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.
Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, reaches opposition on 12 October. It is therefore best placed for observation during 2015 and reaches a respectable altitude as seen from the British Isles. It can be seen with the naked eye from dark sky sites, so here is our guide to tracking down this gas giant during October using nothing more than an average binocular.
Researchers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Queen’s University in Canada have unravelled the mystery of how Jupiter and Saturn likely formed using computer simulations. The discovery, which changes our view of how all planets might have formed, also suggests that the gas giants in the solar system probably formed before the terrestrial planets.
The young crescent Moon’s nightly motion from 31 December 2016 to 3 January 2017 carries it past dazzling planet Venus and first-magnitude Mars. A small telescope also reveals outermost planet Neptune, which passes just 0.02 degrees from Mars around 7h UT on 1 January, offering observers around the world a New Year’s Day treat.