Amateur astronomy would not be the same without comets. Those lumps of ice and dust that periodically come into the center of the solar system from somewhere in its outer reaches are interesting and fun to observe because each has its own unique, changing appearance, and gives you the opportunity to view something new on a very little changing sky.

Seen through the telescope, most comets are very much like deep sky objects. Even in large amateur telescopes it is very easy to confuse a comet with a galaxy or a diffuse planetary nebula. Seeing a comet with the naked eye is a somewhat rare occurrence, and really bright and spectacular comets appear about once every 10 or 15 years.

For comet observing a dark sky is essential, so drive away from the city as far as you can. Brighter comets (magnitude 5 or 6) can be viewed with binoculars, and a 150-mm telescope will catch a 10th magnitude comet.

C/2004 Q2 Machholz

I observed Comet Machholz on January 2nd 2005 through my 150-mm telescope. The comet was easily visible with the naked eye, even from the city. At 70x the coma was very bright, with a distinct green color. I’ve managed to observe the short tail only with averted vision. The limiting magnitude was 6.0.

I observed this comet again on May 4th 2005. It was still pretty bright; I saw it easily through the 50-mm finder scope. The magnitude was around 7.5, a large coma with a diameter of 8 arcminutes and degree of condensation 5.

Sketch showing Comet K4 LINEAR.

C/2003 K4 LINEAR

I observed K4 LINEAR on June 15th 2004 from my country house, through my 150-mm telescope. The comet was bright and spectacular, with a star near the nucleus. I estimated the magnitude at around 9, with a condensation degree of 6. Its short but wide tail was easily seen at 70x. Using higher power the faint outer regions of the coma where no longer visible, but the nucleus and the star close to it where more evident.

9P/Tempel 1 – 2005

I first observed 9P/Tempel 1 on May 4th 2005 when it was two degrees west of the 3rd-magnitude star Epsilon Virginis. With my 150-mm telescope the comet was pretty difficult to see, the magnitude was 11.5. The coma was 3 arcminutes in diameter, with a little condensation towards the core.

On July 4th 2005 the Deep Impact spacecraft arrived at Comet Tempel 1 and impacted it with a 370-kg mass. I watched the events unfold live on NASA television, it was awesome! For amateur astronomers the effects of the collision with the comet where somehow a little disappointing… Many expected a huge increase in brightness, maybe even to naked-eye visibility, but Tempel 1 brightened with only one magnitude, below the expectations.

Comet Q4 NEAT
Comet Q4 NEAT.

C/2001 Q4 NEAT

I first observed Q4 NEAT from my hometown, when the comet was at peak brightness. It was easily seen with the naked eye as a small diffuse object, even if the limiting magnitude was 3.5.

My next observation came quite a while after that, on June 15th, from the country. Using my 150-mm telescope I found the comet in just a minute, although it was badly placed close to the horizon. The comet was bright, with a 0.5 degree long tale.

2P/Encke – 2003

I observed the comet on November 21st 2003 from the outskirts of my hometown Craiova, through my 150-mm telescope. It was easy to find it, in the vicinity of cluster Cr 399 in Cygnus. It had an extremely diffuse appearance, undoubtedly it must have had a zero degree of condensation. Its light was evenly spread, all edges dark, none darker than the others. I made no estimate as to its magnitude.

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