2015 continues to be an exciting year for space exploration. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is in the process of escorting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko -- the Rubber Ducky comet -- to its close encounter with the sun.
Are you an amateur astronomer? The Rosetta mission has an opportunity for you, one that will allow you to collaborate with professional astronomers and study a comet in tandem with a real space mission.
Padma A. Yanamandra-Fisher, who is the Rosetta Coordinator of Amateur Observations for comet 67P, would like to alert the amateur astronomer community and invite them to participate in a campaign to observe this comet during the coming months.
“We are looking to bring an entire community of professional and amateur observers together. When else can you observe a comet at the same time a spacecraft is viewing it at close proximity and escorting it to perihelion, and be able to correlate both sets of findings?”
Why are Amateurs Such an Important Part of this Campaign?
While professional observers have requested time at almost all of the large telescopes around the world, the amateur astronomer community has the advantage of observing world-wide and over a longer period of time. Amateurs will be able to support the professional and spacecraft observations, albeit at lower resolution. The potential for a generous return of data and collaborations between the amateur and professional observer communities is enormous.
In addition, since 67P is a periodic comet it has been observed by the amateur community during its past apparitions. Yanamandra-Fisher is also requesting that the amateur community share their legacy data sets of comet 67P with the campaign as well. “This comet orbits the sun about every 6.5 years and this is the seventh apparition that we have been able to view from the ground. With each apparition we see it behave differently. These legacy data sets will aid in our knowledge of this comet and especially when used in combination with the data gathered by the Rosetta spacecraft and the new ground observations made this year.”
Besides access to legacy data sets, amateurs will be able to view the comet before professionals when the comet comes out from behind the sun in mid-April. “The larger telescopes cannot view objects so close to the sun, but amateurs with their smaller aperture telescopes are perfect for this type of viewing,” explained Yanamandra-Fisher.
Amateurs also have the advantage to observe without waiting their turn to use a large telescope. “With this flexibility, amateurs can often alert the communities to special happenings. Professional observers can then use that information to take a closer look with their higher resolution capabilities,” said Yanamandra-Fisher. The immediate goal for amateurs is the recovery of the comet – starting in mid-April.
2015 is a wonderful year to be involved in space exploration. Dawn has arrived at dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto this summer. We are learning more than ever before about these smaller, yet dynamic bodies within our solar system. Studying comet 67P will teach us how comets evolve, and about their role in the formation of the solar system. We hope you will join us in making space history this year with comet 67P.
“This is truly interactive science that people of all observing levels can participate in – from amateurs to professionals,” added Yanamandra-Fisher.
How to Get Involved
The campaign is welcoming observations by amateur observers of all skill levels and types of observations.
Amateurs can observe comet 67P with at least a 14-inch telescope and share data sets (both new and from past apparitions) with the Rosetta Worldwide Ground-based Observing Program. More information regarding the campaign can be found, here.
Where and When to Look
Look for the comet beginning in April during dawn in the northern latitudes as it heads towards perihelion on August 13, 2015. Unfortunately, Southern Hemisphere observers will not be able to view the comet until post-perihelion.
“The comet is known for its post-perihelion brightness from previous apparitions, which we now know to be the change of seasons on the oddly-shaped bi-lobed nucleus. This is one of the windows of time (September to November) that we expect the amateurs to make a major contribution as well,” said Yanamandra-Fisher.
Links to additional information such as finder charts, ephemeris, observation log forms and information to submit data will be provided to registered users.
What You Can Expect to See
Although the Rosetta spacecraft gives us “ringside seats” to view the comet in great detail, Yanamandra-Fisher cautioned that “[t]he comet will be very faint for ground-based observers, at a magnitude of about 11.”
“All formats of data will be acceptable and encouraged. This includes a variety of observations ranging from CCD, DSLR images, spectra, sketches, visible observations. The most helpful data to the professional observers will be raw, unprocessed and in FITS format,” said Yanamandra-Fisher.
Helpful Links and Additional Information for Amateurs
- JPL Web-based Ephemeris Tool
- Comet 67P on JPL’s Solar System Dynamics Website
- Information Concerning Light Curves of Various Comets (used by both professional and amateur observers)
- Past Amateur Views of Comet 67P
- The PACA Project on Facebook
Are You a Professional?
Not an Astronomer? You Can Still Observe Comet 67P
Don’t worry if you don’t have the know-how or the equipment to observe comet 67P during the observing time frame. Why not try attending a star party during the latter part of the year – you can observe the comet with astronomers who know where to look and have equipment to share.
Yanamandra-Fisher added: “Anyone can observe and be a part of an observing campaign – just for the enjoyment and edification of observing a comet itself.”
Please check with each individual star party to see if they are planning to view the comet as part of their activities for the day/night.
- May 10-17 - Texas Star Party, near Ft. Davis, Texas
- May 14-17 - Harold Healy Frozen Banana Star Party, Mew Lake Provincial Park, Canada
- May 15-17 - Tennessee Spring Star Party 2015, Pikeville, Tennessee
(Editor's Note: If you know of a star party in your area and would like it added to the above, please contact us.)
“Anybody and everybody – no matter where you are -- look up once in a while and look at the stars. If you can, figure out what they are -- if not, just look at the beauty of the night sky.” – Padma A. Yanamandra-Fisher