Capturing the Devil Comet

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Rob Nolan captures a fleeting, once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of the elusive Pons-Brooks comet – and what to see under the Flower Moon

This month’s image was intended for last month … but as I was so excited to share my Aurora image from my surprise trip to Finland, this rather special comet got bumped a few weeks. Sorry 12P/Pons-Brooks!
This comet last passed us here on Earth in 1954. During its flyby this year, it will reach perihelion (the point in the orbit at which it is closest to the sun) on 2nd June, when it will be 232 million kilometres from Earth.
However, our best views of the comet – with our telescopes and the naked eye – were back in March and April. Due to its low position on the horizon and our swiftly receding dark nights, the comet becomes increasingly difficult to see in the Northern Hemisphere as the year progresses, even though it is yet to reach its closest distance from us.
It will continue to be visible in the Southern Hemisphere, but will become less bright as it travels away from the Sun.
This comet is also known as the Devil Comet. Its a cryovolcanic comet – literally an ice volcano flying through space. From time to time it erupts, sending bursts of ice and gas into space which cause it to appear much brighter for a few days. This apparently happened around the 29th February, and again in early April, making the comet much brighter in the sky for a time.
This image was likely a one-off chance encounter for me – the Pons-Brooks comet won’t be visible in our night skies again for another 71 years, so it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll see it again, making it rather special.
This image was taken during 2 nights in March using my Altair 70EDQR Refractor and Dedicated cooled mono astro camera. I was struggling with this data, so my friend Rick Voss who is an extremely talented Software Developer and Astrophotographer offered to help me out. He spent considerable time processing this image from my raw data and was able to create something quite special! Rick creates fantastic astro photographs – head over to rsastro.com to see more of his work!

The night sky, May 2024 – Rob’s guide for your stargazing this month:

This month there aren’t many local objects to observe in our night sky, apart from the passing meteor shower, so it’s a good time to explore the universe through the pinlit curtain of endless stars and enjoy those later dark night skies. Constellations such as Boötes, Scorpius, Libra and Virgo are all great constellations to go hunting for this month if the mood takes you.
On 4th May, just before dawn, you’ll be treated to a view of a narrow crescent Moon with Saturn to the upper right at twilight.
The big event this month is the annual Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower, peaking the evening of 4th/5th May – and we’re in for a great display this year, if the skies allow, as the Moon will not hinder our view. The Eta Aquarids are tiny pieces of Halley’s Comet, crashing into Earth’s atmosphere as we enter the comet’s trail of debris.
Halley’s Comet itself last appeared in our night skies in 1986, and will next appear in 2061 (that’s a date to put in your diary!).
Two bright stars will be clearly made out next to the Moon on 12th May – these are Castor and Pollux, the twin stars in the constellation Gemini.
Watch the full Moon (May’s full Moon is also called the Flower Moon, or Milk Moon) sail under the bright star Antares on the night of the 23rd/24th May, though you’ll need to wake up early to watch this crossing.
Antares is the massive ruby-red star that is brightest in the constellation Scorpius. It is one of the largest known stars, about 700 times larger in diameter than the Sun and about 10,000 times brighter.
To close the month off on the 31st, before the dawn Saturn sits to the left of a crescent Moon, but Mars will also be shining bright close by.
Until next time, clear skies!

Find Rob on Facebook as RPN Photography here

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