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Comet Update - Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 - May 2006
Gordon Mackie

The month of May 2006 will provide an opportunity for some interesting objects to be observed in the night sky with no more than a pair of binoculars, with some even being visible to the naked eye.  Unfortunately true darkness does not fall until around midnight, but if you're up late at night or very early in the morning why not take a look at what's up there.

Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3
As mentioned in the recent newsletter this comet, or at least the many parts of it (there are currently 38 individual fragments being tracked by astronomers!) will pass close to the Earth (a mere 6.5 million miles!) during the month of May. It is being watched with great interest by astronomers and they have recently observed one of the brighter fragments break into two:
http://www.spaceweather.com/swpod2006/24apr06/james1.jpg  shows a photo of Fragment B through the Faukes Telescope clearly showing that it has split into two.

On the 23rd of April I got a good view of fragment C through my small telescope. Although not quite as clear a view as the photo above, I was quite impressed given the telescope I was using was just a fraction of the size of the Faukes Telescope. I obtained the photo below of the comet, unfortunately it did not come out as clearly as I saw it. On the right hand side is the negative of the image, which perhaps shows the “fuzziness” a little clearer.

I have to say though that on the 23rd April I could only just pick it out the comet with my 12x50 binoculars and that was largely because I knew exactly where to look. Fear not however, as during the next 3 weeks the comet will brighten dramatically (becoming almost 100 times brighter than it is now) as it races past us. Fragment C should be able to be  seen by the naked eye under clear dark skies (remember to give your eyes at least 5-10 minutes to become “dark adapted”), and Fragment B may just about be visible nearby to the naked eye also. Both should be hard to miss using most binoculars by the end of the first week in May.

Visit http://www.skyhound.com/sh/73P.html  for details of the Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann updated on a daily basis. Links at the bottom of that webpage page show you where to find it in the sky each night (note that once close to the Earth, comets change position significantly each night relative to the background stars).

The comet fragments will be seen in the eastern sky after dark. As mentioned in the latest newsletter the comet will start May in the constellation of Hercules and as the month passes will move through Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Pisces. As a result of this motion it will rise later each night meaning that by its brightest in mid May, it will be best placed in the sky for observation from midnight onwards until a few hours before sunrise. Due to the rapidly shortening Caithness nights and the presence of a full moon in mid May the best chance to see it in it's glory may turn out to be the beginning of May.

Regular updates on the comet can also be found at:
http://skyandtelescope.com/ observing/objects/comets/article_1704_1.asp &
http://www.spaceweather.com/  which provides regular updates on Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann amongst other daily info on solar and auroral activity.  Whilst out searching for the comet why not check out the following object which are clearly visible in binoculars:

Jupiter & it's Moons
The photo below was a 4 second exposure at 10x zoom through a tripod mounted digital camera. The view shown is similar to that which would be seen using 10x50 binoculars.  Easterly View around Midnight Early in May Jupiter nearby Alpha Librae (view at approx 10x Magnification) It clearly shows the planet Jupiter to be a disk and shows up to 4 of its brightest moons. Note the positions of the moons and you'll notice that from one night to the next they change positions performing a merry dance around Jupiter itself.

Jupiter is easy to find in the night sky, being the brightest object there behind the Sun, Moon and Venus. It will to be found low in the south around midnight during May (see sky chart above).

Magnificent Globular
Clusters (M13 & M5)
Whilst out with the binoculars it's well worth seeking out at least one of the two best globular clusters visible from Caithness. Both M13 and M5 (see star chart above for locations) are clearly visible through binoculars during May, with M13 being visible to the naked eye on clear nights.

These globular clusters contain many hundreds of thousands of stars and make for a beautiful site through a telescope and are visible as a fuzzy ball through binoculars.

See the following links for more info on these:

Good luck with the comet hunting. Let's hope for some clear night skies in the coming month.

G Mackie, April 25th 2006

The brilliant Jupiter, low in the southern sky (wide angle view, Apr 19th) Globular Cluster M13 as seen trough a small telescope