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.
Have you ever seen the closest planet to the Sun? If you wish to tick Mercury off your To-See list, particularly if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, now until the middle of May is the time to be scrutinising the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise. Mercury also has a close encounter with an old crescent Moon on 14 May.
Mercury attains a very favourable western elongation of almost 28 degrees from the Sun on 11 April, which means that the innermost planet is a morning object in the eastern sky before sunrise. Antipodean skywatchers are in the enviable position of being able to see Mercury and Venus close together for several mornings in a dark sky before the onset of astronomical twilight.
Clear nights of early Northern Hemisphere autumn offer ideal opportunities to track down the two outermost planets of the solar system, Uranus and Neptune. What’s more, you don’t need a big telescope to find them. We show you how to locate these gas giants using binoculars. The Moon also passes close to Neptune on 20 October.