See comet in the evening sky as it crosses Big Dipper and the Dragon

There is a comet in the evening sky that is easier than most for amateur astronomers and casual stargazers to observe because it is about to cross a very distinct region of the sky.

Track of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak
The track of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak during late March and early April, 2017. The positions are shown for 20.00h UT, in the format Month-Day, and the chart is oriented for mid-evening. Chart by using Cartes du Ciel

It is about to pass through the bowl of the Big Dipper, also known as the Plough, and part of the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear), before moving into Draco (the Dragon).

Known as Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, this celestial visitor is too faint to be seen without optical aid. But as it steadily brightens, it has become visible with binoculars and small telescopes.

At the time of posting, the Moon has disappeared from evening skies, so conditions will be ideal for finding the comet as long as your sky is clear and you are away from light pollution.

And whereas some comets can be a faint blur, Comet 41P’s fuzzball coma has a concentrated appearance and so you should be able to find it more readily. It will also show up in short time exposures of the sky.

Comet 41P
This image by Stuart Atkinson of Kendal, UK, is a stack of 20 exposures on the evening of 20 March, using a Canon EOS 1100 fitted with a 135mm lens. The green blob of the comet is heading towards the deep sky objects M97 and M108 which are visible at upper left, near the bright star Beta Ursae Majoris. Image credit: Stuart Atkinson

The comet’s track is crossing a part of the sky that is not far from the north celestial pole, so this comet favours amateur astronomers in the northern hemisphere. For most of the southern hemisphere, the comet does not rise above the horizon.

There will be an interesting encounter between the comet and two deep sky objects, the galaxy M108 and the Owl Nebula, M97, on March 22. Closest approach to M108 will be best seen from the West Coast of North America, Hawaii and Japan.

The comet's track
A more detailed chart showing the comet’s track through the bowl of the Big Dipper and its close pass to M97 and M108. Chart by Skymania using Cartes du Ciel.

We mentioned Comet 41P before in our roundup of the brighter comets visible in the sky during northern spring. The comet is best seen during the evening, and so our new chart shows the track of the comet marked for each night at 8pm (20.00 UT) from the UK.

If you are observing west of the UK, for example from the United States, the comet will have advanced slightly along the track towards the following night’s position. Observers in India and the Far East will find it slightly ahead of the position for the UK.

M97 and M108
A CCD image of the deep sky objects M108 and M97, which the comet will pass between on March 22, taken with a 97mm refractor. Image credit: Greg and Ian Thomas/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Recent observing reports put the brightness of Comet 41P at around 7th or 8th magnitude. But in early April it could reach magnitude 5 or 6, which would put it on the verge of naked-eye visibility in perfectly clear dark moonless skies. To try your hand at photographing the comet, check out our recent article on how to observe Vesta.

See what else is in the night sky for northern and southern observers.

Track of Comet 41P
A more detailed track of Comet 41P from late March and during early April. Chart by Skymania using Cartes du Ciel.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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