I thought I’d make a special page of the Atlas to show people in the UK (and it will work for elsewhere too!) exactly where to look for the comet on Nov 19th. Why? Because after a week of very poor weather, it looks like, after a night of frost and clear skies, the morning of the 19th is going to be perfect for looking for Comet ISON.
Ok, first of all you want to be outside at around 5.15am. If you’re reading that and shaking your head and thinking “Haha! No chance!” then you’re not going to see ISON, it’s a simple as that. You need to make a bit of an effort to see this comet, it’s not being handed to us on a plate like Comet Hale-Bopp was!
So, go outside at just after 5am, and just look around the sky until you see the familiar shape of “The Big Dipper” or “The Plough” or whatever you know it as. Having found that, if you face those stars you’ll be facing roughly east, i.e. the right direction for finding Comet ISON, seeing this view in front of you… (click on all the following images to enlarge them)
We’re going to use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us locate Comet ISON. See the stars forming the curved handle of the Dipper? Well, follow that curve and then extend it down to the lower right. That imaginary line will lead you to a bright star, shining pretty much on its own in the sky…
This star is called “Arcturus” – and finding it this way you’ll be using an astronomers’ trick to locate it: “Following the arc to Arcturus” 🙂
Having found Arcturus, you’ll be carrying on that arc until it reaches the horizon – but before it does it will lead you to another bright star, low, just skirting the treetops…
This is “Spica”, and Comet ISON is very close to it in the sky on the morning of the 19th and for the next couple of mornings too.
So, having found Spica it’s time to find Comet ISON. And that’s really easy, because the comet is right there close to Spica – at about 7pm from it, on an imaginary clock face…
If you’re lucky, the comet will be bright enough to visible to your naked eye, looking like a greenish star with a thin misty tail leading off it. The problem is, ISON is now so low down, and so close to the Sun in the sky, that you won’t be looking for it in a lovely dark blue sky like that one shown above, but in a paler, brighter, washed-out sky, like this one…
…and that might make it a bit difficult, especially if you’ve little or no experience of looking for things in the sky before. If, after seeing all the lovely images of Comet ISON on the internet, you’re expecting to see something just like that – a bright star with a bright glowing tail, broken up into streamers and trails, leading away from it – you’re in for a big disappointment. It looks nothing like that. It will look like a greenish star, with what looks like a short length of vapour trail coming off it, faint and misty.
So if you don’t spot ISON right away (and you probably won’t) don’t give up! Try again. You’ll get it eventually. Actually, it would be a good idea to have a pair of binoculars handy, so you can sweep the sky around Spica looking for ISON. They’ll make it stand out against the bright sky better. If you don’t have or can’t borrow any, don’t worry; hopefully ISON will be bright enough to see without any help at all in early December, after it has sped around the Sun.
If you follow those few easy steps you will be led right to ISON. Binoculars really will show it more clearly, and help you see the tail, but they’re not necessary.
By the way, if you can, after finding ISON, stay out a while longer and keep looking in ISON’s direction, because you’ll be able to see something else too! Looking like a silvery star, the planet MERCURY will follow ISON into the morning sky…
Again, binoculars will show it more clearly.
If you don’t manage to spot ISON on Tuesday morning, you can use this information to try again for a few mornings after. ISON will move away from Spica and head towards Mercury. On Wednesday morning ISON will be almost exactly between Mercury and Spica, and on Thursday morning it will be to Mercury’s right. Friday morning ISON will be slightly to Mercury’s lower right, and by Saturday morning it will be at 5 o’clock to Mercury – actually forming a triangle with another planet, Saturn!
But the bright sky and low altitude might make that gathering hard to see without binoculars.
So, there you have it – an absolute beginner’s guide to tracking down Comet ISON for the next few days. I hope you’ve found it useful. For lots more info on the comet, check out the rest of this Atlas, or my other blog, “Waiting for ISON“.