Where to Look for Comet Lovejoy Until it Fades from Sight

I hate to admit it, but our dear comet is fading. Only a little though. As Comet Q2 Lovejoy wends its way from Earth toward perihelion and beyond, it will slowly dim and diminish. With an orbital period of approximately 8,000 years it has a long journey ahead. Down here on Earth, we continue to look up every clear night hoping for yet another look at what’s been a wonderful comet. 

Comet Lovejoy and the Pleiades on January 19, 2015. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe
Comet Lovejoy and the Pleiades on January 19, 2015. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

Despite its inevitable departure I encourage you to continue following Comet Lovejoy. It’s not often a comet vaults to naked eye brightness, and this one should remain visible without optical aid through mid-February.

Like a human celebrity, Lovejoy’s been the focus of attention from beginners and professionals alike using everything from cheap cellphone cameras to high-end telescopes to capture its magic. Who can get enough of that wildly fluctuating ion tail and greeny-blue coma?

Comet Q2 Lovejoy continues tracking north-northwest now through March. This chart shows the comet's position at 7 p.m. (CST) every 5 nights through March 5. Stars shown to magnitude +6. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet Q2 Lovejoy continues tracking north-northwest now through March. This chart shows the comet’s position at 7 p.m. (CST) every 5 nights through March 5. Stars shown to magnitude +6. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

The comet continues moving northward all winter long, sliding through  the diminutive constellations Aries and Triangulum, across Andromeda and into Cassiopeia, fading as she goes. You can use the map above and binoculars to help you follow it. I like to create lines and triangles using bright stars and deep sky objects to direct me to the comet.

Deep image of Comet Lovejoy taken with a Canon 6D with 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/2. 10  exposure of 30 secs at ISO3200 stacked. The tail, though faint, extends for possibly 18 degrees in this amazing image. Credit: Ian Sharp
Deep image of Comet Lovejoy taken with a Canon 6D with 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/2. Ten exposures of 30 secs at ISO3200 were stacked to create the final photo. The tail extends for possibly 18 degrees in this amazing image. The Pleiades are at top right; Hyades at bottom center. Credit: Ian Sharp

Tonight for instance, Lovejoy one fist held at arm’s length due west of the Pleiades. On the 29th, it’s on a line from Beta Persei (Algol) to Beta Trianguli. On February 3rd, it pulls right up alongside the colorful double star Gamma Andromedae, also called Almach, and on the 8th forms one of the apexes of an equilateral triangle with the two Betas. You get the idea.

The tail rays that show so clearly in photographs as in this image made on January 16th require dark skies and 8-inch or larger telescope to see visually. They're very low contrast. Credit: Greg Redfern
The tail rays that show so clearly in photographs as in this image made on January 16th require dark skies and an 8-inch or larger telescope to see visually. They’re very low contrast. Credit: Greg Redfern

The waxing moon will interfere with viewing beginning next weekend and render the comet nil with the naked eye, you’ll still be able to track it in binoculars during that time. Dark skies return around Feb. 7.

Comet Lovejoy captured from the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, Portugal on Jan. 11th by Miguel Claro

Delicate streamers show in Comet Lovejoy's ion tail in this photo from January 13th. Credit: Bernhard Hubl
Delicate streamers show in Comet Lovejoy’s ion tail in this photo from January 13th. Credit: Bernhard Hubl

Comet Finlay Surprise Outburst, Visible in Binoculars … again!

Lost sleep at night, fingers tapping on the keyboard by day. Darn comets are keeping me busy! But of course that’s a good problem. Comet 15P/Finlay, which had been languishing in the western sky at dusk at magnitude +10, has suddenly come to life … for a second time.

Two nights ago, Australian comet observer Michael Mattiazzo took a routine picture of Finlay and discovered it at magnitude +8. Today it’s a magnitude brighter and now joins Comet Lovejoy as the second binocular comet of 2015. Comet-wise, we’ve gone from zero to 60 and the new year’s fewer than 3 weeks old!

Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius.
Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Mars and Neptune’s position are for Jan. 17th. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Comet Finlay’s threw its first tantrum last December when it reached binocular visibility (faintly) shortly before Christmas.  Discovered by William Henry Finlay from South Africa on September 26, 1886, the comet circles the Sun every 6.5 years. This time around it reached perihelion on December 27th and spent many nights near the planet Mars low in the western sky. Until the new outburst, the comet had returned to its predicted brightness (~10 magnitude) and departed company with the Red Planet.

Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Alfons Diepvens' image of Comet Finlay's coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens
Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Belgian amateur astronomer Alfons Diepvens’ image of Comet Finlay’s coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens

It’s still low in the west, though not quite so much as in December, in the constellation Aquarius. With an orbit inclined only 6.8° to the ecliptic or plane of the Solar System, you’ll find it chugging eastward across the zodiac at the rate of 1° per night. The best time to view the comet is at the end of evening twilight at nightfall when it’s highest —  20° to 25° above the southwestern horizon.

Comet Lovejoy southwest of the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy seen in tandem with the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Click for a finder chart. Credit: Bob King

Right now it’s not far from Lambda Aquarii and will soon glide just south of the well-known asterism called the “Circlet” in Pisces. Currently between 7th and 8th magnitude and showing a bright, condensed center, Comet Finlay is easily visible in 10×50 binoculars. Catch it while you can. These outbursts often fade fairly quickly. While we don’t know its exact cause, what likely happened is that a new fissure opened up on the comet’s surface, exposing fresh ice to sunlight. Rapid vaporization of the new material may be behind the eruption.

While Comet Q2 Lovejoy’s been getting all the attention, Finlay’s back in the game and making mid-January nights all that more enjoyable for sky gazing. Lovejoy is presently passing near the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. This coming week will be the last dark one before the Moon starts to spoil the view. I hope you’re able to spot both at the next opportunity.

5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They'll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They’ll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

While we’re on the topic, take another look at the finder chart and you’ll see that Mars lies very near Neptune. The two are presently about 2° apart but on Monday Jan. 19th at dusk they’ll be separated by just 12 arc minutes or 1/5 of a degree and easily fit into the same medium-power view of a telescope. Pretty cool – and well worth seeing along with those comets!

How to Find and Make the Most of Comet Lovejoy

Comet Q2 Lovejoy passed closest to Earth on January 7th and has been putting on a great show this past week. Glowing at magnitude +4 with a bluish coma nearly as big as the Full Moon, the comet’s easy to see with the naked eye from the right location if you know exactly where to look. I wish I could say just tilt your head back and look up and bam! there it would be, but it’ll take a little more effort than that. But just a little, I promise. 

Comet Lovejoy and its spectacular "lively" ion tail photographed on January 8th by Nick Howes at Tzec Muan Network at Siding Spring Australia
Comet Lovejoy and its spectacular “lively” ion tail photographed on January 8th by Nick Howes at Tzec Muan Network at Siding Spring Australia

Last night, under a dark rural sky, once I spotted the comet and noticed its position in relation to nearby bright stars, I could look up and see it anytime. Finding anything other than the Moon or a bright planet in the night sky often requires a good map. I normally create a star-chart style map but thought, why not make a photographic version? So last night I snapped a few guided images of Lovejoy as it glimmered in the wilds of southern Taurus and then cloned the comet’s nightly position through onto the image. Maybe you’ll find this useful, maybe not. If not, the regular map is also included.

Comet Lovejoy position is shown for each night tonight through January 23rd. The comet should remain in the 4-5 magnitude range throughout. Click for a larger map you can print out and use outdoors. Click to enlarge and print for use outdoors. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
Comet Lovejoy’s position is shown for each night tonight through January 23rd. The comet should remain in the 4-5 magnitude range throughout. Lovejoy is currently high in the southeastern sky at nightfall and crosses the meridian due south around 9 o’clock local time. Click for a larger map you can print out and use outdoors. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

To see Comet Lovejoy with the naked eye you’ll need reasonably dark skies. It should be faintly visible from outer ring suburbs, but country skies will guarantee a sighting. I’ve been using bright stars in Orion and Taurus to guide binoculars – and then my eye – to the comet. Pick a couple bright stars like Aldebaran and Betelgeuse and extend a line from each to form a triangle with Lovejoy at one of the corners. If you then point binoculars at that spot in the sky, the comet should pop out. If you don’t find it immediately, sweep around the position a bit.  After you find it, lower the binoculars and try to spot it with the naked eye.

Comet Lovejoy last night January 9th around 8 p.m. (CST) shows a bright coma and faint ~1.5-degree-long
Comet Lovejoy last night January 9th around 8 p.m. (CST) shows a bright coma and faint ~1.5-degree-long tail. This photo, made with a 200mm lens, gives a good idea of what the comet looks like in 50mm binoculars. Details: f/2.8, ISO 800, 2-minute exposure. Credit: Bob King

This week, as Lovejoy continues trekking north, you can use bright orangey Aldebaran in Taurus and the Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters star cluster, to “triangulate” your way to the comet. Look for a glowing fuzzball. In 10×50 and 8×40 binoculars, it’s obviously different from a star — all puffed up with a brighter center. The 50mm glass even shows a hint of the coma’s blue color caused by carbon molecules fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight and a faint, streak-like tail extending to the northeast. With the naked eye, at first you might think it’s just a dim star; closer scrutiny reveals the star has a hazy appearance, pegging it as a comet.

Comet Lovejoy sketches from last night made using a 15-inch telescope. The coma is big - almost a half-degree across. The drawing shows the bright nuclear region and tiny "false nucleus". At right, a suspected plume extends to the southwest of the false nucleus. Color is how the comet really looks in the telescope. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy sketches from last night made using a 15-inch telescope. The coma is big – almost a half-degree across. The drawing shows the bright nuclear region and tiny “false nucleus”. At right, a suspected plume extends to the southwest of the false nucleus. Color is how the comet really looks in the telescope. South is up. Credit: Bob King

Through a telescope the coma is a HUGE pale blue tiki lamp of a thing with a small, much brighter nuclear region. The rays of the ion tail, so beautifully shown in photographs, are indistinct but visible with patience and a moderate-sized telescope under dark skies. At low magnification, the nucleus – the false nucleus actually, since the real comet nucleus is hidden by a shroud of dust and gas – looks like a misty star of about magnitude +9. On close inspection at high magnification (250x and up), you penetrate more deeply into the nuclear zone and the star-like center shrinks and dims to around magnitude +13.

Fascinating plumes of dust recorded by Gianluca Masi on January 6th. South is up, west to the left. Credit: Gianluca Masi
Fascinating plumes of dust recorded by Gianluca Masi on January 6th. South is up, west to the left. Credit: Gianluca Masi

If the seeing is good and comet active, high magnification will often reveal jets or fans of dust in the sunward direction, in this case west of nucleus. I’ve been studying the comet the past couple nights and am almost convinced I can see a short, very low contrast plume poking to the south of center. Generally, plumes and jets are subtle, low-contrast features. Challenging? Yes, but with Lovejoy as close as it’s going to get, now’s the time to seek them.

In this photo taken January 8th, the comet's tail is caught in the act of separated from the head or coma. Magnetic fields embedded in the stream of particles from the Sun occasionally reconnect on the rear side of a comet and pinch off its tail. Credit: Rolando Ligustri
In this photo taken January 8th, the comet’s tail is caught in the act of separated from the head or coma. Magnetic fields embedded in the stream of particles from the Sun occasionally reconnect on the rear side of a comet and pinch off its tail. A new one quickly grows to replace the old. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Just before Christmas, fluctuations in the solar wind snapped off Comet Lovejoy’s tail. Guess what? It happened again on January 8th as recorded in dramatic fashion by astrophotographer Rolando Ligustri. An ion or gas tail like the one in the photo forms when cometary gases, primarily carbon monoxide, are ionized by solar radiation and lose an electron to become positively charged. Once “electrified”, they can be twisted, kinked and even snapped off by magnetic fields embedded in the Sun’s particle wind.

Of course, the comet didn’t miss a breath but grew another tail immediately. Look closely at the photo and you see another faint streak of light pointing beyond the coma below and left of the bright nuclear region. This may be Lovejoy’s dust tail. Most comets sport both types of tails – gas and dust – since they release both materials as the Sun heats and vaporizes their ices.

Lovejoy’s been a thrill to watch because it’s doing all the cool stuff that makes them so fun to follow. Gianluca Masi, an Italian astrophysicist and lover of all things cometary, will offer a live feed of the comet on Monday January 12th starting at 1 p.m. CST (7 p.m. UT). May your skies be clear tonight!

Put Yourself in the Way of Beauty

Oh my, oh my. Rolando Ligustri captured this scene last night as Comet Q2 Lovejoy swished past the globular cluster M79 in Lepus. If you’ve seen the movie Wild or read the book, you’ll be familiar with the phrase “put yourself in the way of beauty”, a maxim for living life adopted by one of its characters. When I opened up my e-mail today and saw Rolando’s photo, I felt like the beauty truck ran right over me.

Another striking image of the comet's juxtaposition with the globular cluster M79. Lovejoy is presently 48 million miles from Earth; the cluster shines from the immense distance of 410,000 light years. Credit: Chris Schur
Another striking image of the comet’s juxtaposition with the globular cluster M79. Lovejoy is presently 48 million miles from Earth; the cluster lies at the immense distance of 41,000 light years. Credit: Chris Schur

More beautiful images arrived later including this one by Chris Schur of Arizona.

Even with the Moon at first quarter phase, the comet was plainly visible in binoculars last night shining at magnitude +5. I used 8x40s and had no problem seeing Lovejoy’s blobby glow. With a coma about 15-20 arc minutes in diameter or more than half the size of a the Full Moon, it really fills up the field of view when seen through a telescope at low to medium magnification.

A tighter view of the top image shows not only the star cluster but also shows 13th magnitude NGC 1886, an edge-on spiral galaxy. Credit: Rolando Ligustri
A tighter view of the top image shows not only the star cluster but also shows 13th magnitude NGC 1886, an edge-on spiral galaxy. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

If you love the aqua blue hues of the Caribbean, Lovejoy will remind you it’s time to book another tropical vacation. In both my 15-inch (37-cm) and 10-inch (25-cm) reflectors, the coma glowed a delicious pale blue-green in contrast to the pearly white cluster. I encourage you to look for the comet in the next few nights before the Moon is full. Starting on January 6-7, the Moon begins its move out of the evening sky, giving observers with dark skies a chance to view Lovejoy with the naked eye. I’m looking forward to seeing its long, faint tail twist among the stars of Eridanus as the comet rapidly moves northward over the next week.

Using Photoshop I made this drawing of the comet and cluster that captures its visual appearance through the telescope. Credit: Bob King
Using Photoshop I made this drawing of the comet and cluster that captures its visual appearance through the telescope last night December 28th. The nuclear region is very intense and bright and about 10 arc seconds across. Credit: Bob King

For a map on how to find the comet, check my recent article on Lovejoy’s many tails. Cheers to finding beauty the next clear night!

Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to nab in a 15-second time exposure with a 200mm telephoto lens last night. Details: f/2.8 at 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to nab in a 15-second time exposure with a 200mm telephoto lens last night. Details: f/2.8 at 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King