A Bright Comet Returns — 341 Years Later

March 7, 2002

Contacts:

Roger W. Sinnott, Senior Editor
617-864-7360 x146, rsinnott@SkyandTelescope.com
Alan M. MacRobert, Senior Editor
617-864-7360 x151, amacrobert@SkyandTelescope.com

Note to Editors/Producers: This release is accompanied by three publication-quality illustrations; see details below.

A comet discovered last month by amateur astronomers is making its first pass through the inner solar system in nearly 3½ centuries. Named Ikeya-Zhang [pronounced "ee-KAY-uh ZAING"] for the two keen-eyed skygazers who first spotted it, this cosmic interloper can be seen low in the west, not far above the horizon, as soon as it gets dark.

According to Sky & Telescope magazine, the comet is now bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye from very dark sites free of any light pollution. Binoculars show a bright, starlike nucleus surrounded by a small, faint cloud, or coma. A delicate, wispy tail has been seen pointing away from the Sun, and in time-exposure photographs the tail is already more than 5° long. The comet's nucleus appears to be releasing more gas than dust, which is giving the coma and tail a slight bluish cast that is especially noticeable in photographs.

Since Comet Ikeya-Zhang is now moving closer to both the Sun and Earth, it should become several times more obvious by the time its brightness peaks in late March. "Based on its track record thus far," notes Sky & Telescope senior editor Roger W. Sinnott, "Comet Ikeya-Zhang stands to be the best comet for northern skygazers since 1997," when Comet Hale-Bopp put on a command performance. (However, Ikeya-Zhang will not get as bright as Hale-Bopp did.)

The comet will be closest to the Sun, 76 million kilometers (47 million miles, or about half the Sun-Earth distance) on March 18th. It comes nearest to Earth, 60 million km (38 million miles) away, on April 30th. The comet remains visible to observers in the Northern Hemisphere throughout this period, though it won’t become well separated from the Sun in the evening sky until mid-April, when it is best seen before dawn. In late April it glides to within 29° of Polaris, the North Star, and remains above the horizon all night for most of the United States and all of Canada and Europe.

Credit for the discovery goes to Kaoru Ikeya (Mori, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan) and Daqing Zhang (Kaifeng, Henan province, China), who spotted the comet on February 1st using their backyard telescopes. At the time it equaled the brightness of an 8½-magnitude star, about 10 times fainter than is discernible to the unaided eye. "Ikeya and Zhang were lucky," Sinnott notes. "Today most comets are found by automated professional surveys months before they can be seen in small telescopes."

Within days of the discovery, astronomers noticed similarities between the orbital path of Ikeya-Zhang (known formally as C/2002 C1) and that of other comets observed in 1532 and 1661. Calculations now strongly suggest this is the object seen in 1661, which is making its first return visit to the inner solar system in 341 years. No other comet with such a long period has been witnessed on successive orbits around the Sun. (Halley's Comet, by comparison, comes our way every 76 years or so.)

For more information about the discovery and appearance of Comet Ikeya-Zhang, including a table of of celectial coordinates for the coming weeks, see the this story in our Observers section.


Sky & Telescope is making the following illustrations available to the news media. Permission is granted for one-time, nonexclusive use in print and broadcast media, as long as appropriate credits (as noted in each caption) are included.

Comet_Ikeya-Zhang
Gerald Rhemann of Vienna, Austria, recorded Comet Ikeya-Zhang on the evening of March 3rd with a 7.5-inch (190-mm) f/2.3 Schmidt camera. In this two-image composite, the comet displays a wispy tail roughly 4° long. The blue color is due to gas ionized by sunlight after being released from the icy nucleus (far right). North is up. Click on the image for a high-resolution, publication-quality version.
© 2002 Gerald Rhemann, courtesy Sky & Telescope.
Comet_IZ_in_sky
To spot Comet Ikeya-Zhang in the sky, you must find a dark location with very little light pollution and a clear western horizon. As soon as it gets dark after sunset, look for the planet Mars roughly 20° up (the width of two fists seen at arm’s length). The comet will be to the lower right of Mars. To the unaided eye the comet will look like a fuzzy star; use binoculars to reveal its cloudlike coma and a short tail pointing upward.
Sky & Telescope diagram.
Comet_IZ_path
Comet Ikeya-Zhang has a very long, narrow orbit that stretches well beyond the orbit of Pluto. Its last sweep through the inner solar system occurred in 1661. This time around, the comet will pass between the Sun and Earth, with its closest approach to the Sun occurring on March 18th. Click on the image for a high-resolution, publication-quality version.
© Larry Koehn, courtesy Sky & Telescope.