Comets To Catch in 2016

A look ahead to see what new and returning comets will spice up the new year. 

Ghosts of 2015 Past

Four comets equaled or exceeded 6th magnitude — the naked-eye limit — in 2015: MASTER (C/2015 G2), at magnitude +6; Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2), magnitude +5; PanSTARRS (C/2014 Q1), magnitude +5; and Catalina (C/2013 US10), magnitude +6.
Michael Mattiazzo

A small confession. I wanted the title to read "bright" comets, but while 2016 has its share of interesting comets, including the bright leftover, Catalina (C/2013 US10), no returning comets are expected to approach the naked-eye limit. Two may climb to magnitude +7, but the others will be at least a magnitude fainter. If there's a bright comet waiting to be discovered, 2016 would be the perfect year for it. Comet lovers will have few distractions.

Pre-driven models

At least we're in good hands going into the new year, with one binocular and two small-telescope comets on offer. Comet Catalina, currently at magnitude +6–6.5 and easily visible in ordinary binoculars under a dark sky, makes a spectacular pass of the brilliant star Arcturus on New Year's Day. Friday morning around 6 a.m. CST (12:00 UT), the twin-tailed comet will zip less than 1/2° west of the star, clipping along at nearly 2° per day (4.5′ per hour).

One Smokin' Comet!

This spectacular image of Comet Catalina was taken on December 21, 2015, before moonlight encroached on morning skies. A short, thick dust tail pokes out below the coma, while a long, twisty ion tail reflects the influence of gusty solar winds. North is up, and the field of view is 4.7° x 3.1°.
José J. Chambó Bris

Heading north in a hurry!

Comet Catalina passes very close to Arcturus, the brightest star in Boötes, on the first morning of 2016. This map shows the comet's daily position at 6 a.m. CST (12:00 UT). Stars to magnitude +6.5. North is up. Except where noted, all maps are drawn for 42° N latitude. Click for a larger version.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

When viewed through a small telescope, the comet's motion should be obvious within 15 minutes. A last-quarter moon in nearby Virgo may spoil the view just a bit, but the strongly-condensed coma and a hint of a chubby dust tail should still be visible in a 6-inch scope.

Catalina is expected to remain near 6th magnitude through mid-January and then gradually fade. Closest approach to Earth occurs on January 17th at a distance of 67.4 million miles (108.4 million km).

Green Comet in a Black Sea

Looking like a tadpole, Comet PanSTARRS (C/2014 S2) is easily visible in small telescopes in both evening and morning skies as it slowly wriggles across Draco in January.
Damian Peach

PanSTARRS (C/2014 S2), discovered with the PanSTARRS-1 telescope atop Mt. Haleakala in heavenly Maui, will be vacationing in Draco this winter as it slowly fades from its current peak brightness of magnitude +9. Even a 4-inch telescope will show the comet's small, 3′ wide, slightly elongated coma. C/2014 S2 is out at nightfall low in the northwestern sky, or higher in the northeastern sky before dawn.

Naked-eye potential?

Looking for a reasonably bright, easy-to-track evening comet? PanSTARRS (C/2013 X1), a well-condensed 9th-magnitude object with a faint tail fanning northeast, crosses the Great Square of Pegasus over the next few weeks. Standing near the meridian at the end of evening twilight, this bit of ice-speckled fuzz extends an invite under the moonless skies of early January.

Circumpolar comet

Comet PanSTARRS (C/2014 S2) saunters from Draco into the Little Dipper and becomes circumpolar this winter for many mid-northern skywatchers. Comet positions shown at 7 p.m. CST (13:00 UT) every 5 days starting December 30th. Stars to magnitude +8.5. North is up.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Comet with Naked-Eye Potential?

Comet PanSTARRS (C/2013 X1) from Bologna, Italy, on December 12, 2015. It's expected to brighten to easy binocular visibility this summer.
Adriano Valvasori

C/2013 X1 slowly brightens as it heads toward solar conjunction in mid-March, returning to view very low in the pre-dawn sky in Aquarius in mid-late May. For the next month, it steps across Aquarius, Piscis Austrinus, and Microscopium before sinking below the southern horizon for viewers at mid-northern latitudes. Before disappearing from view, C/2013 X1 could glow as bright as magnitude +6.5. Southern hemisphere observers will be favored throughout the apparition, especially when the comet reaches peak brightness in June and early July.

Departure to Warmer Climes

Comet PanSTARRS (C/2013 X1) shines around 9th magnitude as it crosses the Pegasus Square asterism in the next couple weeks, headed south. Positions shown nightly at 7 p.m. CST (13:00 UT) nightly starting December 30th. Stars to magnitude +8. North is up.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

A Bright Encore

Come mid-June and July, X1 PanSTARRS will return to view in the far southern United States (Tucson, Arizona, shown here) when it might reach 6th magnitude.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Periodically yours

Little Comet, Big Hurry

252P/LINEAR will be very close to the Earth in mid-to-late March and may reach 10th magnitude as it swiftly moves northward into the morning sky.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

252P/LINEAR is one of the many comets discovered by MIT's Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey. This small object returns every every 5.3 years; this time around, it will make an exceptionally close approach to Earth, passing only 0.36 AU or 3.35 million miles from your rooftop on March 21st.

Depending on what set of orbital parameters you choose, this is either the 5th or 6th closest recorded comet flyby. Some of you may remember Comet IRAS-Aracki-Alcock (C/1983 H1), which powered from one end of the sky to the other in 3–4 days, passing just 0.031 AU (28.8 million miles) from the planet on in early May 1983. What an incredible sight it was in the telescope: the fast-moving pinpoint nucleus, bright inner fan, and monster-sized coma.

While you'll have to routinely nudge your scope to keep pace with 252P/LINEAR as some of us did with C/1983 H1, it's only expected to reach magnitude +9 or 10 when brightest in mid-to-late March in the morning sky. For northern observers, the comet's period of visibility begins in late February, low in the southern sky in Columba, the Dove, when it might glow weakly around magnitude +13. Catch this one quickly because it's rapidly scooting due south and will soon be lost from view.

Brightening rapidly, Comet 252P tears across Mensa, Octans, and Apus at the rate of nearly 10° per day in mid-March, until it pops up in the tail of Scorpius on March 25th before the welcoming eyes of northern skywatchers. Now heading north in a hurry, the comet climbs into Ophiuchus for all to see. Like the TV celebrity of the moment, Comet 252P's rapid rise to fame will be followed by an equally steep decline.

Christmas 2016 Comet

It seems like a long way off, but returning Comet 45P should be visible in binoculars in mid-December 2016, low in the southwestern sky at dusk as it swerves through Capricornus. Positions shown every 5 days. Stars to magnitude +6.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Another periodic comet, 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, ends the year with a flourish. Although faint and far south of the celestial equator in November 2016, it climbs into Capricornus low in the southwestern sky in mid-December. This is one of the comet's closer approaches to Earth, so expect it to brighten to magnitude +7 (easy binocular visibility) around the time of its December 31st perihelion. Comet 45P, discovered by Minoru Honda in December 1948, typically remains faint until near perihelion. It's a tiny comet with a nucleus only about 0.5 miles (0.9 km) across, some four times smaller than 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta's comet.

Iffy Stuff

We Like Ike

It's uncertain if periodic comet Ikeya-Murakami (P/2010 V1) will show, but if it does, you'll see it cruising an arc to the west of Leo's Sickle from mid-winter 2016 until early spring 2017. Positions at 11 p.m. CST (5:00 UT) every five days and stars to magnitude +8.5.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Two comets with big question marks remain: Ikeya-Murakami (P/2010 V1) and 226P/Pigott-LINEAR-Kowalski. No one's seen Ikeya-Murakami yet despite a predicted magnitude of +12. It's way behind schedule, but comets, especially returning ones, sometimes don't brighten up until perihelion or shortly after. Assuming it rallies, P/2010 V1 could reach 8th magnitude in late February and March, when it will be perfectly positioned for evening viewing in Leo. Perihelion occurs on March 10, 2016. I've included a chart just in case the comet shows.

Edward Pigott of York, England, discovered Comet 226P in November 19, 1783, so long ago that Charles Messier himself observed it. So did William Herschel and Messier's deep-sky collaborator, Pierre Méchain. Author Gary Kronk, in his Cometography series, describes Messier's observations of Pigott's Comet: "(he) first saw the comet on the 27th and said that, while the comet was not visible to the naked eye, a refractor revealed an extremely faint nebulosity about 4′ across. He noted a strong central condensation."

I'm intrigued by Comet 226P because it connects us to the lives of the early astronomers, especially the "comet ferret" himself, French astronomer Charles Messier, who discovered some 20 comets of his own and observed 44 over his lifetime.

A lLong Shot, But Who Knows

Pigott's Comet may or may not be visible next fall. This map, which only goes down to magnitude +6, is meant as a guide only, since the comet will likely be faint. Just the same, it will be well-placed around 10-11 p.m. in the eastern sky.
Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Pigott's comet may climb to 10th magnitude in October and early November as it glides northward from Taurus into Auriga. This according to some predictions. But during previous recoveries, the comet was very faint —  two planetarium programs I used and JPL's HORIZONS system all show a peak magnitude of +15–17 when brightest in October and November 2016.

Will it show? Let's hope for surprises ... and new discoveries. Happy Fuzzball New Year!

One thought on “Comets To Catch in 2016

  1. Wayne-WootenWayne-Wooten

    Watch the decimal point. Comet IAA passed less than three million miles from us. We could see its motion in just minutes when it passed by the Beehive cluster. My wife Merry took some neat photos of its rapid motion in May 1983.

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