Lovejoy in Lepus

December 31, 2014

The Joy of Stargazing

“Comet Lovejoy as it appeared the night before its closest approach to the small globular cluster M79 (upper right) .” Photo by Alan Dyer

By Ken Hewitt-White

In my December 23rd blog, I mentioned that Comet Lovejoy would soon become visible to mid-northern observers, including this writer (I live near Vancouver, British Columbia). I was hoping to make my initial sighting on the evening of December 28th when Lovejoy drifted near the globular star cluster M79 in southern Lepus. Weather permitting, of course!

The atmospheric conditions above my house on the 28th were problematic: a mixture of thick haze, banded cloud, small clearings, and first-quarter moonlight. And wind! The cold front roaring across town that night was bound to shake my 4¼-inch Newtonian reflector. Worse, the gusting wind threatened to trigger the motion-sensor security lights on my neighbour’s garage. No matter; at around 9 p.m., I set up my scope in the fierce and freezing night.

Comet Lovejoy at that hour was hidden behind a bank of cloud low in the southeast. But I was aware of another unusual astronomical phenomenon taking place at the same time. The Moon and the planet Uranus were aligned in an extremely close conjunction. I inserted a 27× eyepiece in the scope and aimed it at the Moon. Bingo! A 6th-magnitude “star” – Uranus – shone gamely just south of the lunar limb. I tripled the magnification and concentrated on the two objects only 8 arc-minutes apart. What a striking juxtaposition: our nearby little satellite looking so huge; the remote gas-giant reduced to a dot.

Glancing southeastward, I noticed Lepus peeking between bands of cloud. Comet Lovejoy, at that point about 90 minutes shy of the meridian, was just high enough to provide a decent view. I followed alpha and beta Leporis downward to the spot where M79 was located, then pointed my scope there. Bingo, again! My low-power eyepiece picked up two unequal fuzzies. The small, dim one was the globular; the big, bright one was the comet. I’m sure the view was compromised by haze, and my neighbour’s blinding security lights triggered right on cue. Still, I’d bagged my second catch. This time it was the more subtle juxtaposition of an extremely remote cluster seemingly sharing space with a nearby comet.

So, a couple of telescopic conquests on a blustery winter’s night. Those two simple observations satisfied me. I’d persevered in spite of the elements to witness celestial events that were modest, yes, but also quite rare. Once again the joy of stargazing made my day!

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