece – around 11 pm – high in the northeast sky right in the middle of my suburban, super light polluted backyard. I can tell you though it doesn’t not look like a classical comet with a tail- it is just a very faint smudge superimposed on a background of stars. The best way I recommend to find it is to have a wide angle view of the field.
Long exposure photographs from backyard telescopes are revealing the comet does have a long, crumb-like tail trailing behind a fuzzy patch with a green halo surrounding it. That ghostly green glow is indeed the Jupiter-sized atmosphere surrounding the comet nucleus – formed from gases escaping fissures on the surface of the comet as it heats up nearing the sun.
Hunting down the comet is made easier this week because it will be passing by the bright star Capella in the constellation Auriga. Check out my wide angle chart below and a detailed skychart (from Sky & Tel) you can use the next couple of week
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