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.
Mercury is poised to put on a fine evening show for Northern Hemisphere observers at dusk, attaining a greatest elongation 18.2 degrees east of the Sun on Monday, 10 February 2020. For ten evenings starting 3 February, the innermost planet and its brightest sibling, Venus, maintain an almost constant angular separation low in the west-southwest 40 minutes after UK sunset.
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope to study the universe at infrared wavelengths that cannot be detected from ground-based observatories. SOFIA’s Science Cycle 5, which runs from February 2017 through January 2018, spans the entire field of astronomy from planetary science to extragalactic investigations.
The creation of a specialised IAU Working Group, the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN), was approved by the IAU Executive Committee in May 2016 to formalise star names that have been used colloquially for centuries. WGSN has now established a new catalogue of IAU star names, with the first set of 227 approved names published on the IAU website.