Known comets – observation planning tools and methods


Updated 2017 January 17






There are numerous sources of information as to currently observable comets and a selection will be covered in the following paragraphs. Magazines such as Astronomy Now and Sky and Telescope make mention of the brighter comets and often carry articles about specific comets of particular interest.


This document is in three sections;

What’s up                                            Which part of the sky is available to view depends on your location, time and nearby obstructions.

Finding known comets to observe      Various sources for ascertaining which comets can be seen

How to observe them                          How to point your telescope in the required direction          


Some of this may be quite basic but if you have limited experience I hope these guidelines will be useful.


What’s up


However before you can determine which comets are observable you need to know which part or parts of the night sky will be visible to you at the time you wish to observe. Some alternatives;

- the magazines mentioned above include monthly sky charts

- invest in a planisphere

- go to the Heavens Above website at - example below


Finding known comets to observe


Moving on to observable comets- comet 260P/McNaught is used as the example so that observers can choose whichever method suits them best.


BAA Comet Section


‘The Handbook of the British Astronomical Association’ lists comets coming to perihelion for the year of publication plus ephemerides for a selection of the brighter comets.


Current comets are listed at  (example below). There are also links to ephemerides, finder charts and upcoming comets for current and future years on this same page.

Current comet magnitudes (November 8) and observable region (November 1)

Comet                     Magnitude   Trend    Observable     When visible        Last visual observation
PanSTARRS (2011 L4)            8.5    bright   Poor elongation                    2012 October
LINEAR (2011 F1)               9.5    bright   Poor elongation                    2012 November
LINEAR (2012 K5)              10.5    bright   90 N to 30 N   evening and morning 2012 November
168P/Hergenrother             10.5    outburst 90 N to 35 S   best evening        2012 November
LINEAR (2012 A2)              11      bright   90 N to 15 N   all night           2012 November
260P/McNaught                 11      fade     90 N to 20 S   all night           2012 November
Catalina (2012 J1)            12      steady   90 N to 30 S   best evening        2012 November
McNaught (2011 R1)            12 ?    fade     Poor elongation                    2012 July
LINEAR (2011 UF305)           12      fade     90 N to 20 S   morning             2012 September
Garradd (2009 P1)             12 ?    fade     60 N to 40 S   morning             2012 June
MOSS (2012 CH17)              12.5 ?  fade     20 N to 35 S   early evening       2012 July
246P/NEAT                     12.5 ?  steady ? Conjunction                        2012 July
LONEOS (2006 S3)              13      fade     Conjunction                        2012 September
29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann      13 ?    varies   Poor elongation                    2012 June
LINEAR (2010 S1)              13      steady   90 N to 15 S   evening             2012 November
262P/McNaught-Russell        [14 ?    bright   80 N to 50 S   evening             Not observed

The observable region is an approximate indication of the latitude at which the comet may be seen. Under good conditions comets may be visible outside this range. The period when visible is for the UK if the comet is visible from the UK, otherwise for 40 S or the Equator as appropriate.  The last visual observation is as received by the Section.  Beginners will often find comets fainter than about 7th magnitude difficult to locate - see below for information on positions and finder charts.


BAA Computing Section


Starting at the Home page,, selecting Charts then Comets produces a list of comets together with dates when observable. Clicking on a comet e.g. 260P/McNaught produces a finder chart as shown below. Note that these are geocentric charts (seen as if the observer was at the centre of the Earth). Alternatively select Applets/What’s observable/Add object/Comets (from list) or Comets (whole list) to obtain a chart showing all comet positions. For greater accuracy a chart specific to your location can be produced using a planetarium program such as Megastar. Ephemerides for specific locations can be obtained from the Minor Planet Center. Examples of both are shown below.


SPA Computing Section


The Comet Section website at links to the BAA Comet Section website mentioned above.


Heavens Above


At you can obtain charts for comets brighter than magnitude 14. Charts for 260P/McNaught are shown below.





This software can be downloaded from Quoting from that webpage


‘The MPEC Sort program allows you to easily download, sort, and print a report of the current MPEC data from the Minor Planet Center web site. With a few simple clicks of the mouse the MPEC Sort program will go out and find the newest MPECs, download the data, and import it in to a local database. You can then enter RA, Declination, and Magnitude limits to further narrow down the results of objects visible from your location. Once you have narrowed it down to the list of objects you can view, run the report that you can print out and reference during your viewing session.


The Comet Ephemerides tab. Now you can calculate comet ephemerides at any time. The program downloads the comet orbital element file from the Minor Planet Center. Just select a comet from the list, specify some parameters (or leave them as default), and click calculate. That’s it. You are presented with that comet’s ephemerides in both RA / Declination and Alt. / Az


On the opening screen select ‘Comets Only’ to import comet data from the Minor Planet Center. On the next page enter RA, Dec and Mag limits then click on ‘Run Report’. A sample report listing comets by RA is shown below.




Orbital elements


Time to take a short break to explain some terminology so that you can better understand what follows. The path followed by a comet orbiting the Sun is defined by its orbital elements plus the epoch (date) for which those numbers are valid as described in the table and diagram below.




MPC notation


Time of perihelion passage



Date and time at which the comet passes closest to the Sun

Perihelion distance



Distance between comet and Sun at time of closest approach (T). q = a(1-e)

Aphelion distance



Distance between comet and Sun when the comet is furthest from the Sun. Q = a(1+e).

Semi-major axis



(Half ) the length of the long axis of the ellipse.




A measure of the deviation of the orbit from a circle, e = c/a. For a circle e = 0, an ellipse e < 1, a parabola e = 1, an hyperbola e > 1




The angle between the plane of the orbit of the comet and the ecliptic. If  the inclination is > 90º then the motion of the object is considered to be retrograde.

Longitude of the ascending node


The direction in space of the line where the orbital plane intersects the plane of the ecliptic. It is measured eastwards (increasing RA) from the Vernal Equinox (First Point of Aries).

Argument of perihelion



Defines how the major axis of the orbit is oriented in the orbital plane and is the angle between the ascending node and the perihelion point measured in the direction of motion.




The date for which the values of the above elements are valid.





Planetarium software


All you need is planetarium software into which you can download the latest orbital elements and plot tracks to a similar scale as shown in the Megastar examples below. Using Megastar I plotted comets with a limiting (faintest) magnitude of 16 for 2012 November 11, 00:00 UT.



Having chosen a comet to observe it is advisable to obtain the latest orbital elements and ephemeris from the Minor Planet Center. A list of comet orbital elements suitable for loading into planetarium programs can be obtained from the MPC at

and for Megastar in particular from


A screenshot of a Megastar plot for comet 260P is shown below.



Alternatively this can be done for individual comets from the MPC Minor Planet and Comet Ephemeris Service at One needs to complete the form by entering the comet number, e.g. 260P, Number of dates to output, Ephemeris interval and units and Observatory code or Longitude, latitude and altitude. Specify MPC 9-line under Format for elements output and leave other options as is. Click on ‘Get ephemerides/HTML page’ and the result is;




The orbital elements can be loaded into a planetarium program such as Megastar and the track of the comet plotted as below or the ephemeris used to point your telescope.



Seiichi Yoshida’s website


Three pages which will help to identify current comets suitable for visual observation;


Weekly Information about Bright Comets example below;

260P/2012 K2 ( McNaught )

First return of a new periodic comet which brightened up to 14 mag in 2005. It brightened very rapidly and became much brighter than originally expected. Now it is very bright as 12.2 mag (Oct. 9, Uwe Pilz). It keeps high for a long time in the Northern Hemisphere. But the comet will be fading after this. It locates very low in the Southern Hemisphere.

Date(TT)  R.A. (2000) Decl.   Delta     r    Elong.  m1   Best Time(A, h)  
Nov. 10   1 31.91   42 40.1   0.695   1.623   148   14.0  22:12 (180, 82)  
Nov. 17   1 30.28   42 39.1   0.740   1.652   145   14.3  21:43 (180, 82)  


Visual Comets in the Future (Northern Hemisphere) - screenshot below.



Visual Comets in the Future (Southern Hemisphere) - similar to the above screenshot


The tutorial Visual observations of comets will show you how to actually observe comets using telescopes and binoculars