Farewell, Comet 168P/Hergenrother!

This image shows the distinct nuclei splitting off from the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/Gemini

If you want to catch a glimpse of the Comet 168P/Hergenrother, you’d better do it quickly. The comet has broken into at least four distinct pieces, according to NASA. This was discovered after it made it’s 7-year periodic appearance and had a sudden brightening from the expected 15th or so magnitude all the way up to a 9th magnitude. Over the last couple of months, it has brightened and dimmed a couple of times, probably due to this fracturing process. It’s perihelion (closest approach to the sun) was on October 1st, and may have also contributed to this break down and brightening process.

I made my second attempt to try and spot this dim comet tonight and was met with success! It was exciting to see something that I knew I would only get to see once. For my first attempt (last night), I had tried to catch it in my 10″ Dobsonian from my front porch, but with the “small city” amount of light pollution to deal with, it made this impossible. I may have caught the ghost of a smudge of it, but I will never be sure.

Tonight, I decided to trek out to an area with very dark skies, to make my chances as good as possible to see this lonely, dying comet, since I knew that I probably wouldn’t get another opportunity. I had almost immediate success. It was easy to spot, using the star finder map from Comet Chasers, in addition to making sure I knew the star hops pretty well in Stellarium before I had gone out for the night.

It was definitely a faint comet to spot, but it was decently visible. I used my 25mm eyepiece, anything with higher magnification made it too dim. This provided a nice, full view of the comet. I was able to see the nebulous coma stretching out, and the nucleus of the comet. With my eyes and telescope, however, I was not able to resolve pieces or separate nuclei, only a single one at the front. Averted vision worked well to enhance the coma. I waited around a half an hour after my first look for the sky to darken a bit more, and around 8:00pm seemed to be a good time.

It’s always exciting to witness events like this, since usually things take eons to unfold in the cosmos. When we can see something happening within our own lifetime, let alone within a few months or weeks, it’s always a unique memory.

My condolences to Carl Hergenrother (who blogs over at The Transient Sky) for losing a friend. :) While I’m sure it was thrilling to discover it 14 years ago, I’m sure it’s equally exciting for it to be getting some attention again. This was only my second comet to view in a telescope, and my first to find on my own, so it was an interesting learning experience that happened to turn into a bit of excitement.

If you have a decent telescope and some fairly dark skies, grab a finder map and give this one a shot. You won’t get another chance.

The comet is currently just above the constellation Pegasus. A zoomed view of the square portion is in the next image.

A zoomed view of the previous image. The star hop was easy for me by making a triangle from the top two stars of Pegasus to the top star in this image, and then walking down to where the comet was, somewhere within the circle on the map.