Comet Lovejoy Now at its Brightest: Images from Around the World

Last night was the first time I was able to spot Comet Lovejoy with unaided eyes. The latest images from our readers and dedicated astrophotographers confirm that now is a good time to see the comet, which is reaching maximum brightness at his week. Spaceweather.com reports that many experienced observers say the comet is now shining at magnitude +3.8. With clear, dark skies C/2104 Q2 is easily seen with binoculars.

Enjoy this gallery of recent images, and if you’ve taken an image, consider joining our Flickr pool and submitting it. We may use your image in an upcoming article!

Comet Lovejoy C/2104 Q2 cruising past the open star Cluster M45 “Pleiades” or “The Seven Sisters.” Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
Comet Lovejoy C/2104 Q2 cruising past the open star Cluster M45 “Pleiades” or “The Seven Sisters.” Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
Comet Lovejoy taken on January 15, 2015 from Singapore. Credit and copyright: Justin Ng.
Comet Lovejoy taken on January 15, 2015 from Singapore. Credit and copyright: Justin Ng.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy in a widefield false color image taken on January 16, 2015 from New Mexico Skies. Credit and copyright Joseph Brimacombe.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy in a widefield false color image taken on January 16, 2015 from New Mexico Skies. Credit and copyright Joseph Brimacombe.
Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, a wide binocular field west of M45, the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus, on January 15, 2015, shot from Silver City, New Mexico. The long blue ion tail stretched back for about 8°. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, a wide binocular field west of M45, the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus, on January 15, 2015, shot from Silver City, New Mexico. The long blue ion tail stretched back for about 8°. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
Comet Lovejoy photographed from Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve (30 km from Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada; 200 km north of Toronto) on January 13, 2015.  Credit and copyright: Michael Watson.
Comet Lovejoy photographed from Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve (30 km from Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada; 200 km north of Toronto) on January 13, 2015. Credit and copyright: Michael Watson.
Comet Lovejoy as seen from Lahore, Pakistan on January 15, 2014, 10:30 pm local time. 35 single images stacked in DSS. Each 8 seconds, ISO 2000, f/5.6, edited in Photoshop. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari
Comet Lovejoy as seen from Lahore, Pakistan on January 15, 2014, 10:30 pm local time. 35 single images stacked in DSS. Each 8 seconds, ISO 2000, f/5.6, edited in Photoshop. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari
High resolution 3 panel mosaic of C/2014 Q2 on January 11, 2015. Field of view is approximately 3.5° x 2° and composed of three fields. Many fine streamers are visible emanating from the nucleus. Credit and copyright: SEN/ Damian Peach.
High resolution 3 panel mosaic of C/2014 Q2 on January 11, 2015. Field of view is approximately 3.5° x 2° and composed of three fields. Many fine streamers are visible emanating from the nucleus. Credit and copyright: SEN/ Damian Peach.
Comet LoveJoy photographed from Kosovo on January 13, 2015. Credit and copyright: Suhel A. Ahmeti.
Comet LoveJoy photographed from Kosovo on January 13, 2015. Credit and copyright: Suhel A. Ahmeti.
C2014 Q2 Lovejoy on January 13, 2015. Credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad.
C2014 Q2 Lovejoy on January 13, 2015. Credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad.
Comet Lovejoy on January 11, 2015. Credit and copyright: Henry Weiland.
Comet Lovejoy on January 11, 2015. Credit and copyright: Henry Weiland.
Wide angle shot of Comet Lovejoy with the constellation Orion, showing rich fields of red nebula, star clouds and dark nebula with the bright green naked eye comet. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Wide angle shot of Comet Lovejoy with the constellation Orion, showing rich fields of red nebula, star clouds and dark nebula with the bright green naked eye comet. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Comet Lovejoy traveling through Taurus. Imaged on January 12, 2015 from Bathurst, New South Wales. Credit and copyright: Wes Schulstad.
Comet Lovejoy traveling through Taurus. Imaged on January 12, 2015 from Bathurst, New South Wales. Credit and copyright: Wes Schulstad.
C2014 Q2 Lovejoy on January 7, 2015, taken from Bannister Green, England. Credit and copyright: Wendy Clark.
C2014 Q2 Lovejoy on January 7, 2015, taken from Bannister Green, England. Credit and copyright: Wendy Clark.

If You Can Find Orion, You Can Find Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy (2014 Q2) is now visible in the night sky, and while you’ll need binoculars or a low-power telescope to see it best, the perfect window of opportunity to see it for yourself is starting now! We’ve heard from some readers that they’ve had some trouble spying it, but photographer Brian Moran has snapped the perfect picture to show you EXACTLY where to look for the comet. All you need to do is look for the easy-to-find constellation of Orion, and swing your eyes to the right (about 20 degrees) and up slightly up.

Brian said he was having trouble finding Lovejoy, but perhaps it may have been because he was looking a little too close to Orion. “Orion is a great frame of reference, but all of the photos I saw online made it seem like it was closer to Orion than it actually is,” he said.

Comet Q2 Lovejoy is currently shining at 4th magnitude, and if you’ve got a really dark sky, you may be able to see it with the unaided eye. as our David Dickinson explained, this comet is now entering “prime time” evening sky viewing, as it is visible over the southern horizon at around 9:30 PM local time this weekend, then 8:00 PM on January the 15th, and just before 6:00 PM by January 31st.

Tonight (Thursday, January 8) we’ll have a “two-hour window of darkness between the end of twilight and moonrise for those of us in the world’s mid-northern latitudes. Each night after tonight the Moon rises nearly an hour later,” said Sky & Telescope’s Alan MacRobert.

Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, during January 2015. The dates are in Universal Time; the ticks are at 0:00 UT (7:00 p.m. on the previous date Eastern Standard Time). Click on the image for larger, print-friendly black-on-white PDF, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.
Finder chart for Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, during January 2015. The dates are in Universal Time; the ticks are at 0:00 UT (7:00 p.m. on the previous date Eastern Standard Time). Click on the image for larger, print-friendly black-on-white PDF, courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

While C/Q2 Lovejoy passed closest to Earth yesterday (January 7) at a distance of 0.47 a.u. (44 million miles; 70 million km), the comet should remain at about the same brightness as it crosses the sky into Taurus, Aries, and Triangulum, higher and higher in early evening. It will pass 8° west-southwest of the Pleiades on the evening of January 17th.

MacRobert also explained that although the comet is beginning to recede from us, its intrinsic brightness should still be increasing a bit. “That’s because it doesn’t reach perihelion (its closest to the Sun) until January 30th (at a rather distant 1.29 a.u. from the Sun),” he said. “By that date the comet should finally be fading slightly from Earth’s point of view. And in late January the Moon returns; it’s first-quarter on the 26th.”

Here are some great images of Comet Lovejoy taken by Universe Today readers. Be sure to check out our Flickr group for more great images! We have nearly 1,500 members and new photos are added every day. And if you take an astrophoto, join our group and submit your photos! We may use your image in an upcoming article!

A wide-angle shot of Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2 above snow-covered trees. Taken as it neared Orion on January 6, 2014.  Credit and copyright: Marion Haligowski.
A wide-angle shot of Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2 above snow-covered trees. Taken as it neared Orion on January 6, 2014. Credit and copyright: Marion Haligowski.
C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on 7th January 2015. A couple of satellites managed to sneak in the image, too! Credit and copyright: JP Willinghan.
C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy on 7th January 2015. A couple of satellites managed to sneak in the image, too! Credit and copyright: JP Willinghan.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy Passes Messier 79 Narrowfield C False Color, taken on Dec 29, 2014, from New Mexico Skies using a 43-cm CDK telescope and STXL-6303 camera on a PME II mount. Credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy Passes Messier 79 Narrowfield C False Color, taken on Dec 29, 2014, from New Mexico Skies using a 43-cm CDK telescope and STXL-6303 camera on a PME II mount. Credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.
A monochrome image of Comet Lovejoy (2014 Q2) taken on December 31, 2014. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
A monochrome image of Comet Lovejoy (2014 Q2) taken on December 31, 2014. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
Comet Lovejoy, as seen on December 29, 2014 at around 12.30AM SGT from Singapore. Also visible is spiral galaxy NGC1886, seen to the left of the coma. Total exposure time is 12 minutes. Credit and copyright: Justin Ng.
Comet Lovejoy, as seen on December 29, 2014 at around 12.30AM SGT from Singapore. Also visible is spiral galaxy NGC1886, seen to the left of the coma. Total exposure time is 12 minutes. Credit and copyright: Justin Ng.
Comet Lovejoy as seen from Aldalucia, Spain on December 30, 2013. Credit and copyright: Ian Sharp.
Comet Lovejoy as seen from Aldalucia, Spain on December 30, 2013. Credit and copyright: Ian Sharp.
Comet Lovejoy Passing Globular Cluster M-79. Credit and copyright: Greg Redfern.
Comet Lovejoy Passing Globular Cluster M-79. Credit and copyright: Greg Redfern.
A two-part panorama of Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy as seen from Payson, Arizona on December 27, 2014. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur
A two-part panorama of Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy as seen from Payson, Arizona on December 27, 2014. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur

Comet Q2 Lovejoy Loses Tail, Grows Another, Loses That One Too!

Maybe you’ve seen Comet Q2 Lovejoy. It’s a big fuzzy ball in binoculars low in the southern sky in the little constellation Lepus the Hare. That’s the comet’s coma or temporary atmosphere of dust and gas that forms when ice vaporizes in sunlight from the nucleus. Until recently a faint 3° ion or gas tail trailed in the coma’s wake, but on and around December 23rd it snapped off and was ferried away by the solar wind. Just as quickly, Lovejoy re-grew a new ion tail but can’t seem to hold onto that one either. Like a feather in the wind, it’s in the process of being whisked away today.

Magnetic field lines bound up in the sun’s wind pile up and drape around a comet’s nucleus to shape the blue ion tail. Notice the oppositely-directed fields on the comet’s backside. The top set points away from the comet; the bottom set toward. In strong wind gusts, the two can be squeezed together and reconnect, releasing energy that snaps off a comet’s tail. Credit: Tufts University.
Magnetic field lines bound up in the sun’s wind pile up and drape around a comet’s nucleus to shape the blue ion tail. Notice the oppositely-directed fields on the comet’s backside. The top set points away from the comet; the bottom set toward. In strong wind gusts, the two can be squeezed together and reconnect, releasing energy that snaps off a comet’s tail. Credit: Tufts University.

Easy come, easy go. Comets usually have two tails, one of dust particles that reflect sunlight and another of ionized gases that fluoresce in Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Ion tails form when cometary gases, primarily carbon monoxide, are ionized by solar radiation and lose an electron to become positively charged. Once “electrified”, they’re susceptible to magnetic fields embedded in the high-speed stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun called the solar wind. Magnetic field lines embedded in the wind drape around the comet and draw the ions into a long, skinny tail directly opposite the Sun.

Part of Comet Lovejoy Q2's ion tail (left) cuts the cord and floats away from the comet as photographed on December 23, 2014. Credit: Chris Schur
Part of Comet Lovejoy Q2’s ion tail (left) cuts the cord and floats away from the comet as photographed on December 23, 2014. Carbon monoxide in the tail fluoresces blue in ultraviolet sunlight. Credit: Chris Schur

Disconnection events happen when fluctuations in the solar wind cause oppositely directed magnetic fields to reconnect in explosive fashion and release energy that severs the tail. Set free, it drifts away from the comet and dissipates. In active comets, the nucleus continues to produce gases, which in turn are ionized by the Sun and drawn out into a replacement appendage. In one of those delightful coincidences, comets and geckos both share the ability to re-grow a lost tail.


Comet Encke tail disconnection April 20, 2007 as seen by STEREO

Comet Halley experienced two ion tail disconnection events in 1986, but one of the most dramatic was recorded by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft on April 20, 2007. A powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) blew by comet 2P/Encke that spring day wreaking havoc with its tail. Magnetic field lines from the plasma blast reconnected with opposite polarity magnetic fields draped around the comet much like when the north and south poles of two magnets snap together. The result? A burst of energy that sent the tail flying.

Diagram showing how a CME slams into a comet (B) to create a tail disconnection event, known in the biz as a DE. Soon enough the comet grows a new one (D). Credit: NASA
Diagram showing how a CME slammed into Comet Encke (B) and snapped off its tail.  Soon enough, the comet grew a new one (D). Credit: NASA

Comet Lovejoy may have also crossed a sector boundary where the magnetic field carried across the Solar System by Sun’s constant breeze changed direction from south to north or north to south, opposite the magnetic domain the comet was immersed in before the crossing. Whether solar wind flutters, coronal mass ejections or sector boundary crossings,  more tail budding likely lies in Lovejoy’s future. Like the chard in your garden that continues to sprout after repeated snipping, the comet seems poised to spring new tails on demand.

Because Comet Lovejoy rapidly moves into the evening sky by mid-late December, its position on this detailed map is shown at 10 p.m. (CST) nightly. Credit:
Comet Lovejoy picks up speed in late December as it travels from southern Lepus into Eridanus. Its position shown nightly at 10 p.m. (CST). On Sunday night December 28th it passes very close to the bright globular cluster M79. Stars shown to magnitude +8.0. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

If you haven’t seen the comet, it’s now glowing at magnitude +5.5 and faintly visible to the naked eye from a dark sky site. Without an obvious dust tail and sporting a faint ion tail(s), the comet’s basically a giant coma, a fuzzy glowing ball easily visible in a pair of binoculars or small telescope.

A second tail disconnection event recorded on December 26, 2014 by John Nassr from his observatory in Baguio, Philippines. The fram is 3 wide. Credit: John Nassr
A second tail disconnection event recorded on December 26, 2014 by John Nassr from his observatory in Baguio, Philippines. The frame is 3° wide. Credit: John Nassr

In a very real sense, Comet Lovejoy experienced a space weather event much like what happens when a CME compresses Earth’s magnetic field causing field lines of opposite polarity to reconnect on the back or nightside of the planet. The energy released sends millions of electrons and protons cascading down into our upper atmosphere where they stimulate molecules of oxygen and nitrogen to glow and produce the aurora. One wonders whether comets might even experience their own brief auroral displays.


Excellent visualization showing how magnetic fields line on Earth’s nightside reconnect to create the rain of electrons that cause the aurora borealis. Notice the similarity to comet tail loss.