C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy – A Binocular Comet in Time for Christmas

Hmmm. Something with a long white beard is making an appearance in northern skies this week. Could it be Santa Claus? No, a bit early for the jolly guy yet, but comet watchers will soon find a special present under the tree this season.  Get ready to unwrap Comet Lovejoy Q2, now bright enough to spot in a pair of 10×50 binoculars.

Comet Lovejoy Q2 starts out low in the southern sky below Canis Major this week but quickly zooms northward. Visibility improves with each passing night. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet Lovejoy Q2 starts out low in the southern sky in Puppis this week (6° max. altitude on Dec. 9) but quickly zooms north and west with each passing night. On the night of December 28-29, the comet will pass 1/3° from the bright globular cluster M79 in Lepus. This map shows the sky and comet’s position facing south from 42° north latitude around 1:30 a.m. CST. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Following a rocket-like trajectory into the northern sky, this visitor from deep space is no longer reserved for southern skywatchers alone. If you live in the central U.S., Lovejoy Q2 pokes its head from Puppis in the early morning hours this week. Glowing at magnitude +7.0-7.5, it’s a faint, fuzzy cotton ball in binoculars from a dark sky and visible in telescopes as small as 3-inches (7.5 cm). With the Moon past full and phasing out of the picture, comet viewing will continue to improve in the coming nights. What fun to watch Lovejoy gradually accelerate from its present turtle-like amble to agile cheetah as it leaps from Lepus to Taurus at the rate of 3° a day later this month. Why the hurry? The comet is approaching Earth and will pass nearest our planet on January 7th at a distance of 43.6 million miles (70.2 million km). Perihelion follows some three weeks later on January 30th.

Image triplet taken by Terry Lovejoy on which he discovered the comet. The comet moves slightly counterclockwise around the larger fuzzy spot. Credit: Terry Lovejoy
Terry Lovejoy discovered the comet in this triplet of images taken on August 17th. The comet moves slightly counterclockwise around the larger fuzzy spot during the sequence. Credit: Terry Lovejoy

The new object is Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy’s 5th comet discovery. He captured images of the faint, 15th magnitude wisp on August 17th with a Celestron C-8 fitted with a CCD camera at his roll-off roof observatory in Brisbane, Australia. Comet Lovejoy Q2 has a period of about 11,500 years with an orbit steeply inclined to the plane of the Solar System (80.3°), the reason for its sharp northern climb. As December gives way to January the comet crosses from below to above the plane of the planets.

Another awesome shot of Comet Lovejoy Q2 taken on November 26, 2014. Gases in the coma fluoresce green in the Sun's ultraviolet light. Credit: Damian Peach
Another awesome shot of Comet Lovejoy Q2 taken on November 26, 2014. Gases in the coma including carbon and cyanogen fluoresce green in the Sun’s ultraviolet light. The comet’s moderately condensed coma currently measures about 8 arc minutes across or 1/4 the size of the full Moon. Credit: Damian Peach

Comet Lovejoy is expected to brighten to perhaps 5th magnitude as it approaches Earth, making it faintly visible with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Now that’s what I call a great way to start the new year!

To help you find it, use the top map to get oriented; the detailed charts (below) show stars to magnitude +8.0. Click each to enlarge and then print out a copy for use at night. Bonus! Comet Lovejoy will pass only 10 arc minutes (1/3°) south of the 8th magnitude globular cluster M79 on December 28-29 – a great opportunity for astrophotographers and observers alike. Both comet and cluster will pose side by side in the same binocular and telescopic field of view. In early January I’ll post fresh maps to help you track the comet all through next month, too.

Detailed map showing the comet tomorrow morning through December 27th in the early morning hours (CST). Stars shown to magnitude +8.0. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Detailed map showing the comet tomorrow December 9th through December 27th in the early morning hours (CST). Stars shown to magnitude +8.0. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
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:
Because Comet Lovejoy moves rapidly into the evening sky by mid-late December, its position on this detailed map is shown for 10 p.m. (CST) nightly. Credit: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Australian Amateur Terry Lovejoy Discovers New Comet

It’s confirmed! Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy just discovered his fifth comet, C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). He found it August 17th using a Celestron C8 fitted with a CCD camera at his roll-off roof observatory in Brisbane, Australia. 

Image triplet taken by Terry Lovejoy on which he discovered the comet. The comet moves slightly counterclockwise around the larger fuzzy spot. Credit: Terry Lovejoy
Image triplet taken by Terry Lovejoy of his comet discovery. The comet moves slightly counterclockwise around the larger fuzzy spot over the time frame. Credit: Terry Lovejoy

“I take large sets of image triplets, i.e 3 images per star field and use software to find moving objects,” said Lovejoy.  “The software I use outputs suspects that I check manually by eye.”

Most of what pops up on the camera are asteroids, known comets, or false alarms but not this time. Lovejoy’s latest find is a faint, fuzzy object in the constellation Puppis in the morning sky.

Sky as seen from central South America showing the approximate location of the new comet on August 19 in Puppis near the bright star Canopus. Stellarium
Sky as seen from central South America showing the approximate location of the new comet  (purple circle) on August 19 in Puppis near the bright star Canopus. The view shows the sky facing southeast just before the start of dawn. Stellarium

Glowing a dim magnitude +15, the new comet will be a southern sky object until later this fall when it swings quickly northward soon around the time of perihelion or closest approach to the sun. Lovejoy’s find needs more observations to better refine its orbit, but based on preliminary data, Maik Meyer, founder of the Comets Mailing List, calculates a January 2, 2015 perihelion.

Another photo of C/2014 Q2 taken on August 19, 2014. Credit: Jean-François and Alain Maury
Another photo of C/2014 Q2 taken on August 19, 2014. Credit: Jean-François and Alain Maury

On that date, it will be a healthy 84 million miles from the sun, but one month earlier on December 7, the comet could pass just 6.5 million miles from Earth and be well placed for viewing in amateur telescopes.

Everything’s still a little up in the air right now, so these times and distances are likely to change as fresh observations pour in. Take all predictions with a major grain of salt for the moment.

photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, onboard the International Space Station on Dec. 22, 2011. Credit: NASA
Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, onboard the International Space Station on Dec. 22, 2011 from 250 miles up. Credit: NASA

You might remember some of Terry’s earlier comets. Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3), a Kreutz sungrazer discovered in November 2011, passed just 87,000 miles above the sun’s surface. Many astronomers thought it wouldn’t  survive the sun’s heat, yet amazingly, although much of its nucleus burned off, enough material survived to produce a spectacular tail.

Terry Lovejoy
Terry Lovejoy

More recently, Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) thrilled observers as it climbed to naked eye brightness last November, managing to do the impossible at the time and draw our eyes away from Comet ISON.

Congratulations Terry on your new find! May it wax brightly this fall.

* Update: The latest orbit calculation from the Minor Planet Center based on 24 observations now puts perihelion at 164.6 million miles (265 million km) on February 14, 2015. Closest approach to Earth of 93.2 million miles (150 million km) will occur in January.