Now that the Moon is a waning crescent rising after midnight, observers in the British Isles can take advantage of at least three hours of darkness from 9pm BST to track down Comet Africano (C/2018 W2) at its closest and brightest as it speeds through the constellations of Pegasus, Pisces and Aquarius.
At 10:56 UT on 27 September, C/2018 W2 (Africano) passes just 0.494 astronomical units, or 74 million kilometres (46 million miles) from Earth. At this time the comet is moving against the stars of Pegasus at a rate of 3⅔ degrees per day, equivalent to the width of the full Moon every 3¼ hours.
Discovered almost simultaneously on 27 November 2018 by B. M. Africano with the Mount Lemmon 1.5-metre reflector and H. Groeller with the Catalina Sky Survey’s 0.68-metre Schmidt telescope (Africano’s report was submitted just 21 minutes earlier), C/2018 W2’s integrated magnitude is currently about +9 and may peak at about +8.5 over the coming week. Note that Comet Africano lies within a binocular field of view of outermost planet Neptune on the night of 3–4 October.
Having passed perihelion (closest point to the Sun) on 5 September, don’t miss any opportunities to view C/2018 W2 because it’s visiting the inner planets on a hyperbolic trajectory, meaning that it will never return to the Sun – unless its orbit is perturbed by the gravitational influence of a body in the outer Solar System in the distant future.
Outermost planet Neptune is currently visible in binoculars if you know just where to look. Fortunately, Mars forms a convenient guide on the night of 19th January as the two planets appear close together in the early evening sky.
Astronomers using data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected hints of periodic changes in the brightness of a so-called “active” galaxy, whose emissions are powered by a supersized black hole. If confirmed, the discovery would mark the first years-long cyclic gamma-ray emission ever detected from any galaxy, which could provide new insights into physical processes near the black hole.
Have you ever seen planet Uranus? If skies are clear in the UK and Western Europe on the evening of Sunday, 10 February, see this icy gas giant less than 2 degrees (or four lunar diameters) from Mars and 6 degrees from the 5-day-old crescent Moon. In fact, you’ll see all three in a single view of wide-angle binoculars like 7×50s.