This image of Comet PanSTARRS, taken on March 26th, 2013, from downtown Victoria, B.C., proves that some comets are worth looking at even in city skies. Photo by Gary Seronik.
As Gary Seronik reported in a recent blog, a new comet is headed our way. Found in the southern heavens last August by prolific Australian comet hunter Terry Lovejoy (his imaging program has rewarded him with five discoveries in 7½ years), the northbound comet should become prominent in binoculars early in the New Year.
I’m a long-time comet buff, so I’m looking forward to Comet Lovejoy. The inbound interloper will enter my low southern sky (I live near the 49th parallel) in late December. I hope I can detect Lovejoy in my telescope on the evening of the 28th when it passes the 8th-magnitude globular cluster M79 in the constellation Lepus. The waxing Moon, at first-quarter phase that night and full on January 4th, might make comet-spotting tricky for awhile. But by the second week of January, the brightening fuzzball could reach magnitude 4.5 and should be easy to see with binoculars even from the city. By then, Lovejoy will be higher up as it climbs the sky west of Orion and Taurus. During the last half of the month, the comet will start to fade as it continues northwestward past Aires and Triangulum enroute to Andromeda. (For easy-to-read charts of the comet’s path, go to SkyNews.ca.)
It’s not often that a good comet rides high in our nighttime sky. The reason this time is simple: When Lovejoy peaks in brightness from early to mid-January, it will be outside the Earth’s orbit and almost three times closer to us than it is to the Sun. After that, Lovejoy will be slowly receding from Earth but slightly approaching the Sun until it reaches perihelion on January 29th. This balancing act should keep our celestial visitor fairly bright for a few weeks. The comet won’t become brilliant, as it will be almost 200 million km from the Sun on perihelion day. However, it’s this large separation that’s helping keep the comet out of the evening twilight.
Will Lovejoy live up to its modest advance billing? I think so. Already the comet is exceeding predictions by a fair margin. Originally expected to be around magnitude 9 in mid-December, Lovejoy has (at the time of writing) attained naked-eye brightness in dark skies Down Under. And Comet Lovejoy already a boasts a tail in images. Will we see a tail in our telescopes and binoculars when the berg is brightest in mid-January? Stay tuned!