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

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Posted December 9, 2014

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.

Like a Christmas ornament dangling from string, Comet Lovejoy Q2 is just now coming into good view for northern hemisphere observers. This photo was taken on November 26th and shows a bright coma and long, delicate ion tail. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Like a Christmas ornament dangling from string, Comet Lovejoy Q2 is just now coming into good view for northern hemisphere observers. This photo was taken on November 26th and shows a bright coma and long, delicate ion tail. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

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.

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

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

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.

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

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 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

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 December 9th 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 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

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

Source: Universe Today, written by Bob King

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