Lovejoy and X1 LINEAR: How to See Comets That Will Warm Up Your Mid-Winter Mornings

by Bob King on January 25, 2014

Comet Lovejoy still shows both an ion tail (blue) and dust tail in this photo taken Jan. 12 from Stixendorf, Austria. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Comet Lovejoy flaunts both ion (blue) and dust tails in this photo taken Jan. 12 from Stixendorf, Austria. It’s currently still visible in binoculars in the morning sky. Credit: Michael Jaeger

My hands are still cold from the experience, but there’s no denying the pleasure I felt at seeing C/2013 R1 Lovejoy and C/2012 X1 LINEAR through the telescope this morning.  Some comets fizzle, others fall apart, but these vaporous hunks have hung in there for months like steadfast friends that stick with you through hard times and good.While no longer visible with the naked eye, 50mm binoculars easily show it as a magnitude 7 fuzzy glow with a short, faint tail pointing up and away to the northwest.  I had no difficulty seeing it even with a last quarter moon glaring in the south.

Comets Lovejoy and X1 LINEAR are both moving across northern Ophiuchus. This map shows the sky facing east about 1 hour 45 minutes before sunrise shortly before the start of morning twilight. Detailed map below. Stellarium

Comets Lovejoy and X1 LINEAR are neighbors in northern Ophiuchus this month and next. This map shows the sky facing east about 1 hour 45 minutes before sunrise shortly before the start of morning twilight. Tick marks show the comets’ position every 5 days. Click to enlarge. Detailed map below. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software.

Rising around 3 a.m., Lovejoy is best placed for viewing just before the start of dawn when it climbs to about 30 degrees altitude in Ophiuchus. Lucky for us, Lovejoy will spend the next few mornings very close to the easy naked eye star 72 Ophiuchi, located 3 fists held at arm’s length to the lower right of brilliant Vega. It’s not often that a fairly bright comet passes this close to a helpful guide star. Don’t miss this easy catch. Soon the moon won’t be any trouble either as it skedaddles eastward and dwindles to a crescent in the coming mornings.

This deeper map shows stars to about magnitude 8. Although both comets appear to be getting lower every morning, the seasonal drift of the star to the west will keep them in good view for the next few months. Stellarium

This deeper map shows stars to about magnitude 8. Although both comets appear to be getting lower every morning, the westward seasonal drift of the stars will keep them in good view for the next few months. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Telescopic views of Lovejoy show a much diminished coma and tail compared to its heyday in early December. Still,  the nucleus remains bright and very condensed within the 3′ diameter gauzy coma; a faint and silky tail 2/3 of a degree long flowed across the field of view of my 15-inch (37-cm) reflector like a bride’s train. According to the excellent Weekly Information about Bright Comets site maintained by Seiichi Yoshida, Lovejoy should glow brighter than magnitude 8, what I consider the “bright” comet cutoff, through early February. Given that Lovejoy remains the brightest predicted comet visible till summer, show it some love the next clear night.

Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR shows a green coma from fluorescing gases and a short tail in this photo made on Jan. 15, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Comet C/2012 X1 LINEAR shows a green coma from fluorescing gases and a short tail in this photo made on Jan. 15, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

If Lovejoy’s a fading celebrity, X1 LINEAR suffered a mid-life crisis and snapped out of it with a whole new attitude.  Like Comet Holmes in 2007, it catapulted in brightness overnight in last October, blossoming from a 14th magnitude blip into a bright, expanding puffball briefly visible in ordinary binoculars. As expected, the comet soon faded. But on its return to obscurity,  X1 surprised again, re-brightening and growing a short tail. Now it’s humming along at 9th magnitude thank you very much. You’ll find it gliding across northern Ophiuchus not far from Lovejoy (more about that in a minute).

Very different appearance of C/2012 X1 LINEAR during outburst on Oct. 21, 2013. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Martino Nicolini & Nick Howes

Very different appearance of C/2012 X1 LINEAR during outburst on Oct. 21, 2013. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Martino Nicolini & Nick Howes

My binoculars won’t show the comet but a 6-inch telescope will do the trick. Overall weaker in appearance than Lovejoy, X1 LINEAR has a slightly larger, more diffuse coma,  brighter core and a short, faint tail pointing to the northwest. The comet will remain a fine target for smaller scopes through early March when it’s predicted to glow between magnitude 8 and 9.

Comets Lovejoy and X1 LINEAR will be closest together on the morning of Feb. 6 CST. Notice that they'll be in the company of numerous deep sky objects. Looks like a morning's worth of observing to me! Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Comets Lovejoy and X1 LINEAR will be closest together on the morning of Feb. 6 CST. A plethora of deep sky objects near them will make  for a complete morning’s worth of sky watching! Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Looking at the maps, you’ll see that our two comets’ paths intersect. While they won’t overlap on the same morning, Lovejoy and X1 LINEAR will be in conjunction on Feb. 6 when they’ll be just 2 degrees apart. Get that camera ready! Guided telephoto and wide-field telescopes will be perfect for catching this unusual duet.

Before I sign off, don’t forget all the other good morning stuff: Mars hovers above Spica high in the south-southwestern sky, Saturn invites inspection in the southeast and Venus is back in view in the east-southeast 45 minutes before sunup. A delicate crescent moon shines near Venus on Jan. 28 and 29. Such riches.

About 

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. Every day the universe offers up something both beautiful and thought-provoking. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob.

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