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The First Comets of 2013

February 19, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

2013 might be remembered as "the year of the comets", we already have two comets near naked-eye visibility and comet ISON might become one of the brightest comets of the decade later in November. This small blog post is about the two first visitors we had: Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon and Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS.

Lemmon is the surprise of the year, it wasn't expected to be very bright but it suddenly started to brighten and is well ahead all the forecast and might reach magnitude 2 or 3 in March. It's a comet with a period of 11.000 years so it was here before but Earth was a very different planet back then. 

I started to track Lemmon when the comet was crossing the Southern Cross (Crux) in January. It appeared as a green star in the middle of this small and easy to recognize constellation. But we know there are no green stars in the sky (sorry Zubenelschamali!). The green color comes from the ionization of diatomic carbon or from cyanogenic compunds that are quite common in comets. 

After a few days crossing southern skies towards the South Celestial pole Lemmon sprouted a long and thin tail, it passed nearby the Small Magellan Cloud and the globular cluster 47 Tucanae becoming circumpolar for southern hemisphere observers. 

The video shows how quickly comet Lemmon moves relative to background stars. The video was made from 120 shots of 1 minute each so it compresses two hours of comet wandering in ten seconds of video. Lemmon continues to brighten and is now moving northwards and will become visible to North Hemisphere observers in April. I hope it gets to naked eye visibility around march and it might be visible with the naked eye at the same time as our second comet: PANSTARRS.

This is Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS discovered in 2011 from Hawaii. Calculations back then showed the comet might become a naked eye object in March 2013 but comets are so impredictable, they can desintegrate, brighten enormously, dim suddenly, sprout a tail or even two tails. Nobody knows! 

PANSTARRS is a sungrazing comet with a very excentric orbit this means the comet is making its first visit to the Solar System, it will get close to the Sun and will probably not return. Since this is the first time the comet approaches our star anything is possible it can be a super-comet or a bust. It is now around magnitude 4 and as it approaches the Sun it will be visible very low in the sky after sunset and might be visible with the naked eye around March from both hemispheres. 

Panstarrs has a fan-shaped tail and a very bright nucleus, recent photos show the tail in a yellowish color with some green color in the comet nucleus. As it continues to approach the Sun we can only continue to observe it and take photos and hope it becomes as nice as it can be.

With two comets already visible in the sky 2013 has started as a great year for comets and if ISON keeps to the expectations then it will be for sure the most dramatic year in decades for comet observers.

You can browse my ongoing gallery of Comet Lemmon here.

And the ongoing gallery for Comet Panstarrs here.




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