Lovejoy Putting on a Show

January 9, 2015

The Joy of Stargazing

Comet Lovejoy Through a Telescope
Comet Lovejoy as imaged on January 6th from a dark site in New Mexico.  Photo by Alan Dyer

By Ken Hewitt-White

The glaring Moon is receding at last and Comet Lovejoy is pushing northward, past Orion and Taurus toward Andromeda. The big berg from outer space is getting brighter, too. In short: if your weather is good, now is the time to spot it.

I got lucky with the weather on the evening of January 7th, which was the first time that a moonlight-free view of the comet was possible – at least for those of us at mid-northern latitudes. That night the comet was in the northernmost part of the constellation Eridanus. I ventured out to my snow-encrusted backyard at around 7:30 p.m., well before moonrise, and allowed my eyes to become fully dark-adapted – or as dark-adapted as they can get in my suburban neighbourhood. Casting my gaze west of Orion, I actually detected the celestial puffball with my bare eyes. It was dim, but it was there!

Next, I aimed my 7×50 binoculars at the target. Lovejoy was a concentrated spherical haze in a part of the sky where no other fuzzy object exists to confuse the sighting. The comet looked big. I compared it to the Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, which was high in the west at the time. As usual, the bright middle portion of M31 was an easy catch in the binoculars. In my estimation, though, the comet was a more prominent “nebulosity” than the massive central bulge of the Great Galaxy.

Finally, I examined Lovejoy in my 10-inch Dobsonian using a wide-angle, low magnification (47×) eyepiece. The comet looked about half as big as the full Moon, and I’m sure it was even larger. If my surroundings had been truly dark (where’s a power failure when you need one?) my scope would’ve picked up more of the comet’s diffuse periphery. The inner part of the big, round coma glowed with an aqua hue. And the nucleus – that mountainous lump of dirty ice at the comet’s centre – was strikingly sharp. I detected no obvious tail. Possibly I perceived a slight flaring on the coma’s eastern side, but not the spindly ion tail that shows in images.

Comet Lovejoy will reach its peak around mid-January and should be easily observable until at least the end of the month. I hope there’s a hole in the winter cloud and you get a chance to see it soon.

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