By Gavin Ramsay, AOP Research Astronomer
In previous AstroNotes we have highlighted the Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) project of which AOP is a partner. Although its main aim is to detect the optical counterparts of cosmic explosions, it has been used to observe some Comets. Last week GOTO observed Comet 2019/K7 (Smith), which was discovered in May 2019, just by chance as it was performing its all-sky survey. What makes this comet potentially interesting is its orbit which may suggest it has come from the extreme outer boundary of our Solar System.
The left hand image shows Comet 2019/K7 on the night of May 20 2020 taken using GOTO on La Palma. The right hand image is the `difference’ image when a template image has been subtracted to show the comet more clearly.
The comet’s orbit shows that it is moving just fast enough to escape the solar system, meaning this is probably its first approach to the Sun since it formed, somewhere between the Sun and its nearest stellar neighbour, the alpha Centauri system. Closest approach is on 16th June 2020, when the comet will be slightly inside the orbit of Jupiter. After this brief interlude, the comet will return to its likely place of origin at the edge of our solar system.
Although this is not a bright comet, it should be accessible to well-equipped amateur stargazers under reasonably dark skies. More information on where to look for it can be found from Gideon van Buitenen’s web site. Check out also Seiichi Yoshida’s page on the comet here.