This comet has been a long time coming, as evidenced by the 2001 year designation in the name. It finally reached perihelion (closest point to the Sun) in early May 2004, after which point it moves into the evening sky from around 5th May.
In the following days and weeks it moves rapidly into a high position in a dark sky after sunset for convenient viewing. It will fade slowly but initially the view will improve as it moves into a darker sky - see here for maps and details.
Provisionally expected to reach magnitude 1, a bright naked eye object, NEAT now looks to reach only magnitude 3 - this means it will be easily visible in a dark sky, but a bit troublesome in a light polluted one.
First sighting, in a rather murky light polluted sky over Gatwick and Crawley. Difficult to see with the unaided eye but no problem with binoculars or a small telescope. The view is that of a fuzzy blob, of about magnitude 3, but with no discernable tail.
NEAT on 10 May 2004 20:07UT, looking west from Hurst Green, Surrey. Without the use of the anti-light pollution filter this is the longest exposure to show the comet without it being drowned in sky glow.
The bright star just above the trees in Procyon, the lead star in Canis Minor.
The next opportunity to photograph NEAT came 6 days later, after it had passed very close to the Beehive star cluster (Praesepe) in Cancer. This would have made a fine sight, but clouds prevented a view that night.
In a clear sky the comet to have become easier to see now that it is higher up after dark, and even in the light polluted sky over Gatwick and Crawley it is faintly visible to the naked eye. In binoculars it now shows a faint stubby tail pointing away from the Sun.
NEAT on 16 May 2004 20:55UT, looking west from Hurst Green, Surrey. A clear sky free from haze prevented the lights of Crawley or London intruding too much on this 21second unguided shot.
To the bottom of the picture is the Beehive Cluster, which NEAT passed two days ago on its northwards travel at the rate of about 3 degrees a day. The circle shows where it will be in 2 days, as captured in the next picture.
NEAT now lies within the area of the circle in the previous shot.
This is my first shot of it taken through my Helios 8cm refractor. It is a guided shot now that I have obtained a small battery powered motor drive for it, hence no star trails.
A faint suggestion of a tail is evident to the left of the nucleus, but it is largely drowned out by the light pollution. This is my quandry, use a light pollution filter that cuts out the background but renders the image dim and masks any tail, or have a brighter image plagued by the orange glow of sodium streetlights.
The dark patch to the lower right is the branch of a nearby tree - this picture was taken just in time before it disappeared behind it!
After some experimentation on the last couple of nights I have hit upon a way of coaxing more details out of the images taken with the light pollution filter. By stacking a series of images on top of each other the background noise is reduced so the brightness and contrast can be increased without it looking too grainy.
This picture is my best result so far - 21 32second exposures lined up on the comet and stacked. The star trails are the result of the motion of the comet across the sky (approx. 3 minutes of arc) in the 30 minutes it took to secure the exposures.
The head of the comet is slightly over-exposed but it does allow for the suggestion of a tail to the left. The bluish colour is a result of the filter, but I did not correct it for it would have made the rest of the shot unacceptably red.
|Link to Spaceweather picture gallery (feed 18 May 2004 into "View Archives")|
|Link to Sky and Telescope for sky map and details of where to see it|