Comet Catalina: How to View the Best Comet of 2015

What is Comet Catalina and where did it come from?

Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina is a huge mass of rock and ice approximately 20 km in diameter. It’s currently in the midst of a one-million-year journey toward the Sun from the Oort Cloud. Scientists think that hundreds of thousands of years ago, another object bumped Catalina out of its orbit, sending it plummeting toward the Sun. Once the Sun’s gravity flings the comet back into space like a slingshot, it will likely never return to orbit the Sun again. Better catch this one while you can!

What does Comet Catalina look like?

Comet Catalina is one of the most striking comets of the last few years. Astroimager Ian Sharp captured this image on August 11, which was later shared as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Catalina shows lots of promise for amateur astronomers. The comet’s head, also called the coma, is glowing green as gas and dust particles burn off the front end of the comet. Behind, the comet features twin tails, similar to the famous Comet Hale-Bopp in the late 1990s.
Image credit Ian Sharp via NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

When will Comet Catalina become visible?

Southern Hemisphere observers can see Comet Catalina now! As of late August, it was slightly brighter than magnitude 8, bright enough to view with a pair of astronomy binoculars.

Observers in the Northern Hemisphere will have to wait a little longer to view Catalina. The comet reaches its closest point to the Sun on November 15. As it swings around, the Sun’s gravity will catapult the comet into Northern Hemisphere skies. As the comet draws nearer, it will brighten. Catalina has the potential to dazzle observers throughout the holiday season, from mid-December to mid-January, 2016.

What is the best equipment to view Comet Catalina?

Of course, we can’t be sure of Catalina’s exact size and brightness until it gets closer to the Sun. But in general, comets are wide field objects ideal for viewing with binoculars. Scan the skies with your choice of binocular and look for the comet and its fuzzy tail. We like the Celestron SkyMaster 15x70 binoculars or the Zhumell SuperGiant 20x80 Package, which comes with its own tripod for stable views.

If it’s a telescope you’re looking for, try a low-power, wide field instrument. The Meade ETX-80 and iOptron SmartStar E 80 are both great options with built-in computerized tracking.

Celestron’s budget-friendly Cometron family was designed specifically for viewing comets. At less than $60, the Cometron FirstScope features a simple tabletop design and a large 76mm mirror. The full-size Cometron 114AZ telescope provides stunning views with its 114mm parabolic mirror. It’s a great telescope for general use that you’ll enjoy long after Catalina is gone. The Celestron lineup also includes the Cometron 7x50 and Cometron 12x70 binoculars.

Interested in dabbling with astrophotography? Try capturing Comet Catalina with the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Astro Package and your DSLR or a small telescope.

How was Comet Catalina discovered?

Comet Catalina’s official name—Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina—tells you a lot of important information about how the comet was discovered. It was first observed and reported on Halloween night, 2013, at the Catalina Sky Survey Observatory just outside Tucson, AZ. The Catalina Sky Survey scans the night sky from elevations of more than 8,000 feet searching for hazardous Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that could pose a danger to the Earth.

When it was first discovered, scientists suspected Catalina might be a large asteroid and gave it the designation US10 (usually reserved for asteroids). Further investigation confirmed it was a comet, but the name stuck.

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