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Observing Programs

Comet Observing Programs

Overview

The visual observation of comets through binoculars or telescopes is mainly a recreational pursuit nowadays, although comets can still be discovered that way. With that in mind deep-sky observers should always be aware of the possibility that a faint fuzzy located in their telescopic field of view may be an undiscovered comet. That did in fact happen in 2001, to Vance Petriew of the Regina, Saskatchewan Centre, who realized that the object he was observing at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party was not plotted on any atlas. After some careful checking, and assistance from Richard Huziak of the Saskatoon Centre, it was decided that the mysterious object should be reported through the proper channels. The news in return was positive, and Vance was declared the discoverer of Comet Petriew, designated C/2001 Q2. Congratulations to Vance, and hopefully there will be more comets discovered visually in Canada, but the odds of it are becoming less and less as the automated imaging systems become more widespread.

By observing comets one becomes more knowledgeable about the dynamics of our Solar System and about orbital motion. Actually tracking an comet across the sky as it orbits the Sun brings a sense of awareness that cannot be realized by any other means. It is one thing to hear about the existence of comets; it is another to see them for yourself in real time. Through real-time observation of comets, and by practicing magnitude estimates, you can become skillful enough to contribute important information to researchers. In many cases, even today, visual estimates are the most accurate and reliable way to judge the magnitude and size of a comet, especially the larger ones.

Using data from the RASC Observer's Handbook or from our Current Events page, you can practice identifying the brighter comets currently visible. Later, depending on the size of your telescope, you can gradually move on to fainter objects with the goal of being able to identify comets at the edge of visibility. By developing those skills you will have a much better chance of discovering a new comet, estimating a known one, or helping others to identify mysterious objects. A major benefit of all that will be a knowledge of the sky that is second to none.

Imaging techniques offer greater potential for the discovery of comets, but that is no reason to discourage visual searches. Visual searches can, in fact, be a great way to learn how to identify objects in the night sky that you may wonder about. Many known comets are floating around the Solar System, and usually a few are visible on any given clear night. If you come across an object that is not plotted on any atlas, the procedure to identify it is as follows:

  • record the date and time of the observation
  • the position in Right Ascension and Declination
  • the estimated magnitude and size
  • check for motion to confirm a comet or asteroid

With that information you can then refer to a database to see if there is a known comet or asteroid that fits that description.

Projects

RASC

A good way to get some experience in the fascinating world of comet observing is to try to find as many comets as possible, starting with the largest and brightest ones. A list of the largest and brightest comets, currently visible, is included each year in the RASC Observer's Handbook and on our Current Events page. Further information about other comets can be found through the International Comet Quarterly, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers or the British Astronomical Association, all of which can be found on the Web from our Links page or below. A printable RASC Comet Observation Form is available from the Observing Forms page and you may photocopy as many as you wish. Note that those forms are for personal use, and for submitting observations to the RASC. If you would like to report observations to other organizations, please use their forms. The RASC Observing Committee will recognize anyone who has observed a variety of different comets, as outlined in the suggested observing program featured below that was designed by Michael Holzer. Recognition will be in the form of an official letter of recognition for each level and we will include his or her name on a list of accomplished comet observers. To qualify simply fill out the required number of RASC comet observation forms available on the Observing Forms page, or equivalent, and then send photocopies of them to: RASC Observing Committee 136 Dupont Street, Toronto, Ontario Canada M5R 1V2.

Comet Observing Program

It is the intention of the RASC Observing Committee to promote hands-on visual observation as an educational and worthwhile experience. The serious study of comets for example, promotes a standard of excellence in the amateur community and makes us true custodians of astronomy - the noblest of the sciences. Likewise, future observers may benefit tomorrow from the knowledge we gain today.

Intermediate Level Objectives

Participants of this program will be required to observe five different comets on at least three separate occasions each during a cometary apparition. To insure uniformity and a high standard for visual comet observations, the comet observation forms provided by the Comet Section must be filled out during the observation and then submitted electronically or by regular mail to receive the official letter of recognition. Although there is no prerequisite necessary to begin working on this program, it is strongly recommended that one observes at least several deep-sky objects from the Messier Catalogue first.

When the intermediate level objectives have been achieved an official letter of recognition will be issued by the RASC and we will include his or her name on a list of accomplished comet observers. To qualify simply fill out the required number of RASC comet observation forms available on the Observing Forms page, or equivalent, and then send photocopies of them to: RASC Observing Committee 136 Dupont Street, Toronto, Ontario Canada M5R 1V2.

Advanced Level Objectives

The next level will require the comet observer to gain a deeper familiarity with the night sky, as well as to become increasingly more intuitive toward the achievement of high quality comet observation skills. This special program requires the observation of an additional ten comets, with a minimum of five detailed observations of each individual comet. Also, visual magnitude estimates will be made of the comets during each observation by an appropriate method. It may be practical and beneficial to have some experience in making variable star magnitude estimates. In a spirit of discovery, we ask that participants of this unique program also log a minimum of two hours of dedicated visual comet searching under dark, moonless skies. Although a new comet may or may not be discovered during this time, the journey and sense of adventure is what really counts.

When the advanced level objectives have been achieved an official letter of recognition will be issued by the RASC and we will include his or her name on a list of accomplished comet observers. To qualify simply fill out the required number of RASC comet observation forms available on the Observing Forms page, or equivalent, and then send photocopies of them to: RASC Observing Committee 136 Dupont Street, Toronto, Ontario Canada M5R 1V2.

Comet Report Form Instructions

The RASC comet observation forms are designed to help you make the most of your experience at the eyepiece. If you know basic information ahead of time such as location and the instrumentation that will be used for a particular observing session, these fields may be filled in ahead of time. However, it is very important to complete all fields pertinent to observational data ONLY at the time of observation. You will notice the circle provided for your eyepiece sketch. It is an integral part of the comet programs, and the best way to develop observing skills to last a lifetime. Please do not mistake this exercise for a strange nocturnal art class. The purpose of making simple and labelled eyepiece sketches greatly validates a given observation and provides a permanent record for visual comparisons to be made. With the advent and proliferation of amateur CCD imaging, it remains that sketching exactly what one sees is the most effective way to record an astronomical observation. Due to the modest number of comets visible to the eye in moderate-sized telescopes per year from a given location, the completion of the two comet programs may take a while. Let this not be a source of discouragement. The best part of these involved comet programs is that the majority of your observation time can be spent participating in other programs of interest.

Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO)

The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers has a Comets Section that will accept visual observations of minor planets and they have a recording form that you can download or print. We encourage RASC members and others to contribute observations to the ALPO whenever possible. The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers has been collecting data for many years and it has an extensive database of observations that need to be updated on a regular basis. This would be a great project for a backyard astronomer.

British Astronomical Association

The British Astronomical Association also has an active comet observation program as part of its Comets Section and we would like to encourage our members and others to contribute observations to them. They have posted a recording form as well as handy email links to its section leaders right on their website; so it would be easy for you, if you are interested, to find out more information. You can find additional resources from several other good comet Internet sites listed on our Links page.